One hang-up folks have with success is the perception that financial success leads to materialism. It is common to hear folks, even on our show, emphasize that their perceptions of success possess little to no desire for material luxuries. Our show is recorded digitally so in almost every circumstance we cannot confirm nor deny whether or not our guests abstain from the purchase of expensive material items. My intuition tells me that most of our guests have a high standard of living when compared to your typical American. Perhaps they own luxury cars and live in large homes in affluent communities. There is a strong chance they send their children to private schools and go on vacations. Maybe they own designer clothes and eat at expensive restaurants, or have hobbies like collecting wine. So, the question becomes, if material rewards are not a part of success, then why do so many successful people purchase expensive things? Are they materialistic and if so, is this a bad thing? Or, is what we perceive or call “materialism” a misuse of words? To answer this question, we will peel apart the difference between materialism and aestheticism and argue that the latter is the healthier expression of success.
Materialism has two definitions both of which provide structure for the flaws in being “materialistic.” The first definition is---a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. The second definition is---a philosophical idea that nothing exists except matter and its modifications and movements. The second definition gets to the core of the issue because it makes a metaphysical claim, i.e., that nothing exists other than the tactile and material things we can observe, measure, and sense. Coming from this philosophical stance one could make the argument that nothing is more important than the pursuit of increasingly becoming more materially successful and comfortable. If existence is solely material than success must be intimately tied to material achievement. This lends to the first definition which adds that possessions and comforts are “more important than spiritual values” to the materialist, implying that one must elevate spiritual values above material values in order to not be “materialistic.”
I want the record to show that Oxford Dictionary brought about the need to have a spiritual discussion in this blog due to their definition of materialism. The spiritual example that I am about to give is not an attempt to convert you to a particular faith. Let us now examine the story of the golden calf.
The Abrahamic faiths do not like when material items are put before spiritual pursuits. In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites were following Moses through the desert after they fled from Egypt. Moses took time to go to a mountaintop alone to speak with God and when he was away the Israelites became impatient for his return. Not knowing what happened to Moses, the Israelites took their gold (material) possessions, melted them down, and created a golden calf that they began to worship as a representation of God. This enraged God and if it were not for the desperate pleas of Moses God would have been completely eliminated the Israelites from the face of the earth. What a secular person would refer to as materialism could be interchanged with the religious idea of idolatry, or, the worship of false or created gods. Is the modern example of the Golden Calf the iPhone 13? Christian Louboutin pumps? A Tesla Model S Plaid edition? Possibly. Is there a way you can have a healthy relationship with the luxuries of the material world without sacrificing the spirit?
Aestheticism is the healthy expression of material enjoyment while not only maintaining spiritual integrity but also improving it. Aestheticism is a branch of thought that both appreciates and attempts to understand what is or is not beautiful. Sensing when something is beautiful is a uniquely human experience. It is one of the few experiences that do not seemingly have an evolutionary benefit. For example, why would it make us feel good to see the sun setting on the hills of a vast desert? It is dry, empty, and dangerous, yet there is something so breathtaking about such a sight. Seeing the stars on a clear night is a similar experience. Why do we love to look at modern marvels like large building and bridges? Why does a meticulously prepared dish at a restaurant appeal to us more than a pop tart in a box? The guitar duet at the end of the Eagles “Hotel California” is great, while a chainsaw cutting into concrete is horrible. What is the perk to this feeling of experiencing beauty? One might argue that such an experience is simply a gift, and quite possibly a divine gift that is meant to be appreciated. Being an aesthetic is simply being a person who appreciates and enjoys beautiful things because you feel they are beautiful.
Unlike materialism, aestheticism does not view the object as the end but rather a means to a sensory experience. When the sensory experience occurs, the aesthetic is appreciative of the sense it evokes and is thankful for being able to experience that feeling of beauty. The moment the material itself becomes the item of worship we begin reentering the world of materialism. If you feel obligated to purchase something in order to feel a sense of purpose in your life you are entering the world of materialism. If you buy the shoes to show the world that you can afford the shoes, yet you feel the shoes are too flashy or uncomfortable, you are being materialistic. Get the shoes you like. Get the shoes that make you happy. Get the shoes that make you experience that sense of beauty, and when you do, send me a pair so I or my wife can wear them too. I am a size 11 and she is a size 8.