A new book by professor John Armstrong challenges the idea that wealth is bad.
Armstrong’s teachings are refreshing because high thinking has traditionally been hostile to money. Following Socrates, the philosophers of ancient Greece resolutely separated the things of this world from the welfare of the soul. The Stoics considered material goods irrelevant to the good life, while the Epicureans (despite their reputation) regarded piled possessions as a positive hindrance to the ataraxia, life without disagreeable sensation, which they sought. Cynic—“Dog”—philosophers sometimes pursued a pure asceticism: Diogenes the Cynic lived on the street in a giant pot, and (the story goes), when asked by the stooping Alexander the Great what gift he would like to receive, retorted, “Just stop blocking the sun!”I wonder if Professor Armstrong indeed read the Greeks in the way that his reviewer suggests. It's always dangerous to assert that someone is 'following Socrates,' who famously asserted that he had nothing to teach; although now and then he would raise and defend propositions, it was never clear if he was doing so in earnest or for the joy of exploring the idea.
Come Christianity, the narrow eye of heaven’s needle always threatened the camel of wealth. As the new religion spread in the Roman world and had in practice to accommodate wealthy parishioners and plump prelates, nevertheless its theology shifted little in favor of Mammon. Even the globular Christian grandees of late Rome and Constantinople, whose shining silks hurt the eye and whose countless rings bent the hands that bore them—even they idolized filthy hermits babbling in the desert[.]
Aristotle, however, is very clear on the positive effects (as well as the moral hazards) associated with wealth. The good life becomes possible, Aristotle says in the Politics, only once the bare necessities of life have been arranged. This is true for the individual and for the wider civilization. The problem comes only if you lose sight of your objective: that is, if you stop trying to obtain sufficient wealth for the good life, and find yourself simply trying to obtain wealth.
The man without wealth cannot live well, though, because he must be driven by necessity rather than by virtue. Too, some virtues -- such as liberality and generosity -- cannot be practiced without disposable wealth.
I trust that Professor Armstrong is aware of all this, and the reviewer simply failed to mention it. These ideas are not so very new, or radical, as the review suggests: even the monastics, devoted to a very spiritual idea of the good life, nevertheless invested a great deal of labor into the production of material wealth. The monastic cell may be small and spare, but it was meant to be clean and well-kept; and the fasts were to be mixed with feasts.