For all the poverty he practiced and Stoic philosophy he wrote, clearly there was some part of Seneca that was dazzled by money. Even though he was born into a wealthy family, he wanted more and more of it. That’s what drew him into Nero’s service, where he accumulated a net worth of millions and millions of dollars. So too with Cicero, who was born to a less prestigious family, but still strove for fame and fortune. Although Cicero refused to take bribes as a politician, he had no problem marrying rich or accepting large gifts from benefactors.
What’s striking, though, about these two men’s lives is that while they eventually achieved their grand ambitions—accumulating much fame and fortune—they, with time, came to be disillusioned by it all. Both Cicero and Seneca died in exile. Both of them had much of their wealth confiscated. Both of them came to despise the corruption and the evil and the excesses of their time. They had played the game for a long time—wanting to be part of the in-crowd, wanting to be liked, doing what they needed to do to fight for their spot—and only slowly realized that the game had been playing them the whole time. And, in fact, that the people they wanted to be accepted by were actually awful and possibly evil.
In a way, their story mirrors a realization that Hemingway captured in one of his stories about his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald:
The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how someone had said to Scott, “Yes, they have more money.” But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.
So it went for Cicero and Seneca and so it will go for you. You should not need to learn that money is worthless—and does not make you more worthwhile as a person—by experience. You can see that right now from history. You should not tie your fantasies up in fancy things or exotic trips. You should not trade too much of the most precious asset in the world (your time) for an incredibly common and infinite thing (dollars).
There’s nothing special about money. Or being rich. Or being important. Realize that now before it’s too late.
P.S. This was originally sent on May 22, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.