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.
Categories: Modern Stoicism