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Wealth And Virtue

Historically the association between wealth and virtue has been viewed both positively and negatively. These will be examined in turn.


Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) identifies "liberality" as a virtue that is the mean between prodigality and illiberality. The context is money or wealth. The liberal man (the gender is not incidental) will "give with a fine end in view, and in the right way; because he will give to the right people, and the right amounts, and at the right time" (Aristotle [1976] p. 143:1120a25). When acting liberally, it is the disposition that matters, not the sum or sort of resources. Though giving is more virtuous than receiving, nonetheless, the "liberal" will accept wealth under similar constraints. The most important source of wealth is the ownership of property, especially landed property. This ownership is associated with other estimable traits such as responsibility, prudence, and steadfastness. By exercising these virtues, wealth qua landed property is sustained so that, accordingly, there are resources available with which to act liberally. Importantly, wealth thus understood imposes obligations; it does not reflect an acquisitive mentality and it is not valued for its own sake.

Although worked up theoretically by Aristotle, this link between wealth and obligation and the stress on the use made of wealth is pervasive. The early Christian theologian St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–between 211 and 215) does not subscribe to the asceticism prescribed by many of the church fathers but, nonetheless, instructs that wealth is to be used for charitable purposes and not retained possessively. This is echoed in the Koran, and, somewhat similarly, in Hindu teaching wealth (artha) needs to be cultivated but by virtuous means so that the wherewithal is possessed that goodness may be exercised. This is an attribute of many cultures. The form this often takes is of hospitality. The Israelites in the Old Testament are enjoined to give succor to the improvident, while for Kalahari bushmen, and many others, wealth exists to be shared. In these latter examples it is less that wealth calls forth individual virtue than it manifests a cultural norm of reciprocity. In both cases, however, wealth is justified as a means to further good ends.

This understanding of the importance of wealth, and its justification, has endured beyond its presence in Aristotelian theory and cultural practice. Only if one is wealthy can generosity or charity—whether by the Good Samaritan or by millionaires—be exercised and only if a society is wealthy can it support extensive welfare programs. In a just society, according to John Rawls (1921–2002), the wealth enjoyed by the more fortunate, as a consequence of arbitrarily distributed natural talents, could be viewed as a "collective asset" to be used, once freedom has been accorded priority, to further the interests of the worse-off (p. 179). However, supporting welfare need not mean collective provision. F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) justified retaining wealth within families as an expression of freedom, which includes making responsible welfare decisions. This was also an essential means to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of the state.

Hayek is here making a consequentialist case for inheritance. This pays little attention to the source of wealth, but a positive case for wealth is that its possession is the deserved outcome of the virtue of industry or hard work. The Protestant ethic, as articulated by Max Weber (1864–1920) in his Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1920; Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), psychologically compelled the "elect" (those chosen for salvation by God) to seek proof of their election. This took the form of diligence and industriousness, which led to success in worldly activity, but since waste was also proscribed, and frugality prescribed, it meant that wealth was accumulated. In a historically important argument, John Locke (1632–1704) developed a version of this. He argued that God enjoined everyone to be industrious and that through mixing their labor (as he termed it) to natural resources they were entitled to the fruits of that labor as their private property. Provided they did not accrue wastefully all the resources to themselves, the inequality of holdings derived from greater industry was justified. Nonetheless, true to his own Nonconformist (Calvinist) background, Locke also held that if people lived providently without the desire for luxuries then wealth would be increased even more. Locke here broaches the negative link between wealth and virtue.


While Aristotle does link wealth with virtue positively, his more sustained and influential argument (in the Politics) is that the former can lead to a corruption of the latter. Wealth and its maintenance is properly an attribute of household management (of economics, oikonomikē), its purpose being to give the male head of the household the freedom to act virtuously—not only via liberality but also via participation in the affairs of the community (the polis), an activity that is natural since man is by nature a political animal. Wealth is limited to this instrumental function. However, it is liable to transgress those limits. Some exchange is permissible, when it serves to meet the naturally limited consumption needs of the household, but once it is undertaken for its own sake, and not as a means to an end of consumption, then it becomes moneymaking (chrēmatistikē). This activity can be engaged upon without limit. There is a natural limit, for example, to how much food can be consumed but not to how much money is possessed. A transgression of the proper purpose or end of activity represents a corruption, a perversion of virtue.

