The changing nature of wealth: stuff is out


Let’s return to Croesus for a moment. That’s the guy who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus” and who learned the hard way about the ups and downs of life. Today I want to use him, the richest of the rich, to begin a brief meditation on wealth, as a way of understanding our modern problem with stuff. Because stuff is what we’re trying to figure out in this thread.

It used to be that wealth was a thingy thing, a state of having lots of stuff, especially stuff that others wanted and did not have. Let’s savor for a moment a brief passage from Herodotus, in which he dwells lovingly on the details of Croesus’ stuff/wealth. This was the porn of the fifth century BCE.

Croesus, in this passage, wants to impress the Delphic oracle, so he gives it lots of stuff:

three thousand of every kind of sacrificial beast, and besides made a huge pile, and placed upon it couches coated with silver and with gold, and golden goblets, and robes and vests of purple…. The king melted down a vast quantity of gold, and ran it into ingots, making them six palms long, three palms broad, and one palm in thickness. The number of ingots was a hundred and seventeen, four being of refined gold, in weight two talents and a half; the others of pale gold, and in weight two talents. He also caused a statue of a lion to be made in refined gold, the weight of which was ten talents…

On the completion of these works Croesus sent them away to Delphi, and with them two bowls of an enormous size, one of gold, the other of silver… Croesus sent also four silver casks, which are in the Corinthian treasury, and two lustral vases, a golden and a silver one… Besides these various offerings, Croesus sent to Delphi many others of less account, among the rest a number of round silver basins. Also he dedicated a female figure in gold, three cubits high, which is said by the Delphians to be the statue of his baking-woman; and further, he presented the necklace and the girdles of his wife.

Necklace and girdles? That sounds like the junk we just got rid off at the yard sale.

This, in other words, was the age of things, of stuff. Almost all people had extremely little of it, so to get any stuff at all was a stroke of fortune, and immediately imposed the need to hoard it and the anxiety of losing it. When you gave people gifts (and I’ll have more to say about gifts in another post), you gave things/stuff, because that’s how worth and sacrifice was defined.

All that is over, at least for the middle and upper classes of the rich countries today. (If you’re reading blogs, you belong to that set.) Our wealth is no longer thingy/stuffy. If anything, an excess of things is a mark of poverty. Any household today, even a trailer in Appalachia, is filled with gadgets that would have made Croesus green with envy.

What has taken the place of things? Two things:

  1. Time. We have so little of it, and so much stuff, that the exchange rate between the two has shifted hugely toward time. If you have money/things but no time, you are poor. Time is now one definition of worth and sacrifice, so when you really want to give a special gift, you give your time. You volunteer, or you spend a few hours of totally focused playtime with your children, or you take time to talk, really talk, with a friend/lover.
  2. Experiences. While the people in the Appalachian trailer haul in more TVs and fridges and toasters, the wealthy now buy themselves and their children experiences. Education is the big one, and that includes piano and tennis lessons, the trip to Europe and the Louvre. In my twenties, wealth was having hiked the Annapurna Circuit, say, or having sat in on a session of the House of Commons. Now, in my thirties, wealth is giving my children the experience of snow in the winter, seawater in the summer, and so forth.

So stuff is obsolete. Out of date. Unnecessary. Not worth anything. Which raises the question: Why do most of us hang on to it anyway, ruining their Feng Shui and making themselves miserable? I’ll try to tackle that anon, but I’m sure you’ve all got your ideas, so let’s have them.

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