By John Levin
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: What is gold? This apparently simple question may be answered in a variety of ways. Under today’s conditions of knowledge, one may answer with chemical formulations: boiling point 3130k, melting point 1337.58k. Further, it can be considered as an element in the periodic table: Au (from the Latin Aurum – gold, or Aurora – dawn), atomic number 79. One could also consider geology, as to how it is distributed and where it may be found. It has particular properties; it is malleable, ductile and relatively unreactive. Then again, one can talk in a more human-oriented fashion: what industry is required to produce it, to what ends it is used, whether in production or for display, expenditure.
Whereupon we come to economics. Gold is valuable. What does this deceptively simple statement mean? Since the end of the gold standard, one can’t even consider answering: money; now it is just one commodity amongst many. Marginalist economics even disputes the category of value, measuring items purely in terms of supply and demand. Yet gold is considered to have intrinsic value, for otherwise why would it be held by central banks, chosen for ostentatious displays of wealth, or awarded as medals?
If this question is difficult now, so it was in the seventeenth-century. There were a number of different approaches, each with different answers. Gold had a multiplicity of forms and uses. It was coin, plate and bullion. It was symbolic of wealth and power, in its use for jewellery and decoration. It was a metaphor for moral value, especially that of purity. And it had high cosmological meaning, being associated with the sun. Yet for all this, it was a specific entity. Did these different facets relate to each other, or were there contradictory findings?