There is a sharp irony hidden in the actions of those who indulge in conspicuous consumption. The process of self-aggrandisement is intended to demonstrate the importance of the individual concerned to the world at large. A more accurate interpretation would be precisely the opposite – that they are actually diminishing their true worth by acting in this way.
I remember watching a television programme about so-called successful entrepreneurs, which reported on the spending habits of one wealthy businessman, a serial collector of Rolls Royce motor cars. It was not simply a matter of the number of vehicles. Each one had to be unique and special, differentiated from the “ordinary” versions of the vehicle by some sort of extravagant embellishment that served no practical purpose.
People who engage in such levels of ostentation reveal their motivation openly. They have chosen to use their wealth to create an impression of social prestige, power and celebrity. These are hallmarks of the cult of personality rather than the character building ethic. “Look at me” they say, “I am better than you – more successful, more important, more powerful”.
The Knot Garden prefers the approach employed by Andrew Carnegie, who spent the latter years of his life disposing of ninety per cent of his considerable, self-made fortune through philanthropic projects. Such a model of wealth deployment has inspired the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, who are likewise working for the benefit of others through their foundation.
There is no law or moral code that requires the quantity of wealth owned by an individual to be balanced by their sense of public duty. And yet such symmetry is surely a highly desirable characteristic of financial success.
Those who exhibit profligacy in their affairs are guilty of wasting time, money and opportunity. Instead of working to improve the world in which they live, giving something back, they are merely constructing a graven image. They are telling us that they have chosen shallowness instead of value creation. Acts of apparent generosity towards their children, whom they shower with expensive trinkets, are more likely to hinder the personal development of the recipient rather than promoting it. And so these, too, turn out to be selfish gestures.
The Knot Garden believes in wealth as a power for good. For this to work, the individual must develop a well balanced outlook in which the industry that they direct in acquiring their riches is ultimately matched by their resolve to enrich the lives of others. As with nobility, wealth brings with it responsibility. If we cannot recognise this then we are lost, regardless of the trappings of success.