Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wealthy, to be or not to be?

Is wealth really all that desirable?

Adam Smith weighs in:

“The poor man’s son…when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. [he is displeased with his home and with being obliged to walk on foot, he feels himself naturally indolent, and]* he thinks if he had attained all [their comforts] he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquility of his situation.

“To obtain these conveniences, he submits in the first year, nay the first month of his application to more fatigue of body and uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power; and which if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it…he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.”

“There is no real difference between [the rich and the poor], except that the conveniences of the one are somewhat more observable than those of the other.”

“Power and riches appear then to be enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body.” – All from Theory of Moral Sentiments, part 4, Ch. 1

Jesus also warned of possessing great wealth and riches in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” – Mt 19:23-24

Wealth and riches are not means to a happier or more tranquil life. They offer us but a few more means to frivolous and trifling goods and services of utility. The poor man on the street can be and often is just as happy as the man in the mansion seemingly living contentedly, but without all the distractions from our true path to happiness. They are both subject to the same terrors—“to anxiety, fear, sorrow, diseases, danger, and death.” (also from Smith)

The challenge, then, is to abandon our attachment to our wealth and, ultimately, to give it all away for the betterment of our brothers, our fellow men who are created in the image of God. For they only offer us a few frivolous trinkets of utility and a society of charity is much closer to true happiness than one of wealth and riches.

* - brackets indicate paraphrasing for the sake of shortening Smith’s long-winded writing

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