Avoid These Debts

One of the more interesting (and modern) themes running through the works of the Stoics has to do with debt. Seneca particularly is always talking about wealthy Romans who have spent themselves into debt and the misery and dependence this creates for them. In fact, he has a whole series of essays titled On Benefits, that largely deal with the discharging one’s debts. And Seneca’s life itself was defined by debts. Not only did the large loans he gave to businessmen in the colony of Britain eventually set off the Boudica Rebellion, he incurred a fatal debt himself, receiving so much favor and so many gifts from the Emperor Nero that when he attempted to leave politics, Nero wouldn’t let him. Seneca tried to give the money back but he couldn’t—Nero had his hooks in him and wouldn’t let him go (only suicide eventually freed Seneca from Nero and from life).

Marcus for his part quotes Socrates talking about how he avoids accepting a favor because he couldn’t pay it back. (“Socrates declining Perdiccas’s invitation ‘so as to avoid dying a thousand deaths’ (by accepting a favor he couldn’t pay back)”

Point being: Debt, financial or otherwise, can be a kind of slavery. Your fate—in addition to your income—is essentially owned by someone else. You buy that big house you can’t afford, you get that expensive car on payments, you rack up charges on your credit card, and now not only are you vulnerable to swings of Fortune, but you’ve let someone put their hooks into you. The same goes for running around unthinkingly accepting favors from people or from living high and large on the goodwill of those around you. It seems fun and easy, but eventually the bill comes due.

Avoid those debts you can’t pay. Avoid dying a thousand deaths.

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