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Wealth

Wealth And Virtue, Wealth And Power, Status, The Dangers Of Wealth, Conclusion, Bibliography

Wealth has been viewed as a blessing and as a curse; as a prerequisite of virtue and an embodiment of vice; as an expression of merit and of fault. This nonexhaustive list illustrates that not only is the history of wealth a history of contention, it is also intimately bound up with moral evaluations. These differing evaluations themselves indicate a range of divergent cultural judgments. "Wealth," however, is not simply an item of moral discourse. It has a central place in political and economic vocabularies. While there is, perhaps, a core linkage with the notion of "resources," that itself is an elastic category, referring to "goods" both tangible and immaterial (such as clean air, a healthy environment, and general quality of life). Wealth with all its cultural and ethical connotations is applied descriptively to an individual (the "rich man"), to a group or class of individuals ("the wealthy"), and to a country or, as in the title of Adam Smith's famous book, to nations.

With this range of reference it is unsurprising that most of the established "great thinkers" in what is unreflectively labeled the "Western tradition," from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas to Jean–Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Thorstein Veblen, have had something to say on the topic. But the issues and debates are neither exclusively Western nor intellectual. Most of the great religions include in their teaching some reference to wealth, though not without manifesting the idea's contentiousness. In addition, wealth plays a ubiquitous role in social and cultural life from grave goods to potlatch ceremonies. An attempt will be made in this entry to represent this range of concern, though its major focus will be on the place of wealth in Western intellectual debates.

The entry is organized along two axes—thematic and chronological. Thematically, the discussion is organized in terms of two basic associations—wealth and virtue, and wealth and power. Each theme is explored in rough chronological order—charting the history of wealth's interactions with virtue and with power. Throughout these explorations three questions will implicitly recur: What is wealth? that is, what is supposed, in different times, with respect to virtue and power, to constitute it; Who has it? that is, what is supposed similarly about its distribution; and, closely related, Why or on what grounds does X rather than Y have that item of wealth? that is, what is supposed to justify or legitimate the distribution.

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