Stoic advice column: I’m rich, is that a problem?

Rich people[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, here is my “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

M. wrote: “By following the traditional western philosophy of life that more is better in everything for the first 50 years of my life, I have reached relatively high achievement (> 1%), yet have recently found that lifestyle lacking and am coming around to the Stoic view (which is apparent through any serious contemplation). Now when switching views (as most would be doing when arriving at Stoicism), what to do with all the spoils of war from following a different path? How to reset the relationship with title, material goods, fame and fortune, big houses, fast cars, etc.?”

This question deals with two important aspects of Stoicism: the concept of preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, and the relationship between Stoicism and Cynicism.

As I’ve argued before, Stoicism positioned itself in the logical space between Aristotelianism and Cynicism. All three schools taught that virtue is fundamental to the eudaimonic life, but for the Aristotelians one also has to have a certain amount of material possessions, good education, social status, and even good looks. Without those, one may be able to live a virtuous life, but not to achieve eudaimonia, a flourishing life.

The Cynics, by contrast, went to the other extreme, so to speak, maintaining that not only all the things listed by the Aristotelians weren’t necessary for eudaimonia, but in fact they positively got in the way of it. Hence their extremely minimalist life style and the many colorful stories told about them.

One of my favorite such stories relates the episode of Diogenes of Sinope approaching a fountain and getting out his drinking cup from his knapsack. Only to witness a young boy rushing by, getting to the fountain, and using his hands in lieu of a cup. Diogenes threw his own cup away in disgust, muttering “even a boy is wiser than I am!”

The Stoics struck a balance between these two positions: they classed everything that lies outside of virtue as either preferred or dispreferred indifferent. To the first group belong things like wealth, health, education, and high social standing; to the second things like poverty, sickness, ignorance, and low social standing. These things were preferred insofar it is normal for a human being to pursue them because it makes her life more comfortable, and dispreferred insofar it makes her life less comfortable. But they are “indifferent” in the sense that they are irrelevant to our ability to exercise the virtues, thus differentiating the Stoics both from the Aristotelians — for whom these things were necessary — and from the Cynics — for whom they got in the way.

(A stricter interpretation of Stoic doctrine says that indifferents are preferred only insofar they aid virtue and dispreferred only to the extent that they hamper it. For instance, being wealthy makes it possible for you to help others, while being poor doesn’t allow you to do that. However, even the ancient Stoics disagreed on whether the indifferents ought to be considered only in terms of their effects on virtue, or they could be pursued for their own sake, so long as they don’t interfere with virtue.)

The spectrum of positions just outlined is also found within Stoicism itself. Epictetus, for instance, is notoriously very sympathetic to Cynicism. The long chapter III.22 in the Discourses, entitled “On the Cynic calling,” is an articulate defense of the superiority of the Cynic approach even to the Stoic one.

For instance, after a student asked Epictetus what does it entail to live like a Cynic, and whether he (the student) should give it a try, Epictetus warns him that he probably has a lot of misunderstandings about Cynicism, and that it would be a far more difficult enterprise than the student seems to think:

“So you should consider this matter with proper care: it isn’t what you think it is. ‘I wear a rough cloak even now, and I’ll be wearing one then. I sleep on a hard bed now, and I’ll sleep on one then. I’ll take up a knapsack and staff, furthermore, and set off on my rounds, begging from those whom I meet, and abusing them. And if I see anyone pulling out his body hair, I’ll give him a scolding, and likewise if his hair is dressed too fussily, or he struts around in purple robes.’ If you picture the Cynic calling as being something like that, keep well away from it, don’t come near, because it is not for you. But if you can form a proper idea of it in your mind and don’t judge yourself unworthy, consider what a great enterprise it is that you’re embarking on.” (Discourses, III.22.9-12)

