“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.”
Aristotle, Politics

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’

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:

Living as a Household of One

Living as a Household of One

“…and the association of living beings who have this sense—of good and evil—make a household…” Aristotle, Politics The fact is that many people today end up living in a house alone. Sometimes it is by choice. Other times it is surely not, and the house has echoes of...

read more
Restoring Respect for Elders

Restoring Respect for Elders

“Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness.” Confucius, The Analects The alienation between young and old is at times palpable. It’s not usually open disdain or hostility. Rather there is a real disconnect, as each group...

read more
The Amazing Gift of Gratitude

The Amazing Gift of Gratitude

‘Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.’ Seneca, De Beneficiis There is usually more than meets the eye in the wonderful realm of benefaction-- doing favors or good deeds for others. In any benefaction freely given there is the possibility of a unique...

read more

Pin It on Pinterest