Ownership- American Dream or Downfall?

For thousands of years, philosophers have considered the importance of owning something and how it relates to one’s identity. The definition of and views towards ownership differ across cultures, peoples, and time periods. Thinkers such as Plato believed that physical possessions did not benefit but rather hurt a person, and while based on depictions of our society in literature and in television, this can be seen as true; however, Jean Paul Sarte’s view that the ‘possession’ of skills and intellectual material can benefit us is also true. Owning as much “stuff” as possible may be part of the American Dream of economic success, but in many cases such ownership does not add anything to our character or give us happiness. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel The Great Gatsby, the protagonist Jay Gatsby has created his own American Dream- the fancy car, expensive clothes and lavish mansion- hoping to ‘make it’ so he can be good enough for the woman he loves, Daisy Buchanan.

But all these things ultimately cannot buy the love of Daisy, a superficial and selfish woman, and Gatsby is left a shell of a man who cannot be comforted by his material goods because he is essentially living a lie. In recent society, reality television shows such as “My Super Sweet 16” show the extravagant lifestyles and parties of rich teenagers. Though the parties are glamorous and exciting, they are only a thin cover for what really shows: the dark realities of wealth and the ridiculousness of these teenagers. Because they have had everything handed to them for their whole lives, the teenagers on “My Super Sweet 16” are often spoiled, greedy, self-centered and detached from world issues. They are vindictive toward their parents, harsh with their friends and cruel to those who do not share in their status. Owning so much could make them more mature and responsible, but they often throw their (or more likely, their parents’) wealth around and pitch fits when they do not get their way.

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Wealth could make them more willing to share their good fortune by being philanthropic, but the teenagers on these shows are more willing to flash their wealth as a sign of their superficial superiority. Obviously not every person of the upper class is like this, but The Great Gatsby and My Super Sweet 16 demonstrate how wealth can harm a person’s character. While ownership of possessions does not always lend itself to the betterment of a person, the ownership of intellectual material or a skill benefits a person’s soul and being. A person ‘owns’ what they learn in the sense that they can now control the material by interpreting it and using it in a personal way. Scientists such as Albert Einstein have absorbed the thoughts of others through reading and learning about their works, but ‘own’ it when they develop their own thoughts on the matter.

When they ‘own’ their ideas, they will be able to share their discoveries with others, which creates a chain reaction of ownership of thought. Similarly, through hard work a person can come to ‘own’ a skill. For example, an Olympic athlete such as Kristi Yamaguchi may be naturally gifted at ice skating, but through years of practice, she hones her skill to the point where she can ‘own’ it. This ultimately benefits her not only when she is awarded prizes at national and global competitions, but in the sense that she has much to be proud of for her hard work. The ownership of intangible things such as ideas or a skill can even lead to tangible possessions with meaning to them, such as a Nobel Peace Prize or an Olympic medal. In this case, the possessions are well-earned and deserved.

Arguably, the ownership of intangible things, such as ideas or a skill, has more worth than most physical possessions. Based on the evidence we see in American culture, both past and present, ownership of ‘things’ can lead to a weaker version of ourselves. Plato’s view that ownership can be detrimental is seen as true in the case of people who associate wealth and belongings with happiness; however, when we broaden our definition of ownership to that of the thinker Jean-Paul Sarte- as having a skill or intellectual-we see ownership as responsibility, the result of hard work, and a benefit to our lives.