It’s Okay To Want, But Not To Need

This was a big argument amongst the early Stoics: What was necessary for the good life? What was actually important to the wise man? They came up with a pretty straightforward but almost impossible to obtain answer: All the wise man should care about is virtue. Everything else—money, fame, family, power, sex—was meaningless. Indifferents. 

But as the Stoics went off and lived their lives, this explanation had trouble holding up. Really? Nothing matters except virtue? We have to cut every little pleasure and stroke of good luck out of our lives? There’s no material item or position in the world that is useful or helpful to those pursuing or living with wisdom? That doesn’t sound right. 

It was Chrysippus who came up with a better formulation. Basically, he said that a better way to think about it was need vs want. If a person needs to be famous or needs to be rich, they are vulnerable and often unhappy. That’s obviously not wisdom. But does a wise person have to actively avoid making money? Must they live in obscurity? That seems silly. The wise man, he said, is in want of nothing, but can have and enjoy plenty. Meanwhile, the fool can make sure of nothing but desperately wants everything

Isn’t that perfectly said? And isn’t that the perfect admonishment for us today? Make use of everything we have while we have it and gratefully accept what comes our way…but be perfectly content to live without it if it were to disappear.

P.S. This was originally sent on September 11, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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