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017 - On Wealth - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Once one’s feet are stuck on the path to wealth, the scantest few manage to pry themselves from it.
Lake with clouds reflected and indirect light - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

The ties that bind us to bad habits are no less restrictive for being attractive at first glance. The one whose arms are bound by golden chains is no more free than the one in iron shackles. I am talking about the seductive charms of money, and they have led more from the path of wisdom than any siren song did sailors to their deaths. “Surely,” you say “I am entitled to take care of myself, and to ensure that I have enough to live on.” If ever a paving stone belonged on the path to hell, it would be this intention.

I grant you that it is suitable and even beneficial that you provide for yourself, and do not need to rely upon the charity of strangers. When you are paid for your toil, you learn the value of work, and equally the value of leisure. Both work and leisure are gifts, and both deserve our deepest contemplation. But once one’s feet are stuck on the path to wealth, the scantest few manage to pry themselves from it. For if a little money is good, more money must be better. But you already know from my last letter, Deuteros, that a desire that can never be satisfied is not a true desire. Plug your ears, then, to the siren song of wealth, but leave open your mind to the alms of philosophy. A true understanding of what it means to live a good life will help you avoid this false temptation.

I was pleased to discover that we have more modern day Stoics among us than many realize, and it seems that some lessons have made their way safely down the ages. Though they do not call themselves Stoics, the FIRE movement contains kindred spirits. I refer to “Financial Independence Retire Early,” of which we have several different schools of thought. They differ in the sense of how much money the practitioner saves, how much they spend, and what they do with their time. For our purposes, the operative word for all students is this: Independence. Each works towards passing the test of being in control of their time, and of not relying on others for their contentment or fortune. However financial independence is defined by each, the FIRE adherent knows that attachment to things impedes progress. You need few possessions to acquire that most valuable thing: self-possession. Do not spend your time earning money, but spend your money to earn yourself time.

Also, who is to say that you would not learn more from dealing with adversity, i.e. by being poor, than you would by never having to deal with want? To give your mind leisure, do not accumulate things, whether because you cannot afford them or you have trained yourself not to acquire them. The less you have, the less you worry about. No one will try to take your possessions if you do not have any. Nor will you spend any time worrying about maintaining them. When your possessions number more than you can hold in your hand, you must worry about how you will carry them about or keep them safe. Here is our old friend Thoreau saying it as he does best:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Now, my dear Deuteros, let me caution you as you make your own calculation of how much your independence is worth. Whatever number you have set for yourself as being enough to allow you to start to live purposefully, it is very likely too high. People today live lives of luxury unimaginable to those of just a few generations back, never mind those stretching back thousands of years.

Lest you think I exaggerate to make my point, let me describe for you a result the Swiss bank UBS found when they surveyed the most successful savers. Across every wealth group, from the mere millionaires to the mega rich, UBS discovered what we already know: that standard of living expectations increase in line with wealth. Those with $1 million felt they would be satisfied with $5 million; those with $5 million thought they could make do with $10 million. And those few to have amassed $10 million felt that their way of life would be secure with $25 million. Like the rabbit leading on the greyhounds, the benchmark moves without the chaser noticing. For it is never the amount as such that makes you feel secure, but the feeling of accumulating more.

Just as a dinner guest shows their appreciation in advance by bringing their host a small gift, I have an offering for you:

To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.

This wisdom comes to us from the pen of Austrian author, Countess Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. She was born of a Baron, lived in a castle, and surrounded by libraries of books. The Countess knew of riches both material and immaterial. It is to our benefit that she placed greater weight on the latter.

Be well.

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