November 16, 2009

Natural vs. Artificial Desires And Wealth


In responding to a comment on my last post, found here, I realized that the length of my response was getting a tad unwieldy. I decided to post the comment and my response here in order to share it with a larger audience, and perhaps illicit further comments on this topic. The comment was in response to Evolving Past Narrow Definitions of Wealth:
Why would someone have to not want something to be wealthy? It is a natural drive of human beings to want, to know they can get and achieve. Real wealth is seeing something, knowing you can have it and then freely deciding whether you want it or not. It's the ability to choose. That is freedom, when a person knows they can have, but is free to choose not to have, rather than being forced not to have or thinking there is something to gain from self-denial. I agree that it is unfortunate the our society has evolved into the perception of a person's wealth as their possessions. That is a game that individuals can choose to play or not to play. The way to not be effected by it is to realize one's self worth and develop one's confidence... from there they can freely choose to possess or not to possess.
I thank Shannon for her thought-provoking comment, which represents a "be careful what you wish for" moment for me. Like most in the blogosphere, I enjoy reader comments and want to encourage them. And then you get a comment and it is, "Argghh, this person is making...me...think." It is challenging work representing. But if you can't pull it off, it is time for a change. Here is my attempt to do this comment justice:

Being forced to do something is not good, you are right. However, some self-denial can be a powerful character builder - it is why we send kids to rustic summer camps. It is why we feel good when we can go a day without spending money. One can get carried away, however. Self-flagellation, for example (literally or figuratively).

I know from personal experience that the more I choose to unburden myself from things and endless entertainment, the healthier I feel. With fewer distractions I am more able to cultivate the conditions that add to my inner wealth. Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between natural and artificial wealth.

Natural wealth results from the fulfillment of natural desires. Such desires are common to all of humanity: the desire for food, shelter, love, community, freedom, etc. Fulfilling these adds to our sense of contentment. Not fulfilling such desires has a detrimental impact. We need natural wealth.

Aquinas said, "...artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man, for the convenience of exchange, and as a measure of things salable." The desire for artificial wealth is a result of cultural conditioning. Such desires vary from person to person, and culture to culture. Not meeting them will not harm you, and yet it is possible that meeting them may yield harm to yourself, those around you, and the planet.

Presently we have a preoccupation with our infinite artificial desires, the attainment of which defines our wealth, as well as our place, and perceived value in society. We can meet all of humanities natural desires, but not its artificial ones. As Gandhi said, "There is enough to meet every one's need, but not every one's greed." We can not all possess everything, but we can all feel good about ourselves as we boldly and freely explore the magic of life. Such natural wealth is freely exchanged, and all benefit.

Attaining natural wealth leads us to experience enduring personal health and well-being. We all desire love, security, and adequate food, shelter, and clothing. It is also natural to desire a sense of self-worth and belonging, as well as a feeling of achievement. When we reduce our desires for fleeting artificial wealth we can concentrate on attaining the enduring natural type Aquinas speaks of. He also warns that even natural wealth is simply a means to an end.

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