I have previously written thousands of words on materialism, and how if we leave materialism unchecked in can easily ruin our lives. And the cost is not purely an economic one, in that we have to spend more money than we have on things that we do not really need.
It is also a philosophical one. By spending lots of money on material goods, we suffer a considerable opportunity cost. Think of the work you had to do, or will have to do if you have taken on debt, to pay for all the things you have purchased. Think of all the experiences you could have had with the same amount of money or the extra free time you could have enjoyed away from your work.
There is also the environmental cost to society, but I won’t be getting into the details of this today.
I recently read something that completely changed my viewpoint on materialism. Like most people, I always assumed that materialism was an issue of liking material goods too much. A woman likes handbags and shoes, and eventually, she ends up with an entire room in her house — ostensibly a closet! — to hold and display all these material goods that she has accumulated.
But what if the cause of unchecked materialism is not being in love with material goods but the very opposite? What if is the lack of value that we give the objects surrounding us that cause materialism? The fact that we do not buy things with enough care and attention or of a significant quality?
The CEO that has a 30-piece watch collection, is that because he has not found a watch that he truly loves and can cherish. He doesn’t like any of his existing watches enough to stop searching for yet another watch.
So perhaps we should turn our approach to materialism entirely upside down and embrace it but learn to cherish material objects more profoundly.
At the core of learning to cherish material objects, we must understand that there are two ways to grasp any object, to paraphrase Epictetus.
There is one handle where we see the object for what it is. That is the colour, the shape, the texture, the polish, the finish, the weight, and the way the light in the morning hits it and creates interesting shadows. These are the attributes of the object. This is often how people shop: they compare different objects based on the various functional and stylistic attributes and then come to a decision based on a mental pros/cons list. How many good attributes am I getting for a particular price point?
The other handle, is what the object can signify to us. I’ve previously written about my rather expensive watch, but it is worth clarifying here.
Why buy a book in a hardcover version vs a kindle? The hardcover version is more expensive and perhaps less practical. But, the added expense and the weight of the book itself may communicate that this is a book that we will read deeply and come back to repeatedly.
What’s the difference between a Steinway grand piano and a cheap digital keyboard? For starters, you will still be able to play the Steinway fifty years from now, which cannot be said for any digital keyboard. But, more importantly, the Steinway is an appreciation for craftsmanship. Someone built that, and you’ll take much more care with the notes you play and the music you create on a Steinway than a digital keyboard.
Watches are the ultimate example of this. A cheap digital watch will actually tell the time more accurately than the most finely tuned mechanical watch. But, you’re not buying a watch for its functional attributes, but for how it makes you feel, for what symbolism it brings to your life.
And this line of arguments takes us straight towards the appreciation of art. Something who perhaps has zero functional value, and yet some of us value it very much.
Alain de Botton sums this whole argument up very well:
Ironically, it turns out that “bad” materialism isn’t really an excessive fondness for objects and possessions; rather, it stems from a failure to appreciate objects properly. Truly “good” materialism leads us to want fewer things and to choose them with care, while bad materialism results in us filling our homes with needless stuff that we have no room for in our hearts. We clutter up our wardrobes, homes and lives because the messages our possessions are sending us aren’t being listened to.
And yes, my core argument against materialism still stands. We should value experiences above possessions, about developing ourselves vs buying new things. But, buying things, we must. If you want to take a photo, you’ll need a camera. If you want to play the piano, you’ll need a piano. If you want to sit down for lunch, you’ll need a table and chair.
The question is: How do we choose these objects with care and attention so they enhance our experiences and make us the best version of ourselves?