Back in my bioethics days I spent a bit of time reading Thomas Aquinas on a variety of subjects, just to see what wisdom the ‘Angelic Doctor’ could bring to bear on aspects of contemporary life. One insight that made a great deal of sense to me was his adoption of Aristotle’s distinction between natural and artificial wealth:
It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth. For wealth is twofold, as the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3), viz. natural and artificial. Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants: such as food, drink, clothing, cars, dwellings, and such like, while 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.
Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, viz. as a support of human nature: consequently it cannot be man’s last end, rather is it ordained to man as to its end. Wherefore in the order of nature, all such things are below man, and made for him, according to Psalm 8:8: “Thou hast subjected all things under his feet.”
And as to artificial wealth, it is not sought save for the sake of natural wealth; since man would not seek it except because, by its means, he procures for himself the necessaries of life. Consequently much less can it be considered in the light of the last end. Therefore it is impossible for happiness, which is the last end of man, to consist in wealth.
This brief excerpt contains a number of important points. Firstly, wealth is not the source of our happiness, but it is ‘a support of human nature’. We need natural wealth in order to flourish and pursue the higher things in life.
Secondly, money and other forms of wealth that do not directly meet natural needs are to be considered ‘artificial wealth’. Of themselves they hold no value. In the words of Alanis Obomsawim, an indigenous Canadian:
When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
The only value in artificial wealth is that we can use it to obtain natural wealth. Hence artificial wealth such as money is a step removed from human life, an abstraction from the diversity of real things we need in order to live and to flourish.
Money has been around for a long time, but I wonder if our ancestors were ever so preoccupied with it as we are today? Money doesn’t behave in the same way as natural wealth. Because we have no direct capacity to make use of it, it exists without natural order or function. We can, therefore, obsess about it, pursue it, covet it and accrue it in ways that would not make sense for natural wealth. As my grandfather says: “you can only sleep in one bed.”
I’ll be writing more on this topic, as I think our current way of life exaggerates the role of artificial wealth in our lives, with repercussions for our broader understanding of life and our pursuit of genuine flourishing.