Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims:
He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins

By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks … with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Clichs archives.

A popular bumper sticker? Or a penetrating, one-sentence summary of current Western society?

“More is better.”

“Bigger is better.”

“Money is how we keep score.”

The problem is that “more” becomes an end in itself rather than the means to some other end. We are obsessed with more, and it’s not a new phenomenon.

Bertrand Russell warned us that “it is the preoccupation with possessions, more than any other thing, that keeps man from living freely and nobly.”

And maybe e.e. cummings said it even better: “More, more, more, more. My hell, what are we all, morticians?”

It’s easy to blame our “morishness” on our society and its institutions. A friend of mine, who is a senior vice president of one of New York’s largest ad agencies, is remarkably candid in defining his own profession. “Advertising,” he said, “is the finely honed art of getting people to think they need what they really only want.”


Everyone should have a favorite bookstore. To go in and browse once in a while is not only pleasant; it is a quick update on trends, fads, and directions.


Lately I see a lot on simplifying and getting back to basics. These are always popular subjects, but they do better at certain times than at others.


I have a favorite bookseller in my favorite bookstore, and he told me the other day that Thoreau is selling again. “You can chart society by Thoreau,” he said, “When he starts to sell, you know we’re getting tired of materialism and the fast lane. The last time Thoreau sold was in the sixties.”


I realized as he said it that the last time I had read Thoreau was in the sixties. I carried Walden around with me for two years. I even drove out to Walden Pond several times while I was a student in Boston, wanting to feel as much of the writer’s wisdom as I possibly could.


My friend the bookseller said, “Here’s a new edition of his collected works,” and scurried off to help another customer. I let it fall open, and Thoreau was talking about how the land he surveyed was more “his” than it was the man’s who owned it – because he saw and appreciated and took pleasure from the land.


I thumbed the book at random to another spot and read, “Our life is frittered away by detail, simplify! Simplify! Simplify!”


I let it fall open again and Thoreau was comparing owning a farm to being in jail – the encumbering, enslaving aspects of ownership.


The lunch hour was over, but as I put the book down, I wondered if I should go back to work.


The world, and particularly Western society, is afflicted with an erroneous notion called “ownership.”

Our perceptions of ownership are wrong in two ways. First they are wrong because they are inaccurate.  What we say we own actually just passes though our hands for a time. It really belongs to nature or to God, depending on your perception. We have our “possessions” just for a period, so stewardship is actually a more accurate term than ownership.


The second way an ownership mentality is wrong is that it is morally wrong – or at least it leads to thoughts and to acts that often are. In the ownership mode everyone has more or less of something than we do, so there is envy, jealousy, or covetousness on the one hand or pride and condescension on the other.

And when we begin to think we won our children, and our talents, or even our bodies, rather than perceiving them as gifts from God, we tend to value them less and to use them ever more selfishly.


Stewardship is a wonderful concept. It implies caring and responsibility without pride or envy. The best parents I know think of themselves as stewards over incredibly precious and ultimately independent children. The happiest people I know are the ones who are really grateful for what they have but are not attached to things or preoccupied with having more.

The clich that opened the chapter is often meant to be funny. But it its practice seldom is. In actuality he who dies with the most toys (or the most money) probably stands the best chance of his children or descendants fighting over them.

A steward doesn’t necessarily want more; he wants to do his best with what he has. He wants more quality in his life rather than more quantity.



Join me in two weeks time for the concluding article in this series, and remember to go to the Clich archives if you want to review or get a list of all previous columns.


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