Monday, September 7, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 17 - On Philosophy and Riches

On Philosophy and Riches

How urgent is your quest for wisdom?

This question haunts me.  Am I a product of my time and only leisurely pursue wisdom while I type away all day long at my computer, working for a corporation?  Am I biding my time, checking in on my 401K account every so often, waiting to retire and only then fully focus on my pursuit of wisdom?

Then I read Seneca.

Cast away everything of that sort, if you are wise; nay, rather that you may be wise; strive toward a sound mind at top speed and with your whole strength. If any bond holds you back, untie it, or sever it.

I might reply, "But I need to work now; I have a wife and children to support.  I don't want to be a burden on my children or society, when I am old."

Seneca retorts;

You do not seem, when you say this, to know the strength and power of that good which you are considering. You do indeed grasp the all-important thing, the great benefit which philosophy confers, but you do not yet discern accurately its various functions, nor do you yet know how great is the help we receive from philosophy in everything, everywhere, – how, it not only succours us in the greatest matters but also descends to the smallest.

He divines one of my fears and poses another question.

Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired?

The poorest I've been was when I was living single in Guatemala.  Everything I owned was stored and transported in a couple of suitcases.  I ate tortillas, beans and rice most days and when I wasn't talking and teaching people, I spent much of my time walking the landscape of the Guatemalan lowlands and highlands in Baja and Alta Verapaz.  I may not have been wise at the time, but I was happy.

Now, I have a wife, children, a mortgage, a career and taxes to pay.  I'm not so sure I fear poverty for myself, but perhaps what I fear more is poverty for my wife and children.  Is it morally and ethically acceptable to desire poverty at this time in my life?  Can I expect that my wife and children should want to be philosophers and abandon desires for a home, clothes and material possessions?

I try to have conversations with them about this.  Our intent, as parents, is to teach them well enough, so that they want to enjoy their freedom with no strings attached.  We want them to find a way to enjoy life, independently - to support themselves - and to find their calling in life, whatever it may be.  And in my opinion, part of that learning process could include living in poverty, on their own.  I would hope that they too, would learn poverty is nothing to fear and perhaps they may even desire to live a minimalist life.

Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. ...  It is easy to fill a few stomachs, when they are well trained and crave nothing else but to be filled. Hunger costs but little; squeamishness costs much. Poverty is contented with fulfilling pressing needs.

For my part, I try (but still mostly fail), to live below my means.  When I can, I try to push the boundaries of what can be excised from my life.  The year 2017 gave us that opportunity, when we lost much to the flood.  We rapidly pivoted to a lifestyle of bare need.  What we fail to remember, though, is flood or not, it is in our power to live this way all the time.

Even the rich man copies her [wisdom] ways when he is in his senses. If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: "I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy."

Seneca continues,

"I wish to acquire something to live on." Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly. There is no reason why poverty should call us away from philosophy, – no, nor even actual want.

And so, I try to learn and live philosophy, while I work and collect a paycheck.  One of my practices I return to often is the negative visualization of losing my job.  Having spent time with this prospect, I don't fear it.  In fact, I sometimes day dream of it - not unlike a painter who day dreams while staring at a blank canvas, thinking of what he will paint.  I think I would view my time and life without my current job, as an opportunity to learn and grow and paint something new.  But, I must admit, that I'm only in this position because of my prior choices, wherein I studied, graduated from college and worked many years, improving my craft in the corporate world.  For this I am grateful that if I lost my job, forced poverty would not descend on our home so quickly.

How much greater is the promise of the prize of everlasting liberty, and the assurance that we need fear neither God nor man!  Even though we starve, we must reach that goal.

Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first; one may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey. ... Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now.

And if poverty calls us quickly, philosophy teaches us to be happy still.  Seneca proposes various reasons to be happy in poverty.

In the first place, you cannot lack them; because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature.

he will do justice to his belly and his shoulders; with free and happy spirit he will laugh at the bustling of rich men, and the flurried ways of those who are hastening after wealth.

And then there is the concluding thought, that whether in riches or poverty, the education of the mind and the pursuit of wisdom are noble  and top-priority goals.  Poverty and wealth are indifferents - that are out of our control.  Our focus is and will always be on what is in our control - and that is the sole good.

"The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles." I do not wonder. For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whither-soever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty.

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