Household 101: Property or Wealth in the Household

“Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for one cannot live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with the necessaries.” Politics I.4

How to live in the household is rooted in a conception of the truly good human life. Being both soul and body is at the heart of human nature. At the same time, soul and body are not equal in importance. There is a primacy of the soul, as Socrates, Plato and many other great philosophers have been eloquent in addressing. But the primacy of soul, rather than implying a denigration of the body, is actually the greatest reason for valuing the bodily realm. Spiritual goods are achieved in and through the body. It is true that an overvaluing of the body and its pleasures and possessions is a perennial threat to human happiness. At the same time these have an essential role in true human flourishing and happiness. This is perhaps especially evident in the household.

As Aristotle notes in the quotation above, there are certain material things that are required for a good human life. Those who run a household must be especially attentive to these needs, for it is in the household that the most fundamental bodily needs must be met, such as food, clothing and shelter. Meeting these needs is perhaps the most obvious responsibility of household-makers.

But while this responsibility may be the most obvious, it is not the most important. Human life is very much an affair of order; we must be especially cognizant of putting first things first. Though bodily needs are ‘first’ as regards a certain urgency, there are not the most ultimate needs of the human person. The more ultimate needs are those on the spiritual level: such as for truth, love, and relationship. Bodily needs are subordinate to these higher needs, and ultimately have their greatest importance in how they serve and enable life on a higher plane. Aristotle is adverting to this truth when he says: “Household management attends more to humans than to the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than to the excellence of property which we call wealth.” At the end of the day, parents are most of all concerned with the excellences that are essentially spiritual, such as virtue and relationships of love.

This putting spiritual goods first is at the root of the right approach to property or wealth in the household. Only in the household in which spiritual goods are put first will material property ultimately be used well. This is because only then will material property serve its true end, and thus be seen and used for its true value. Here Aristotle introduces the key to acquiring and using property well: a household needs only a limited number of material things.

Our material needs are limited; they are not infinite. Aristotle warns that the great mistake of parents running a household is to think and act as though the need for wealth is limitless. It happens very easily; it is not necessarily a function of greed. But it is a fatal and common mistake in the household.

The danger of making this mistake is greatly increased in an economy that is fundamentally wage-based—which the ancient Greek economy was not. The vast majority of us have a salary, and we purchase what we need—and often things we don’t need—with the money we have earned. Given the multiple expenses of household life we can easily take the impression that we need more money than we make—and this almost regardless of how much we make. We find ourselves constantly thinking that we ‘need’ more. Or in any case we find ourselves wanting more. So consciously or not we set out pursuing money without limit. Aristotle writes: “Therefore it seems to some that [increasing money without limit] is a function of household management, and they persist in thinking that they should maintain and increase their amount of money ever more.” (Politics I.9) Significantly, Aristotle proceeds to connect this problem with an issue of moral character. Being too enamored of material things, and not intent enough on higher things, many people find themselves drawn toward having more and more possessions. “And as their desires are unlimited, they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit.” (Ibid.)

Again, the great issue is placing the appropriate limit in acquiring material possessions. And the appropriate limit is the true needs of the household. Needs for material things are limited; our desires tend to be unlimited. Putting first things first, focusing on the primacy of spiritual realities, is the best way to assure that we do not let desires replaces needs as the fundamental standard of the household.

Then what should the project to provide material possessions for the household look like? We might conceive it in terms of seeking an appropriate self-sufficiency of needed material things. The notion of ‘need’ should not be taken in a narrow sense—as though we only seek the bare minimum needed to stay alive. Need is to be understood in terms of that which is necessary to maintain a lifestyle appropriate to one’s state in life. For example, furniture of a certain quality and aesthetic beauty can be considered ‘needed’ in this broader sense.

The term self-sufficiency bears some examination. The goal of a household is not absolute self-sufficiency, as though it would require no economic interaction with other households, or corporations. Such a condition is neither desirable nor really possible. But a certain level of self-sufficiency is desirable. A household should as a rule earn or produce more wealth than it consumes, thereby pulling its own weight. Here we can distinguish earning and producing. That the household earn wages at a certain level will be important to its economic viability. But it is also fitting that a household have the power directly to produce things of immediate value for household life, such as clothing, tools, furniture, fine art, or food. This is not always easy, especially since it is challenging to find time for such productive work in addition to wage-earning work.

It seems worthy of special mention that it is desirable that a household be as self-sufficient as practicable when it comes to the most fundamental of material needs—here think especially food. Interestingly Aristotle sees a special connection between the art of household management and the art of producing food. There are other material arts that are associated with home making, but the raising of food, unlike the other arts, should have at least some place in every household. There is something unfitting, indeed foolhardy, in a household having no capacity to produce food for the table.

But again, self-sufficiency need not mean being altogether independent of others. Aristotle once wrote: what my friend can do, I can do. This is a beautiful and practical point: since my friend can be counted on do certain things for me, it is really just as good as if I could do them myself. We can apply this to providing for the household. Striving for self-sufficiency can mean striving to have reliable relationships, even if not necessarily friendships. We ought to gauge the reliability of our sources for various goods, especially things as critical as food. Should the prudent householder really stand in total dependence on the industrial system for producing and distributing food, especially as we see more and more plausible causes of disruption? Growing in self-sufficiency means growing in contacts and relationships with people, households, or corporations that we know and trust.

We can conclude by noting that part of attending to the needs of the household is having foresight for future generations. But the point will not be simply to pass on as much wealth as possible. Once again, there is not an ‘unlimited’ need in the future. Perhaps the best thing parents can do for the next generation is provide the example of a well-run household. Beyond that, passing on the infrastructure of a reasonably self-sufficient household can go a long way.

A household then can be a real economic power-house: powerful in its stable ability to provide a good standard of living for its members. Parents that put spiritual goods first have the proper foundation for seeking the material goods necessary for virtuous living in the household. They will not be distracted or misled by the gnawing desire for more stuff, or for keeping up certain appearances, or keeping up with the Jones. They plan the financial side of family life with care, and with an eye on greater things, both in the present and for future generations.