Adler on the Goods of Our Lives

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Question: In our society we place a great value on attaining material goods. We tend to judge people by their material success. But the moralists and the saints are always preaching against materialism and the pleasure of the senses. What is materialism, and why is it supposed to be bad?

Dr. Adler: Men have adopted three basic attitudes toward material goods and satisfactions.

The first is asceticism — the total rejection of material goods and sensual satisfactions. Some ethical and religious thinkers hold that the material world is of no importance or, worse, a vicious hindrance to the attainment of spiritual perfection. This is a pervasive and perennial attitude. It has been the dominant ideal of Hindu religion and ethics. While it is not central in the Western religions, it has played an important part there, too.

The second attitude is materialism or sensualism — the avid pursuit of worldly possessions and physical pleasures as the basic human goods. This is also a pervasive and perennial attitude. In its crudest form, it makes money the be-all and end-all of life. We find expressions of it in the flip cynicism of the popular song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and in the familiar adage “Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die.” It is interesting to observe that no great book and no great moral philosopher ever taught this doctrine. The people who preach and practice it probably do not have the time or inclination to write books.

The third attitude affirms the value of both physical and spiritual goods. According to this view such physical goods as wealth, health, food, and sexual pleasure are genuinely good and should not be denied. But, it is maintained, they should be subordinated to spiritual goods — knowledge, justice, love — for the total well-being of the person and the welfare of the community. Of all three attitudes, this middle one is the most difficult to practice.

The ascetic way is hard at first, but, once mastery of the will has been attained, it becomes comparatively easy. The ascetic simply says No to the world and the flesh, and in time unsatisfied desires wither away. The materialist or sensualist simply says Yes to whatever gratifies his senses or fills his pocketbook. Like the ascetic, he is a specialist and does not have the problem of welding the physical and spiritual goods into a unified harmony. The man who follows the middle way has this problem all the time. It is his constant care and concern to keep the two kinds of goods in the proper order and proportion.

Nevertheless, there is some reason to believe that most of us, if we thought about it, would choose the middle way. But most of us are unable or unwilling to exercise the attention and care that it requires. We tend to forget the proper use and end of the material goods we pursue.

First, we buy a car for simple transportation purposes. Then it becomes an item of prestige and conspicuous consumption. Next, one car is not enough — we must have at least two or three. Finally, we become devoted to the automobile almost as if it were an end in itself. We have become possessed by our possession. It is using us, instead of we it.

The realization that evil lies in the attachment to material goods, not in the goods themselves, is expressed in our philosophic and religious tradition. Aristotle distinguishes between legitimate wealth-getting, which provides us with the means we need in order to lead a good human life, and the piling up of wealth for wealth’s sake. The Bible asserts the goodness of the material world, as created by God for man. It inveighs against the corruption of soul that often accompanies great wealth, but not against wealth itself. The rich young man in the Gospels is at fault not because he is rich, but be cause he is such a slave to his wealth and comfort that he cannot give it up to follow after the spirit and the truth.

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