Seneca, however, has a very different take, and he seems to be disdainful of the Cynics’ penchant for showing off their in-your-face life style: “I prefer, as far as my feelings go, to show myself in public dressed in woollen and in robes of office, rather than with naked or half-covered shoulders.” (On the Happy Life, XXV)

However, even Seneca — mind you, one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome — warned about the fact that being wealthy and influential poses a danger to one’s virtue, because it endlessly multiplies the occasions to stray from the path, constantly subjecting us to temptations that poor and non influential people simply don’t experience. Indeed, even simply associating with wealthy people is dangerous:

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere.” (Letters to Lucilius, VII. On Crowds, 7)

And being wealthy certainly doesn’t make us better than other people:

“When you are choosing between two good men, the richer is not necessarily the better, any more than, in the case of two pilots of equal skill in managing the tiller, you would call him the better whose ship is larger and more imposing.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXIII. On Philosophers and Kings, 12)

So, to finally come back to your question. If you feel more attracted by the Cynic end of the Stoic spectrum, or if you wish to minimize the temptation to strain from the virtuous path, then get rid of as much of your property and wealth as you can and go minimalist (a reduced social status will automatically follow, I believe, at no additional effort…).

If, however, you agree that wealthy and influential people are in a position to do more good than others, then I suggest you put your assets to a good use, by establishing a charity, for instance, or in whatever other virtuous fashion you feel comfortable with and interested in.


6 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: I’m rich, is that a problem?

  1. “He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. It is the sign of an unstable mind not to be able to endure riches.”
    Seneca Letters to Lucilius – Letter 5
    Also I recall (but can’t give the citation) that Seneca said words to the effect that it was not detrimental to be wealthy so long as you could give up your wealth, if fate decreed it, without a care.
    That’s quite a big caveat for most people.

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  2. Does it matter, Massimo, how those riches of the first 50 years were obtained? In our society, at least, great wealth is often obtained through moral compromises if not through outright immorality. Radix malorum est cupiditas. “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Would a stoic just say that yesterday doesn’t matter; do better today? Or is some kind of confrontation with or compensation for a long time devoted to wealth necessary? Could a wealthy industrialist, for example, become a stoic while his corporations continued to exploit people and destroy the environment? Would it be sufficient for the industrialist to sell the business and live a stoic life with the money from the sale?

    Of course, I am not saying that M., who might have become wealthy by creating a cure for a dreadful disease or by creating literature or music, is such a person as I describe above.


  3. If it’s a problem, I hereby volunteer to be afflicted with it. I’ll report on my difficulties. Consider it an experiment. Let me know when the sufficient funds (I mean “impediments to virtue”) have been raised. 😉

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  4. There is happy precedent for those who used their skills to accumulate great wealth, to use similar levels of skill and creativity in dispersing much of it for the general good. This is surely a virtuous activity, which may perhaps be pursued more readily if one retains a reasonable measure of comfort and social standing.


  5. Jmyers,

    Good questions, but the Stoic response seems clear to me. Yes, of course the circumstances under which one becomes wealthy matter. Virtue can never be traded off with preferred indifferents, so exploitation is out of the question as a way to make money. No, the Stoic doesn’t consider what’s in the past done with and over. One cannot change the past, so regret is futile, but learning from it and providing reparation are both possible and necessary.


  6. One could apply this same question not just to wealth, but to any preferred indifferent like health, status, etc.

    I think there are two stoic responses to this question.

    First, there is no inherent problem with obtaining preferred indifferents as long as you don’t sacrifice virtue to obtain them. Second, having preferred indifferents like wealth is not important. What is important is how you use them.

    M should reflect on how he obtained his wealth and evaluate if he needs to make amends for virtue he lost while getting rich. M should then reflect on how he can best use his wealth to pursue virtue.

    Lastly, just in case M’s question is an attempt to humble brag about being rich, I’ll leave these words from the ultimate stoic Captain American to remind him that stoics could not care less about being rich.

    Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
    Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
    Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.

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