This is your resident Thomist bringing you a minute from the Bellowing Ox.

In modern Western culture we have embraced a militant materialism that imbues “the principle of having over being, of things over the person” to paraphrase Pope St. John Paul II. People with large families are often criticized for being beneficent with life. I myself have 4 young children and get questions about whether I am “crazy” for having so many children. My wife and I view our following God’s plan for life and love as our own personal act of defiance against the materialism of our age.

When thinking of materialism the images of Mel Gibson’s Apocolypto come to mind. In the film, he traces the kidnapping of a small tribe in the Amazon by the blood lusting Aztecs. As the main character is dragged from the forest, that was pregnant with greenery to the Aztec city, they encounter deforestation, dust and death the closer they get to the city. The imagery is clear, the sophisticated “city” is materialistic and represents the “culture of death.” We see the same thing in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Compare the Shire to Mordor to see the same contrast. Our culture, for its obsession with “having”, is symbolized by the volcanic ash of Mordor and the corpses associated with the Aztec empire. Indeed, our materialism is just as violent, but it has been sanitized behind the closed doors of abortion clinics and inside the walls of violent broken homes.

So what does Aquinas say about materialism? Thomas says that riches cannot be perfect happiness because material objects never perfectly satisfy the will. This is evident by the fact that once a person has the big television, they need the video game system to go with it. Once they have the nice car, they need the big house to go with it. Once they have the big house, they need the boat; once they have the boat, they need the motorcycle. The desire will progress to infinity. Thus, Aquinas concludes riches cannot be perfect happiness.

There is an old adage that the happiest man is he who has the fewest desires. It is obvious from Thomas’ philosophy that riches do not satisfy. As a culture, we’ve got a lot to learn.