The Philosophy of Value and Worth

What is it that makes an object valuable to people in general or some people in particular? What one person values almost at the level of their own life others may think is garbage. So what attribute or attributes make a thing valuable?

This question has been rattling around in my head since a friend was kind enough to take me over to Michaels craft store. I picked out some very low grade freshwater pearls and mentioned this to my friend. She asked me how much I had paid for them, and when I told her they were under $5, she said they must be low grade. I agreed, and said I preferred working with low grade gems and stones, as they seemed more unique to me. She said she preferred valuable, more perfect gems, as making jewelry with low grade stones made it less valuable. That started my musing on this topic.

First off, I’m not slamming Eva. As I’ve said before, we are very different people with different opinions, and I can see where she is coming from with her opinion. First off, she’s right, perfect gems are more valuable, and make more valuable jewelry. Plus, to most people, more perfect (according to society\’s criteria) stones are more valuable, thus making jewelry made with them more valuable to most people. But this leads back to my original musing about what makes an item valuable.nnIn our culture, perfection and value seems to me to usually be based on how closely an item fits a set of criteria established by people who are supposedly experts in a field. For example, most general ideals of beauty in this country are set by fashion designers, advertisers, models and other beauty “experts”. In many cases, how popular or well thought of you are is determined by how closely you fit this set of criteria. If you do not, then you will have a harder time fitting into certain social circles, and you will be unlikely to ever be considered one of the “beautiful people”.

In my case, I think my own love for imperfect or “Worthless” stones comes from a couple places. First off, I am nowhere near fitting society’s ideals of beauty and I never will be. Honestly, though it put me through hell as a child, it now does not bother me. That difference has made me work a great deal harder for the respect of others, and made me see beauty in things and people others would discard and ignore. It would be interesting, I think if someone did a study on what kind of people liked “perfect” or “valuable” items better, and what kind liked less perfect items, and how closely they measured up themselves to society’s standards of beauty.

But back to the original question. Thinking on it briefly, I believe that there are several criteria that people measure worth by. Some of these are Philosophical worth, Emotional Worth, Financial worth, and Artistic worth. I will go into a bit more detail about each of these.nnFirst off, we have philosophical worth. This is value based on what an item represents in terms of religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. An example of this would be the water from the sacred spring of Lourdes, or earth from Stonehenge, or a rosary blessed by a saint. It is not the materials that make these objects valuable, but the idea they represent, as well as what magicians see as the Law of Contagion. In brief, that is that anything that was once in the presence of a power retains a link to that power, and has a small portion of that power within it. Faith, of course, will make that seed of power grow, and use and prayer will make it stronger still. Thus the water of Lourdes or the River Jordan or the River Ganges is supposed to cleanse the spirit or even provide miracle healing based on their connection to religious or spiritual faith, and by extension the ideas this faith holds sacred and true. But in the end, it’s just water, like that which comes from our tap, perhaps even less clean than that. It is our belief in what the water is associated with that makes it valuable to us.

A slightly different example can be seen in the use of stones in magic due to the belief that certain stones possess magical or spiritual qualities. For example, emeralds are believed to aid in retaining or even healing vision problems, while rose quartz is believed to encourage love, friendship and empathy. Physically speaking, these minerals may be valued financially, as with fine emeralds, or seen as somewhat valuable, as in rose quartz. However their spiritual associations have made us see them as desirable due to the influences associated with them. Thus they are examples of philosophical worth, though they may have financial worth as well.

Financial worth is the most intrinsic form of worth to most of us. Someone says gold is valuable and it is relatively rare, so we use it to base our currency on. Every dollar you make is and was based on a certain amount of gold held at one time by the US treasury to ensure the value of our money. But what makes gold valuable? Basically, as stated, it’s rarity, it’s property of never tarnishing, and the common belief that it is beautiful. So in essence, gold is valuable because we are told it is. It is the standard upon which most of our financial system is based. Gems too are valuable basically because it is a societal consensus that they are, backed up by billions of dollars in advertising by the jewelry industry. Jade of a deep green color in China is considered the most valuable because according to Chinese tradition that type is the most powerful and most beautiful….as well as the most rare and expensive.