This moral critique of wealth has been enormously influential. One particularly potent occurrence was its linkage with the fall of the Roman republic. Originally austerely virtuous, the republic became corrupted once riches were imported from abroad ("Asia"). This wealth-induced corruption in the form of avarice and luxury was condemned by Stoic moralists such as Seneca (4 B.C.E.?–65 C.E.) or Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135 C.E.) and was illustrated through the normatively loaded narrative of historians of Rome like Sallust (86–35 or 34 B.C.E.) and Livy (59 B.C.E.–17 C.E.). The latter, for example, opened his History of Rome by contrasting Rome's virtuous beginnings with the ruin that the influx of wealth or riches (divitiae) had wrought. The undermining of Roman virtues by the spread of wealth and luxury also became the object of satirical poets like Horace (65–8 B.C.E.) and Juvenal (c. 55 or 60–in or after 127 C.E.). Due to the importance that a "classical education" had in the pedagogy of Europe from the Renaissance onward, the "fall of Rome," and the role of wealth therein, became a clichéd commonplace.

This culturally received wisdom was abetted by the appropriation, for their own end of demonstrating the transience and superficiality of worldly goods, by Christians. The early Christians, such as Saints Ambrose (339–397), Augustine of Hippo (354–430), and John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), took up this moral critique of wealth. It was an important source of their advocacy of asceticism but it built also upon Paul's (who was himself influenced by the Stoics) pronouncement in his Epistle to Timothy that the love of money was the root of all evil. The message was reiterated by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and by other Christian philosophers upon the rediscovery of Aristotle's works. It received a significant boost in the republican tradition that was reenergized by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), though here the "political" rather than the moral dimension (see below) is dominant. Much the same can be said of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), perhaps the last great exemplar of this tradition.

People look for a different kind of wealth and wealth acquisition and rightly so for natural wealth and wealth acquisition are different. Natural wealth acquisition is a part of household management, whereas commerce has to do with the production of goods, not in the full sense, but through their exchange.… The wealth that derives from this kind of wealth is without limit.

SOURCE: Aristotle, The Politics, trans. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 14, 17 [1256b27–33, 1257b16–25].

This critique was responsible for significant ripostes. David Hume (1711–1776)—followed by his fellow Scot, Adam Smith (1723–1790)—turned the tables. Hume, in his essay Of Luxury (1752), linked virtue with wealth, and not with ascetic poverty, and identified this linkage as the definitive characteristic of ages of refinement or commerce. He stressed both the intrinsic benefit of the pleasure that accrued from being able to enjoy goods that gratified the senses and the great instrumental benefits that came from the industry that was undertaken to obtain the wealth that permitted such goods to be enjoyed. The commercialism that Hume and others defended has not been without critics. In the twentieth century it expressed itself in the critique of consumerism. In an effective rerun of Aristotle, the acquisition of goods, the accumulation of wealth, or what C. B. Macpherson (1911–1987) labeled the legitimization of possessive individualism, has been subject to condemnation. A culture committed to consumerism is judged deleterious to the individual who, lacking a proper instrumental perspective, is at the mercy of the fads of fashion and the interests of those who benefit from the manufacture of demand. It is also bad for society because it embodies a mis-direction of resources away from societally advantageous investment and entrenches the gap between wealthy and poor economies. The celebration of consumption and the desire to emulate the supposed spending power of the rich also led, in the latter decades of the twentieth century, to the development of "Green" thought, which argues that this entire emphasis on gratification is practically disastrous for the environment and symptomatic of a hubristic arrogance toward Nature. E. F. Schumacher (1911–1977), for example, advocated, in his popular essay Small Is Beautiful (1973), what he termed Buddhist economics as a way to halt this degradation.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWealth - Wealth And Virtue, Wealth And Power, Status, The Dangers Of Wealth, Conclusion, Bibliography