By Richard Girard
Wealth and poverty are not opposites; they are rather inverses of each other. Their true opposite is sufficiency, fulfillment, completeness; in other words, enough.
I have arrived at this idea in a manner identical to the way I arrived at the idea that the opposite of selfishness is not altruism, but fairness; and that I assume whoever first conceived that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy, did. (See my September 19, 2008 OpEdNews article Illuminating Dichotomies , for more on these two ideas.)
These are what I call parabolic ideas. Parabolas, for those of you who have forgotten your high school algebra class, are " A plane curve formed by the locus of points equidistant from a fixed line and a fixed point not on the line ." ( The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. ) Think of a " U" with the curve on the bottom and sides, whose arms start from a given point, and then continue out into infinity.
The two arms of the parabola extend in the same general direction, equidistant from a given point on a central axis from the point of origin, just as it is described in the dictionary definition. In the same way, love and hate arise from a common point of origin, emotion, in particular the emotional desire for the well-being or harm of a given person. Imagine one curved arm veering left towards hate, the other to the right, representing love. Both of these are within the realm of emotions, and are not truly opposites but inverses of the other, forming the boundaries of a whole set of interpersonal emotions concerning your life experiences between those two arms.
Apathy is represented by what is in the area outside of the boundaries formed by the parabola; in mathematics this is what is called the "null set." Everything that is outside of the boundaries formed by those curved arms is outside the realm of emotion for you as a human being. You may, at a purely intellectual level, have some interest in someone or something in the world that you hardly know or have never actually met. You can also develop a non-emotion based opinion on a given subject, such as a particular argument in quantum physics. But for most of us, if it makes no difference in our everyday life, our emotional attachment to it is zero, i.e., apathetic.
Similarly, our needs, both physical and emotional, are represented by the left arm of altruism and and the right arm of selfishness in the parabola. Altruism (in its most extreme form) is the delusion that one needs nothing for themselves. This is founded upon the misapprehension that needs and desires are one and the same thing, and the fear that only by giving away not only all that we desire, but all that we need, can we possibly be loved. (See Mortimer J. Adler's 1991 book Desires Right & Wrong:The Ethics of Enough , for more on this subject.) This denial of our needs, as well as our desires, often sublimates our real needs into directions that are both physically and emotionally unhealthy for us in the long term.
Selfishness is based upon the opposite delusion: the fear that there is such a lack of everything that if you do not grasp all that you have to yourself with a grip of iron, you will never satisfy those desires which you--in your narcissistic isolation--equate with your needs. Selfishness hides our real needs behind a facade of desire, because a selfish person cannot differentiate between need and desire, believing them to be one and the same. When a selfish person gives something to someone else, it is almost always at an exorbitant, if unapparent, price to the recipient.
Fairness is the null set of the two emotional states of altruism and selfishness. It is our most rational choice that insures that the needs of all concerned are provided for before desires are considered.
Closely related to these concepts of altruism, selfishness, and fairness on the emotional plane, are the three parabolic concepts of poverty, wealth, and sufficiency or enough. While the underlying cause--the fear of there not being enough to go around--the plane upon which this parabola exists is a materialistic one.
I have recently been reading Isaiah Berlin's book Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (Fourth Edition, New Introduction by Alan Ryan, 1996), which has been an eye-opening experience. It was in reading about Marx's work The German Ideology (Chapter 6, "Historical Materialism," pp. 89-116), that both the term parabolic idea, and the relationship of the concepts of wealth, poverty and sufficiency, came to me.
Let me begin by stating that Karl Marx was not a nice man. His most familiar ideas, Communism, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc., might be very left wing in our estimation, but they were not original of themselves, although they were in the way they were assembled. Nor are Marx's ideas in even the smallest sense liberal. Marx had an attitude of intolerance and distrust of anyone who questioned him or his ideas, and did not suffer "fools" gladly. To quote from Professor Berlin's book, "As a public personality his natural harshness, aggressiveness, and jealousy, his desire to crush all rivals, increased with the years; his dislike of the society in which he lived became more and more acute and his personal contact with individual members of it more and more difficult; he was more amiable to bourgeois strangers than to socialists outside his orbit; he quarreled easily and disliked reconciliation;" (Berlin; op. cit ., p. 134). Marx also had an authoritarian streak that he never questioned nor corrected. Had his father somehow been able to force him into concentrating on the study of law, rather than philosophy, he would have been another conservative Prussian bureaucrat, maintaining that system without question or compassion.
Marx's greatest failing as a philosopher is tied directly to his greatest failing as a human being: a lack of empathy. Marx's authoritarian streak, as well as his belief in humanity's ability to act in a consistently rational manner, was combined with a nearly religious faith that when humanity finally learned to think rationally, humanity's values and beliefs would be identical with those of Karl Marx. Marx believed that humanity only needed to be led to a completely rational state of thinking, together with a full understanding of his Communist ideas, for his worker's paradise to spring into existence. His lack of empathy, together with his lack of understanding human psychology--both mass and individual--doomed his idea for a worker's paradise to be nothing more than a pipe dream from the outset.
I believe that Karl Marx's greatest mistake was his assumption that by raising the proletariat--the poor and working class--to be the new ruling class, was the ultimate answer to class warfare. This solution is short sighted, and demonstrates Marx's lack of knowledge in both mass and individual psychology. A complete leveling of human society is impossible; human nature militates against it. As George Orwell so astutely noted in his book Animal Farm (1945), sooner or later the maxim of "All animals are equal," devolves into that of "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." Any attempt at the complete elimination of class and rank in every aspect of human society perpetuates the class war by creating a new ruling class of those who are part of the revolution, and a new underclass of those who opposed or were indifferent to it. This in turn requires yet another revolution, ad infinitum.