Stoic personal values: on luxurious living

- Il modello Ferrari Testarossa fu presentato al Salone di Parigi nell'ottobre 1984.

– Il modello Ferrari Testarossa fu presentato al Salone di Parigi nell’ottobre 1984.

The fifteen chapter of Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life focuses on personal values, and in particular on luxurious living. (I have already commented on his other chapter on the same general theme, centered on seeking fame. Irvine links the two by suggesting that a primary, though not the only, reason to seek wealth is because one wishes fame.)

Seneca, who was himself very wealthy, famously wrote to Helvia: “Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little? … [it is folly] to think that it is the amount of money and not the state of mind that matters!”

Epictetus, ever more radical than Seneca, went so far as saying that “it is better to die of hunger with distress and fear gone than to live upset in the midst of plenty,” and his teacher, Musonius, actually thought that wealth has the power of making people miserable.

Irvine makes the general point that for the Stoics the contrast is between living well and having a good life. The former may indeed require the deployment of wealth in order to achieve fame, but that project actually gets in the way of the second goal.

There is an interesting discussion here of the disadvantage of striving to experience the best things in life: we may develop such a refined taste for luxuries, including exotic or complexly prepared foods, that we may simultaneously loose the ability to enjoy the simple (and much more reliably obtainable) things in life. Accordingly, Musonius advocated eating simple foods that require little preparation, like fruits, vegetables and cheese.

I must say that I do, occasionally, enjoy gourmet meals, but there must have been something of the Stoic in me even before starting practicing, as I have always preferred a simple meal made of fresh ingredients to the concoctions of highly paid chefs or, worse, the so-called chemical gastronomies.

Musonius makes another interesting point: “the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat,” meaning that it is far too easy to fall prey to the allure of unnecessarily fancy foodstuff, and once that taste is acquired it is difficult to shed.

The Stoic advice for simple living extends beyond food, to clothing, furnishing and so forth. Again, I find that my natural preference for a minimalist life style (which made me particularly suitable to life in New York City!) may have more easily led me to embrace Stoicism.

The problem with luxury, argued Seneca, is that it develops in us unnatural desires, which are increasingly difficult to fulfill. These desires, naturally, are not “up to us,” meaning that they are external goods over which we do not have complete control, and which are therefore bound to make us slaves.

Yet another issue with seeking luxury is that it requires constant and difficult effort, which means the commitment of a significant amount of time and resources. Needless to say, such effort, time and resources could instead be deployed to go after things that are truly worthwhile, like one’s study of philosophy and search for apatheia.

Seneca is often the target of sneer in this context, because he was preaching a modest life while he himself was a powerful Roman aristocrat. But Irvine correctly points out that nothing in Stoicism declares wealth (or health, or education) something to be avoided (they are all “preferred indifferents”). Stoicism, after all, is not Cynicism. Indeed, all four of the major Roman Stoics were wealthy: besides Seneca, Marcus Aurelius was, of course, emperor; and both Musonius and Epictetus were well known teachers with their own schools, well known and unlikely to experience poverty.

But there is no contradiction here so long as one understands two points: first, wealth can be used to better mankind, for instance by devoting one’s life to teaching people, or to attempt to influence events (politically, in the case of Seneca; militarily as well as politically in the case of Marcus). Second, a Stoic never confuses wealth (or any other external) for a mark of true worth: wealthy people aren’t better than poor ones in any sense, just like healthy ones aren’t when compared to sick ones, or educated ones compared to ignorant ones. Wealth, therefore, has its uses, as long as one keeps the proper perspective.

As Irvine puts it: “Stoicism does not require one to renounce wealth; it allows one to enjoy it and use it to the benefit of oneself and those around. It does, however, require one’s enjoyment to be thoughtful.” He draws an analogy with Buddhism, according to which it is possible to be a wealthy Buddhist, just as you don’t cling to your wealth.


3 thoughts on “Stoic personal values: on luxurious living

  1. Douglass Smith

    Yes, excellent Massimo. There is a good sense in which fancy tastes can become one’s own prison.

    I think the pursuit of wealth is at times driven by the delusion that sense pleasure is ultimately fulfilling, and that if one only had that marginal amount more wealth one could gain the ultimate experience that would make life truly and completely fulfilling. Artists, designers, and other aesthetes have marketed to this delusion. It is one reason why in Buddhism pleasant sensory experiences are considered a snare, and much training, particularly monastic training, is spent dealing with them.

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  2. Callum Hackett

    I have found it challenging to draw boundaries around things to be enjoyed. One of the characteristics that connects fame and luxury is that they are external, unpredictable and happen to good and bad people. But they are extreme forms of other external things that most people have access to, like social reputation and inexpensive material goods.

    It’s interesting that stoicism does not require one to renounce wealth, or to refuse to enjoy it, so long as you do not depend on it. My prejudices before exploring stoicism would have been to follow the essentially Christian doctrine (Matthew 19:21) of discarding ALL material possessions (in a sensible way) because there is something intrinsically wrong with pleasure that is contingent on outside sources.

    However, stoicism seems more reasonable and nuanced than that. I understand it to mean (though you may disagree) that because the outside sources are subject to fate, we should not pursue them or care if we have them, but *after the fact* of fate bestowing us with whatever lot we have, it is not our duty to refuse fate and live deliberately in low-income virtue. One might make separate arguments referring to the common good that we should give away extreme levels of wealth, but in terms of fate and pleasure, I think the insight of stoicism is that if it is unwise to pursue things external to ourselves, then it must be equally unwise to deliberately pursue a poor life as it is a rich one.

    Perhaps our modern focus on wealth comes from how differently politically charged socioeconomics is in this century. Certainly, one of the remaining difficulties for a rich stoic who feels no guilt is to avoid becoming complacent about the structural inequalities that benefit them. It’s one thing to acknowledge that their lot is “fate”, but it is the next step to acknowledge that “fate” in some cases means class privilege.


  3. Massimo Post author


    “I understand it to mean (though you may disagree) that because the outside sources are subject to fate, we should not pursue them or care if we have them, but *after the fact* of fate bestowing us with whatever lot we have, it is not our duty to refuse fate and live deliberately in low-income virtue”

    Right, in that Stoicism is different both from (some versions of) Christianity, and from the closely allied Cynicism. Your summary is correct, but I would add two additional points: a) remember that the only important thing in life is virtue (i.e., striving to be a good person); and b) if you are wealthy, you should use that condition in order to further humanity’s welfare (Stoicism is very much a socially oriented philosophy).


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