The 8th ranked answer to what brings happiness is wealth. Aquinas argues that wealth, which is defined as money or material possessions, is at the same time the most common answer to what brings ultimate happiness and also the most foolish.
So why do people believe that the possession of wealth is the purpose of their lives? Here are a few possible answers to that question.
First, everybody wants wealth. If you ask any person, they will tell you that they want more money or more material possessions because money buys everything. It seems to be a universal desire. We often hear statements like:
(1) All things obey money.
(2) Money makes the world go round.
(3) Everything has a price tag.
If these things are true, then wealth must be what gives ultimate happiness.
A second argument might be this: Wealth is needed to buy necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. These things are necessary for human happiness. Therefore, the gaining of wealth must bring us human happiness.
Third, people who are wealthy seem to be the happiest people. Wealthy people get to enjoy better food, better houses, nicer clothing, and extravagant vacations. Those things all bring happiness and money can buy those things. Wealthy people just seem happier, so wealth must be the purpose of life.
Those seem like good arguments, so how do we respond to them?
The first argument stated that everyone wants more wealth because they believe money can buy everything. Aquinas responds in a humorous way and says the following: “All material things obey money, so far as the multitude of fools is concerned, who know no other than material goods.”
In other words, not everyone agrees that wealth can buy all things. Wise people do not agree, and shouldn’t we listen to the wise over the foolish? Here is a partial list of things money can’t buy: wisdom, character, friendship, love, and salvation. Proverbs 17:16 asks, “Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?” Jesus asks in Matt. 16:26, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Clearly money does not buy everything.
Argument two points out that money buys the essentials for life. This is true, and it is difficult for a person to be happy who is starving, who has no shelter to protect her from the weather, and who has no clothing. I think we can all agree that these things are ingredients for happiness, but notice that the money is only the means to get what we really want: the food, shelter, and clothing. It’s not the money that makes us happy, it’s the things money can buy.
Therefore, money cannot be our ultimate purpose in life, because it is only a means to an end. By the way, research has shown that subjective happiness does not rise with increasing money once a person has the essential things she needs to live in her particular society. Once you get the basics, money does not generally give you more happiness.
There is more to say about wealth, so we’ll continue in part 3.