“The real measure of our wealth is how much we’d be worth if we lost all our money.” – John Henry Jowett
We’ve all heard stories of people encountering the world’s greatest riches, ending in either tragedy or triumph. Those of Annie, the struggling orphan whose charm ushered her into a life of privilege and wealth. Those of Cinderella, the mistreated servant whose resilience and character led her to wealth. Even those of King Midas, whose greed and desire for wealth left him tragically alone and impoverished.
But why do we read these stories? Why are we so devoted to these characters, even when we know they’re helpless? What do we want?
The truth is, we all want to be rich and make money– and as soon as possible. We read these tales to try and mimic, or avoid, the behaviors of those we read about. We try to learn from them, to try and encounter money like they do, and most importantly, to try and be wealthy like them.
We’ve been brought up to believe wealth can give us certain types of freedom, something that no other possession can bring. Freedom from depending on others. Freedom to explore and use your time the way you want to. Freedom to do what you want.
Yet, there’s more to wealth than this idea of “financial freedom”.
Being wealthy means more than just having a lot of money. Wealth is having the wisdom to make smart, informed decisions about your desires. Wealth is well-being and staying content with your situation. Wealth is gratitude, safety, comfort – and so much more.
In order to truly gain wealth, we must understand everything that comes with it, and be in tune with what it is that we truly want. Asking questions such as ‘How can I make money fast?’ or ‘How can I get rich?’ won’t suffice. We must dig deeper. We must look past the money, and reflect on ourselves. Is it the money that we want, or the peace of mind that comes with it? Is it the fame that we want, or the self-sufficiency that results?
The Stoics learned how to answer these questions, but we must learn for ourselves. This post aims to answer some of those questions, and teach you how to apply the ancient Stoic concepts of wealth to your life, no matter how much money or debt you have.
HOW DID THE STOICS VIEW WEALTH?
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Heraclitus
The Stoics, as with other groups of ancient philosophers, were wealthy people, in every sense of the word. Seneca grew enormous amounts of wealth in his service to Nero. Marcus Aurelius came from one of Rome’s wealthiest families, and then took the role of emperor. They had their fair share of money, and people around them were aware of the enormous amounts that they had.
Despite all this, the Stoics aimed to not be wasteful people. Epictetus emphasized separation from his material belongings. Yet, Seneca often indulged himself, famously owning three hundred ivory tables for entertaining.
Rather, the Stoics were neutral towards their wealth. They were often indifferent to the concepts of money and wealth, and tried not to revolve their lives around them. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius actually speaks on the temptations of wealth, and how our compatibility with money and status changes over time:
“Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it—for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.”
We often think of wealth as having anything that we can imagine. A luxury sports car. A $10 million mansion. Maybe even the ability to go to space! To the Stoics, however, this desire was crippling and enslaving. The person who wanted more was the person who would lose their harmony. Their excessive wants and ambition would become an insurmountable obstacle, deeming them a slave to their desires.
The Stoics were not only literally wealthy, but figuratively wealthy as well. They understood the value of things. They understood when to want things. They understood how to want things.
This was what made them wealthy. Not the physical money they owned, but the perspective they possessed. The mindset they had. The temperance they practiced. The way they handled themselves. That’s what true wealth is – something we all can learn from.
To learn more on this topic, check out Ryan’s interview with Morgan Housel on the Daily Stoic podcast.
THREE STOIC PRACTICES THAT CAN LEAD TO A WEALTHIER LIFESTYLE
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are.” – Seneca
Most people in our modernized, consumer-driven society view wealth as the ability to buy anything they want, whenever they want it. The ability to spend endless amounts of money, with no consequences.
Yet, the Stoics did not view this as wealth. Despite the fact that many of them were rich themselves, they felt that more money brought on more problems. “You have to reflect,” Seneca writes, “not only when it is a question of gain, but also when it is a question of wealth.”
The Stoics often emphasized separation from material belongings and goods, arguing that excessive attachment and desire could lead to a loss of control over your urges, as well as a failure to achieve self-sufficiency. One should learn how to live separate from their belongings, and should view them for what they are. In a famous passage from Meditations, Marcus Aurelius spoke on the value of perspective when it comes to our treasures:
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.”
A dead fish. A dead bird. Robes. Bundles of wires. Pieces of green paper. This was the perspective that the Stoics took towards their materials. They took them for what they actually were, disregarding the monetary value society had placed on them.
In holding this view, the Stoics began to focus on what possessions were essential to their livelihood, in comparison to what they desired. They owned everything they deemed to be essential, detaching themselves from their assets. They became sufficient in their own sense, owning just enough, yet not skimping themselves. They were simple. They were frugal.
Epictetus kept an expensive iron lamp in the front hallway of his home. He was up in his bedroom when he heard some noise downstairs. When he went down the lamp was gone. His most valuable possession, taken from him in an instant.
So what did he do? Did he replace the lamp with a similar one? Did he lament the thief and the loss of his most prized possession? The very next day, he purchased a lamp made of clay. “A man only loses what he has.”
In being frugal with our spending, we are able to build generational wealth faster than if we spent lavishly. We’re able to allocate our money more effectively, build our security, and gain financial freedom. We’re able to gain a different perspective on material belongings, on what our wealth can buy us. We’re able to focus on our essentials rather than our desires, buying what we need instead of what we want. Doing this and straying away from our desires allows our wealth to grow simply – our wasteful spending will have vanished.
