Many strive throughout their lives to accumulate wealth to escape misery. Yet, once obtained, they discover that great wealth was a bubble that burst once it had been achieved and became meaningless even while it was still accumulating. For those who are less well off, there is a wish to be able to live a life of ease with private jets, fast cars, fancy clothes, jewels, and the ability to go and come as they pleases and associate with those who are similarly well placed in life.
TV and tabloid journalist make good livings documenting the failures of the “rich and famous” because the rest of us can take perverse delights in knowing that they, too, experience failures and reverses in their lives that are often revolve around some aspects of personal relations. One of the pair of partners somehow feels deprived while surrounded by every comfort and possession imaginable. Separation may bring temporary relief; but even when separated, the two one-time partners often find themselves involved in less than meaningful activities while lavishly attempting to fill meaningless lives that give only temporary satisfaction.
Retiring to holy orders has been a historic escape for those who wished to build up a store of wealth in heaven after being disappointed with their secular lives. Monastic life gave them a rigorous schedule of activities designed to purify their souls and bodies to be fit vessels for God’s work, whatever that might be. Their lives were forever scheduled by the demands of their order and those higher on the rungs of the stairway to heaven appointed by God to rule over them. Kings, supposedly anointed by God to care for the needs of his subjects, fought countless wars littering the world with corpses of young men who were never able to fulfill their lives, but died in the service of their sovereign, to say nothing of the innocents that they slew and others who died from starvation and diseases associated with the conflicts. Their deaths provided a rich fertilizer for the ground on which we walk.
As all life ends in death as the fateful are reminded each year at Lent with “Dust thou art, and dust thou will become,” of what use is accumulated wealth? The answer is that it hopefully provides for the safety and wellbeing of the generations that follow. It is often assumed that human advancement is a line with an up-trending slope and with technological advances over the centuries that the human condition has improved. As a species there are more of us than ever before, so to that degree we have made progress. We also tend to live longer providing more years to achieve whatever our individual destinies are to be. Nonetheless, there have been and will continue to be many bumps on this slope of continuing progress and even reversals and backtrackings which indicate that we humans are slow learners and are often forgetful despite the present technology that allows us to remember everything in great detail to the extent that the meaningless threatens to swamp the meaningful.
As far back as the 1700s, the Romantics popularized the concept of primitive man as being “The Noble Savage.” True, they were driven by the basic needs to provide food, shelter, and psychological comfort for their families and tribes, and their wealth was assumed to be communal, rather than personal. While later research revealed that this was true to a degree, it became obvious that there were individuals who owned more possessions than others and whose graves were more richly endowed with grave goods out of respect or as an indication of family status.
More recent research revealed that during the Neolithic and Mesolithic Periods in Europe, ritual killings, cannibalism, and inter-tribal warfare were common occurrences adding to the strife of generations living through a rapidly changing environment as the continent warmed and cooled with progressive glacial advances, retreats and sea level changes on the order of hundreds of feet. Climate changes, catastrophic natural disasters, and epidemic diseases are nothing new in human experience. Those who were more adept and had accumulated more goods, were able to migrate to more favorable areas, and defend themselves from animals and the people who lived on the lands they were encroaching on, survived to be our ancestors. Based on evidence from thousands of years ago, we are not so much different than they.
In a fundamental analysis, the accumulation of wealth is the possession of the means of survival expressed in whatever terms were appropriate at the time. With the invention of money, with which food, shelter, and transportation could be purchased, this became the commonly accepted measure of wealth. Earlier, this wealth might be expressed in a stash of chipped stone tools or dressed animal hides that could be made into clothing or tents. This led to the amassing of exotic goods produced by others that might be made of amber, ivory, stone, copper, bronze, or precious metals. Metals, which could be shaped into functional and decorative objects, always had value whether turned into coins or not, and only with the spread of iron smelting from the Middle East into Europe did metal objects become commonplace. Carefully made objects like swords had considerable value, but utilitarian objects such as nails and hinges did not. Anywhere there was iron ore, wood, and limestone a temporary furnace could be built and iron could be made.
With stronger materials made of iron and steel, man’s technology allowed him to reach the furthest corners of the globe for natural resources and expand the scope of slave-labor. Technology, along with the slave trade, increased personal and national wealth, but at a terrible human cost. True, there had been slaves ever since there had been a recorded history, but the longevity of an action or its ancient roots did not make the practice morally correct, as pastors from many southern pulpits proclaimed to their white and black congregations in the United States before the Civil War. During the pre-Civil war era, slaves, human beings, were counted as wealth.
After food and shelter had been achieved, another less tangible, but no less significant, source of wealth was knowledge. The passing of knowledge from parents to offspring was recognized very early as significant in the animal kingdom, and the effective enhancement of this single ability enabled man to build on what was termed, “the wisdom of the ages.” This increasing treasure house of knowledge enabled him to improve his personal and collective ranking to become the dominant animal on the planet. Storytelling and later writing became the means by which those thousands of years dead could effectively transmit learned lessons so that following generations did not have to independently redevelop every thought and tool that previous generations had devised. Those building houses could buy nails by the barrel, finished lumber and brick by the wagon load which saved the weeks required to make the structural materials from which the house was built on site.
Food, shelter, and knowledge and whatever tangible objects that might be used to entice others to supply these needs formed three legs of a table on which humanity could feed and prosper. Still, something else was missing. Looking again to the animal kingdom, the operating rule of possession is, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine if I can get it.” Wealth must be protected, and lacking the more effective teeth and claws of the lion or tiger, knives, spears, bows, firearms, and nuclear weapons arose to the smart, but weak, humans to protect their physical and intellectual patrimony from those who would deprive them of it.
Wealth as the possession of food, shelter, knowledge, and protection thus form the four legs of the table at which all mankind sits. The management of these structural needs is assisted by money, but money, in itself, provided only poor comfort to those with pockets full of gold who were dragged beneath storm-tossed waters at sea while possessing more wealth than they had ever known. They died rich, but of what comfort to them or anyone else?

Author's Bio: 

Wm. Hovey Smith is the author of more than 20 books, hundreds of news and magazine articles, and the producer of over 850 YouTube videos on a variety of subjects. His most recent book is “Make Your Own Job: Anytime, Anywhere, At Any Age” which stresses individual entrepreneurship at different stages and conditions of life. Novel points in the book are how to conceive of and select the appropriate self-generated job to fit the needs and abilities of the individual at the moment. This title is available as a softcover book, e-book, and audio book from Amazon and other on-line book outlets or from your local bookstore.