Finance and Mind

Tenets of a stoic wealth philosophy

A review of Seneca’s stoic philosophy on wealth offers immortal principles on our relationship to money.

Many renowned investors, whether in the derivative markets (such as N. Taleb) or in start-ups (N. Ravikant or T. Ferris) have praised the wisdom of the Roman Seneca. Seneca was an important personality of his time and had reached the highest public offices of the early Roman Empire.

As part of the more psychological and philosophical reviews of Guide Finances, here is a review of his stoic philosophy on fortune. For readers of J. Bogle, you will notice the similarity in the thoughts and philosophy of life of these two sages:

  • Do not crave riches: You may feel fear and anxiety if you are obsessed to become richer, so you must crave nothing (Letter 10, Letter 14). “The man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man” (Letter 108). Be in wants of nothing (Letter 9).
  • Favour the simple life: “Have enough for the soul is never greater than when it has laid aside all extraneous things, and has secured peace for itself by fearing nothing, and riches by craving no riches” (Letter 87). “He needs but little who desires but little” (Letter 108). A man who is rolling in wealth will not be better off than a man who has nothing but having in himself all things; they will be equally good (Letter 66).
  •  Be able to have enough : “He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most”; otherwise you will always try to add a little more riches (Letter 14). Want implies a necessity, and “nothing is necessary to the wise man” (Letter 9). “Because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature (Letter 66)
  • Do not be anxious of poverty. Do not fear poverty, which means unburdened and free from care. There are even some advantages: The poor man have less at stake in case of misfortune. The poor man shall also make the best use of his means, “without being anxious or worried about anything more than the bare necessities” (Letter 17). You could also try to live as a poor according to his advice: “let us become intimate with poverty (…). We shall be rich with even more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden (Letter 18). “Would you rather be poor and sated, or rich and hungry? Prosperity is not only greedy, but it also lies exposed to the greed of others” (Letter 19).
  • Avoid the arrogance of wealth: Seneca despises the “perverted forms of self-display”  (Letter 5). Riches produce shamelessness and give us arrogance. “And arrogance is nothing else than a false show of greatness” (Letter 87).   “The riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers” (Letter 110).
  • Enjoy your wealth at the right time: If the thoughts of increasing your wealth absorbs you, you will forget how to use it (Letter 14). “Why of your own accord postpone your real life to the distant future?” (Letter 17).
  • Do not become the slave of your wealth: Otherwise, you will cease to be “master” and become a “steward” (Letter 14). “Wealth is the diploma of slavery”. “You shall abandon gold and silver, and whatever else is a burden upon our richly-furnished homes; liberty cannot be gained for nothing” (Letter 104). For Seneca, wealth is the source from which office-seeking, bribery and disorder have burst into Rome, a city once characterized by scrupulousness and sobriety (Letter 87)
  • Wealth shall not prevent wisdom: “Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom”. “You can be rich here and now. Wisdom offers wealth in ready money, and pays it over to those in whose eyes she has made wealth superfluous” (Letter 17). Mankind may believe true riches to exist in the mind and not in one’s bank account (Letter 108). Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little, and cry out with courage and with greatness of soul: (Letter 110).

If you wish to go deeper into Seneca’s thought in other areas, an edited version marking the most important passages is available on Amazon under the moral letters to Lucilius.