I will make a side note here that there is a movement in the jewelry industry away from Chinese Jade due to the horrific conditions under which it is mined that I have followed personally. For more information, see the book “The Stone From Heaven”.

In any case, the criteria by which financial worth is judged seems to be a threefold one of consensus, rarity and matching standards of beauty that often seem to me to be arbitrary or whimsical. An example of this can again be found in gemology. While a ruby or diamond may have no flaws at all to be considered of gem quality, an emerald may be full of flaws and inclusions and still be valuable, simply because few pieces ever form without flaws. Opals too must be flawed and even have microscopic droplets of water in them to form the play of color that makes them valuable. Yet if a topaz has water inclusions in flaws, it is worthless.

Similarly, our standards of human beauty are almost inhuman and certainly unhealthy and achievable by less than 2% of the population. However, many of us feel ashamed as we walk into or past stores with racks of clothing we can never fit. Weight loss is an obsession in American culture, though admittedly obesity is a severe issue affecting a huge percentage of Americans. Still, Anorexia Nervosa and even suicide can result from having such an unhealthy standard of beauty that so few can meet. Our obsession with perfection crosses into every part of life….how many would be willing to buy a car that had cosmetic flaws, even if they would in no way hamper car performance? How many of us would be willing to buy imperfect or smudged books, even if they were readable if a “perfect” one was nearby? These are manifestations of our obsession with cosmetic perfection, and I wonder what they say about the psyche of our culture.

To return to my current subject, Emotional worth is the next form of worth. This is illustrated by the keeping of sentimental articles, such as a cast of a child’s footprint, an old diary, a dead grandparent’s wedding ring, photos of friends, or a special toy from childhood. These items have little financial worth, but each is a reminder to us of emotions we once felt or still feel about a person or time in our lives. We may still have our memories and feelings of these times, but holding these objects acts as a catalyst to jog our memories, or bring back past emotions with much stronger and richer intensity. Gravestones are an example of an object of emotional worth that acts as an emotional catalyst, often jogging our memory of the person whose grave they mark. Such objects are cold stone, but to us they are a channel for all the emotions we feel towards the person whose grave they mark. Other such objects are wedding rings, which culturally remind us of our decision to enter into a social and romantic pact with another person and to become a family.

The final form of worth is Artistic worth. Simply stated, that is whether we find beauty or pleasure in an object or not, and this can change very dramatically from childhood to adulthood. To a child, jewelry is pretty, but so are brightly colored plastic beads and neon hair ties. To an adult, the same colors seem garish and overdone, but many items seen as boring in childhood (as well as tastes of food) will suddenly seem appealing and interesting or enjoyable. Artistic worth can also be in the form of an object made to represent an idea or simply to be an object of beauty, such as a sculpture, piece of calligraphy or even a simple piece of handmade pottery or paper. The value in these objects can also be seen in the amount of time and work put into them, and the care with which they are made. Anyone can print up a sheet of old English lettering, but it takes years of study and practice to be able to draw them by hand with a calligraphy pen on parchment, then illuminate them. Financially speaking, there is no more worth in the second example than the first, but to the artist who hand drew the calligraphy, the difference in value will be obvious.

In our current day, there are movements both to make as many “perfect” objects as possible with machines and to acquire as many objects seen as valuable and perfect by society as possible. To me personally, I think this is a loss. Handmade, imperfect items seem to me to have more uniqueness and interest than soulless items that look just like one another. Generally speaking, handcrafts are not perfect. In some cultures, such as some Native American tribes, it was seen as insulting to the spirits to create a piece of perfect craft work, as it meant you thought yourself capable to create perfection. In these tribes, only the Creator spirit or spirits were capable of perfection, so a single mistake was left purposefully in every item and design. I personally follow that tradition in my jewelry as a sign of humility before the gods. Each of us must go our own way, and express ourselves as we see fit.

What do you value and why? Have I missed any categories of what we value and why? Or do you disagree with me completely, and if so, let me know your opinions.

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