When we’re frugal, we’re simple – and our wealth grows effortlessly.
Know What Enough Is
“If you don’t regard what you have as enough, you will never be happy even if you rule the entire world.” – Seneca
The basic Stoic concept of wealth management was defined by the idea of enough, or being satisfied with what they owned. What is enough for me? Is it the same for everybody else? How do I know if I have enough?
The Stoics saw ambition as a form of slavery. If we keep striving for more – if we can have this, and if we can do that – we will never be satisfied. We will become slaves to our own ambition, and we will never have enough. The finish line will continue to move – there will be no end to our desires.
Knowing what enough is means that you’re ok with the situation you’re in–no matter how difficult it is. You’re grateful for what you’ve been given, regardless of how it compares to others. It could mean thousands of dollars for one person, or a hot meal for another. Regardless, it means that you don’t want more. That you don’t need more.
This does not mean skimping on your spending just for the sake of saying “you have enough.” It’s not showing others around you how little you own. It’s not driving an old worn down car just to show you don’t want a new one (although you might). It’s being grateful for what you’re given, and being content with what you have. We must understand that accepting what we have as enough is a form of wealth in and of itself. If we treat everything we have as sufficient, then everything else we gain is extra. Every extra dollar we gain is a bonus. Thus, wealth seems to come as a side effect.
In an episode of the Daily Stoic podcast infamous poker host Molly Bloom references a story where she was in the room with billionaires, famous athletes, and Hollywood icons all at once – and she didn’t envy their material wealth. “I would not have traded places with any of them,” Bloom said on the podcast. “They were on the hedonic treadmill, and they couldn’t get off. There was never enough.”
Don’t put yourself on that metaphoric treadmill. Understand your values and what it is you truly want. Set your limitations and find what enough means for you.
Only then can you become truly wealthy.
Click here to listen to Molly’s other interview with Ryan Holiday on the Daily Stoic podcast where they discuss the power of understanding and utilizing self-interest in order to connect with other people, how to improve at something every day by committing to the beginner’s mindset, what raising children can teach you about finding peace in your own mind, and more.
Don’t Obsess Over Wealth
“For the wise man regards wealth as a slave, the fool as a master” – Seneca
As we said in the King Midas story earlier, those who come across absurd amounts of money are not guaranteed happiness or true wealth. King Midas came across an opportunity of a lifetime – as much gold as he wanted, literally at his fingertips! Yet, his craving for riches encapsulated his life, and he had to sacrifice his life as he knew it for his status.
The story of King Midas is thousands of years old, but the lesson remains just as important today: don’t obsess over your wealth.
Nothing good can possibly come out of pursuing wealth endlessly. Sure, you may end up making absurd amounts of money. But what did it take to get there? What image of yourself did you leave behind? What did you sacrifice? What did your family sacrifice?
In pursuing this idea of wealth and riches, it is common for us to sacrifice our values, our character, and our time in order to achieve whatever our definition of wealth is.
Life is short. We could leave this life at any moment – so what good is our money if we obsessively spend all of our time trying to get it? What good is our life if we waste all of it trying to get money? This quote from Marcus Aurelius says it all:
“You’ve wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self- indulgence. Nowhere.”
This is not, however, saying don’t go out and try to make money. The Stoics would argue that it’s acceptable for a virtuous man to strive for wealth, to an extent. If you have the ability to become wealthy through your job, and your work is virtuous, why wouldn’t you? And even if you are wealthy already and have the ability to make your wealth grow, why wouldn’t you?
Yet, they argued that one must have the correct definition of money. One must understand what it is they truly want–and if they already have it or not.
This is saying to not engulf yourself in the prospect of money, to not make money your first priority. In obsessing over this, we will become a slave to our wealth and to our ambition, losing any sort of independence that we thought we had. Cato refused to take bribes of enormous amounts of money because he thought doing so would sacrifice his autonomy. Cicero did the same.
Don’t obsess over money. Keep yourself a priority. Keep your values a priority. Keep what’s truly important to you a priority – and if you do, wealth will come naturally.
If you want to hear Ryan talk more about this topic, check out this short, Is Money Controlling You?
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEST STOIC QUOTES ON WEALTH?
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.” – Seneca, from Letters From A Stoic
“Any man, who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world. ” – Seneca, from Letters From A Stoic
“At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better for those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.” -Seneca, from Epistles
“Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it—for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.” -Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” – Epictetus
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT STOICISM AND WEALTH?
If you enjoyed these principles and want to incorporate them more into your life, check out….
The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel
I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi
We Study Billionaires – The Investor’s Podcast Network
Do you wish your daily practices and mindset towards money and wealth were better? If you’ve always wanted to make a change, now is your time! We created The Wealthy Stoic: A Daily Stoic Guide To Being Rich, Free, and Happy, a 9-week course designed to equip you with the tools, mindsets, and habits of the wealthiest Stoics in history. This new course builds upon the best Stoic insights into wealth and money and puts them into a set of achievable, relatable, timeless practices. To enroll, head over to the Daily Stoic Store.