How Much Is Enough?

As mentioned in my post Delphic Wisdom and Modern Science, on the walls of the ancient Greek temple at Delphi could be found the inscription μηδὲν ἄγαν, meaning “nothing too much”. Yet how can one know how much is enough? Naturally it’s hard to say precisely – after all, if it were easy, life wouldn’t be so messy and complicated, now would it?

One clue comes a discussion of natural vs. unnatural wealth in Aristotle’s Politics (Book I, Chapters 8 and 9). For Aristotle, natural wealth consists in the possessions necessary for life and useful for association in a community or household (in modern times we might also include corporations and charities). Here, the activity of acquisition has a natural limit determined by and subordinate to the purpose or telos of human life, especially what Aristotle calls living well or eudaimonia.

By contrast, unnatural wealth has lost its moorings in the purpose of human life and has taken on a life of its own. Here, acquisition becomes an end in itself and knows no limits. Thus it’s impossible to say how much is enough: an individual or family or corporation or state keeps acquiring and acquiring for no greater or higher human purpose.

This same line of thinking applies to various other things that Aristotle calls external goods: not only wealth and possessions, but also power, reputation, social status, even friends (not to mention particular goods from kitchen gadgets to smartphone apps) can be acquired without regard to the aims of living a good human life. Yet he argued that this drive for acquisition does not lead to greater happiness or meaning in life, precisely because it is unlimited. As psychologists would say these days, the hedonic treadmill never ends. Thus it’s better to step off the treadmill, educate your desires, and learn how to live well. Easier said than done, of course!

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