Clem Sunter

Illth versus Wellth

2014-07-16 11:05

Clem Sunter

Whenever I have coffee with Richard Bolleurs, he always surprises me with an idea I have not come across before. This time, it was a term invented by a Victorian art critic and prominent social commentator called John Ruskin. The term is “Illth” as in the opposite of “wealth” when the latter word is used in the sense of well-being and adding to it in a material or spiritual way.

As Ruskin observes, “it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes”. Such persons possess illth which is their ability to cause “various devastation and trouble around them in all directions”’ They operate either as “pools of dead water” or “eddies in a stream  which, so long as the stream flows, are useless or serve only to drown people”. It probably did not escape his attention that illth rhymes with filth and gives it a nasty ring.

The Illth Award

The illth award in this century must go to all those unbelievably well-paid hustlers who caused the financial crash in 2008 by selling toxic subprime mortgages in the guise of secure but rewarding investments to unwitting customers. They caused devastation in the lives of ordinary people on an international scale that even Ruskin would not have anticipated when he made his original comment. Other illth contenders must be the various dictators around the world who, together with their inner circle, extract enormous sums of money in various devious ways, while the masses live in utter impoverishment imposed by the dictators themselves.

Broadly speaking, one can say that illth is the use of wealth to line your own pocket further at the expense of others. Which brings me to the purpose of this article and that is to introduce a new term into everyday language called “wellth”. It is where wealth is accumulated and used in a way that improves the lives of the people around you and gives you and them a genuine sense of wellbeing.

The Wellth Award

My wellth award would firstly go to all those entrepreneurs who come up with innovative ways of changing the world. In the last century, Henry Ford, Walt Disney and Bill Gates would feature in my list. They all became insanely rich; but each – in his own way – vastly improved the quality of life of those global citizens that chose to take advantage of and enjoy their products. In this century, my wellth award would go to Steve Jobs for penetrating the market of virtually every nation on Earth with his smart devices. Maybe the next person to get the award will be Elon Musk.

You can see that my definition of wellth is broader than the definition of philanthropy which covers the act of giving your wealth away. Wellth certainly includes philanthropy, but it also means the courageous acquisition of wealth that at the same time alters the existence of others in a positive manner. In Ruskin’s time the geniuses who came up with the new technologies that were part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution would be considered as wealth creators. The illth crowd would have been the hangers-on who made their fortunes out of exploiting workhouses and child labour in the use of those technologies.

A moment of truth

Every country now has its fair share of illth and wellth potential awardees – for corruption and selfishness on the one hand and innovation and nobility of spirit on the other. Worldwide, the balance at the moment is tilting in favour of candidates for the illth award as the gap between the super-rich and the middle/working classes is growing beyond reasonable levels. Anger is mounting at the degree of illth across the private and public sectors which is causing real harm to the ordinary lives of ordinary, hard-working people. It is not inequality per se, but the suffering caused in the pursuit of illth that riles the average citizen.

Let me end with a quote from a completely different source: a man who has brought great joy to many listeners of his folk music and acerbic lyrics, and at the same time has made a fistful of money. Bob Dylan once said: “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” My only rider is that the satisfaction should come from the feeling you have done something to make the lives of the people you touch with your actions a little better.

That is the key to being healthy and wellthy (as opposed to being illthy and filthy rich).

Send your comments to Clem


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