Great Ideas from the Great Books
BY MORTIMER J. ADLER, PH.D.
Dear Dr. Adler,
Is worldly success necessary for happiness? In our society we tend to estimate other people in terms of success, and we usually measure that by the amount of material wealth they have been able to accumulate. But I wonder if we aren’t setting up a false idol. Is human happiness really measurable in terms of material success?
Dear E. D.,
In my discussion of happiness in the preceding letter, I pointed out that it consists in a life made perfect by the possession of all good things — all the things that human beings need in order to lead fully satisfactory lives. The material goods of wealth are included among these good things, as well as moral and intellectual goods. But, as every one knows, you can have too much of certain good things, and that is why wealth raises a particularly difficult moral problem.
In its most general meaning, success consists in the attainment of any goal, purpose, or desire. If we achieve some measure of the happiness we strive for, we are successful. But, as you point out, many people today think of success almost exclusively in terms of accumulating worldly goods. When the notion of success is limited to this, success is not the same as happiness, for material goods cannot by them selves make a man happy. In fact, they may prevent him from being successful in the pursuit of happiness.
The ancient as well as the modern world was well acquainted with the view that material wealth was the be-all and end-all for man. But philosophers such as Aristotle observe that this is a very narrow and distorted view of human life. He sets up a scale of goods in which wealth occupies the lowest rank, ministering to the needs of the body and subordinate to the goods of the mind and of character.
Aristotle’s evaluation of wealth roughly corresponds to the popular saying that money is not important unless you don’t have any. You need certain material things in order to keep alive, and since you must keep alive in order to lead a good life, a certain amount of material goods is indispensable. But since living well goes way beyond merely keeping alive, material goods alone cannot make a life worth living.
Aristotle makes an important distinction between two kinds of wealth-getting. The first kind is familiar to any housewife. It is the process of acquiring enough wealth to maintain a family in decent style, that is, with a reasonable supply of the means of subsistence and the comforts and conveniences of life.
The other kind of wealth-getting seeks to accumulate money for money’s sake. Some persons, Aristotle observes, think that their sole object in life is “to increase their money without limit… The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well.” Such men, Aristotle maintains, may succeed in be coming as rich as Croesus, but like Croesus they may end their lives wondering why wise men like Solon do not look upon them as happy.
Plato, like Aristotle, holds that the man who “shares with the miser the passion for wealth as wealth” will end up miserable. “To be good in a high degree and rich in a high degree at the same time,” Plato thinks, is impossible. This is certainly the view of the Gospel verse which says that a rich man has as hard a time getting into the Kingdom of Heaven as a camel through a needle’s eye.
But such remarks must not be interpreted as meaning that material possessions are wrong in themselves. What is wrong is to make wealth the be-all and end-all of life — to become possessed by one’s possessions. The Bible inveighs not so much against wealth as against the covetousness and greed that it arouses in men.
The prophets and the Psalms vividly depict the moral blindness which often accompanies the possession of great wealth. But it is St. Paul who makes the essential point quite clear. St. Paul does not say that money is the root of all evil. He says that it is the love of money which leads men to their moral destruction. Obsession with material success leads to spiritual failure.
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