Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: because expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in psychological one. We need to re-arrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.
Of course, we are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what the philosopher Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasizing instead luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. This prevalence of idle opinion is no coincidence. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one.
Look at examples all around us, pushed on us by advertisers, businesses and the media. I recently watched an advert on TV where a wife was pressuring her husband, nagging him to build a new gate for their compound and buy a Prado, because their neighbours had done the same. The husband relents and actually takes a loan from the bank to buy these ‘necessities’. (It was a bank loan advert by the way, I think.) At the end we see him happy and gloating at his neighbor, because he has a gate just like his, and a Prado just like his. Samsung and Apple periodically without fail come up with a new phone that is allegedly more advanced and more ‘necessary’ than the last, and of course more expensive than the last. The idea implied is that you have to keep buying these things so as not to be left behind. Companies selling strangely expensive houses tell us about the luxuriousness of their offerings, and how modern they are. Some agents will even go further to let you know that many of the houses on sale have already been bought by UN staff, expatriates and foreigners, just to show you how good and necessary these houses are. Yes, having ‘natives’ as your neighbours is not chic enough, apparently.
Our society has embraced this idea wholeheartedly. Our worship of money seems unparalleled. Our zeal for wealth accumulation is fanatical, and people don’t seem to care how this wealth is accumulated. Morals go out the window real quick, and we forget about issues that matter like genuine friendship, good morals, family, respect, fidelity, loyalty and culture. We live as though money is the most important thing in our lives. Interestingly, most of us who exhibit this absurd lust for wealth are Christians; who believe in and worship a deity who specifically preached and taught against this mindless glorifying of money and material things, and lived his life on earth avoiding the same. But the issue of our embarrassing love for money would need a whole other article – another day perhaps.
It is interesting to note that although Kenyans are ranked as the wealthiest in East Africa, surveys show that we are not the happiest – the Tanzanians or the Rwandese are. We are also not the most generous – that accolade goes to the Ugandans. We are also not the most hopeful or optimistic in the region. So where is the benefit of all this wealth? Anyway, I digress.
Back to the issue of why we are drawn to expensive things. How are we enticed even more to buy these items? Through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten needs.
It may be a car we end up buying, but it was freedom and respect we were looking for.
It may be the expensive whisky or cognac we purchase, but it was friendship we were after.
It may be fine bathing accoutrements we acquire, but it was thought that would have brought us calm.
Dear reader, allow me to leave you here. I’ve got to go shopping for some really nice suits I saw the other day. Hehehehe.