“One natural kind of acquiring property is part of household management…and things necessary for life and useful for the household are acquired. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.”
Sometimes reality strikes us as remarkably well-designed. For instance, things that are good for us from one perspective turn out to be good in multiple ways–ways which we hadn’t expected.
Aristotle insists that the pursuit of material wealth should be circumscribed by one imperative: seek what is needed, and no more. What might appear on first blush to be stultifying or even life-negating—not to mention retarding of the gross national product—turns out to be, when properly understood, a principle of great wisdom and a seed of true life.
Aristotle juxtaposes what people need with what they want or desire, noting that the former is always limited while the latter is often unlimited. So he sets before us two paths: direct and curb our acquisitions according to ‘needs;’ or, seek things according to our ‘desires.’ The former path tends to a natural completion, while the latter tends to an open-ended succession.
The notion of ‘need’ is to be understood not in terms of mere self-subsistence but rather in reference to a fullness of human life lived with generosity in community. What is or is not ‘needed’ requires careful deliberation in view of what is appropriate to one’s station in life, with an eye to what is owed to others. This allows for real latitude.
Nonetheless the notion of ‘need’ provides a clear and helpful contrast to the now customary assumption that when it comes to what we want, more is better as long as it is within our means.
If Aristotle is right, then less is often better, especially when less is all we really need.
And then we find that this restrained, disciplined approach to wealth and possessions conduces not only to our own health and happiness, but also to that of our relationships and our homes; and of the broader community; and even of the natural world around us.
Note: I am currently teaching a course on family and household, focusing on ancient principles of the art of household management. I look forward to sharing more from the texts we are reading.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Politics is one of his major ethical works.
Image: Bernardus Blommers (1845-1914), Dutch, ‘The Happy Family’
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