There’s no dispute about the fact that many, if not most, of the ancient Stoics were rich. Zeno came from a merchant family. Cato’s great-grandfather had been a successful farmer. Seneca was wealthy and of course, so was Marcus Aurelius.
The problem with their fortune was not the size—it was how it was acquired. Both Zeno and Cato’s wealth would have been impossible without the grueling and thankless labor of slaves. Seneca grew rich in Nero’s service. Marcus Aurelius never wanted to be emperor, and as he once told the Senate, he did not regard himself as possessing a single dollar or house—to Marcus, all of his wealth truly belonged to Rome—but still, we know now that no man should be king. That no one should sit in a palace built from the sweat and tears of millions of faceless citizens.
Cleanthes, one of the earliest Stoics, had no great fortune. Instead, he worked nearly all his life with a series of humble jobs. He carried water for people’s gardens. He crushed grain. He was a laborer—by choice. When a wealthy king offered him enough money to cease these labors, he refused, so as not to be corrupted. Every dollar Cleanthes earned—even if it wasn’t many of them—was honestly made. Not one of them was stained with blood or tainted by injustice.
And isn’t this a much more impressive fortune? It’s not the quantity that we should care about. Something earnestly made and sold for a fair price, whether it’s millions of units or a few dozen: that’s honorable. Something earned with real effort: that’s honorable, whether it’s earned by sweeping floors or managing a company.
The philosopher Nassim Taleb had joked that a person possesses true wealth when the money they turn down is sweeter than the money they accept. An honest dollar is the only kind of dollar worth chasing… or collecting. If only more Stoics had lived by this, or had been strong enough too. If only more of us could find the strength to do this today. How much more impressive we would all be.
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P.S. This was originally sent on October 29, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.