Seneca, Stoics, Money and You

“My heart attack didn’t kill me, so why act like it did?  See, Tim, it was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “if we let things terrify us, then life is not worth living.” –  Home Improvement

seneca

Seneca could definitely use a makeover, but would probably be the last person who cares about a makeover, since he’s willing to be dead and made of marble.

Source- I, Calidius CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

What is stoicism, and why does it matter for your money?

From Wikipedia’s definition of Stoicism . . . “the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”

What on Earth does that have to do with money?

Everything.

Let me explain . . . with a story I’ve used before:

When I was young, we had a subscription to Reader’s Digest (which, really, might have been influenced by the CIA for a time – google it).  For those that haven’t heard about it, it’s where they take articles (and even books!) and edit out the boring bits and republish them.  It’s like someone printed a tiny bit of the Internet.

Pop Wilder always said, “I can read my own articles and decide what’s important.”

And yet?  I always found an issue of Reader’s Digest in the bathroom that only he and I used, and I know that I wasn’t carting them in there.

But in Reader’s Digest they had features as well as the articles, one of which was “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”  In it were nice, clean stories that were, well, funny.  Some of them were even taken from real life.  My favorite was about a five year old girl and her eight year old brother.

They were playing in the backyard (which kids used to do prior to the Internet).  The boy was holding a tin can on top of the little girl’s head and smacking it with a rock.

Mother:  “Tommy, what ARE you doing????”

Little Girl:  “Mommy, it’s okay.  He’s almost done.”

I keep coming back to that image.  It’s like life.

Sometimes the problems we go through are pointless.  Sometimes they are downright silly.  Life keeps smacking a rock into the top of your head.  And when it stops, you feel so good.

Another example:

A friend of mine went through Army Ranger School (a long time ago).  There were two out of their class that passed.  Two.  The other guy was a chaplain.  The last ordeal had been an extended duration hike with little food.  They had survived.  They had made it back to base.  But . . . it was five hours until they would be released from training, and couldn’t go to mess hall (cafeteria) to eat.

They climbed into a dumpster.  They found Doritos® covered with ants.  They brushed the ants off and ate the Doritos™.

His thoughts?  “Best Doritos© I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

And this relates back to money, too.

Seneca was a Roman.  I use the word “was” because he’s dead.  Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself (spoiler, Seneca totally did kill himself) back in moldy old 65 A.D. (Not “Common Era” but good old Anno Domini).

Seneca was rich.  How rich?  Rich enough that he could have purchased six hundred million loaves of bread.  And that didn’t count his real estate, which included at least six Sonic® drive-ins and three strip malls in Omaha.

I’m not even sure where I would put six hundred million loaves of bread.  Certainly my pantry would fill up after 2 million or so.  But outside of bread (food), the man had a lot of bread (money).  And thought a LOT about it.

Seneca:  “He is a great man who uses clay dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were clay.”

In the end, a dish is a dish, and as long as it comes out of the dishwasher without last night’s Kraft® Garfield® Macaroni and Cheese, well, deal with it.

And a car is a car.  I went to a stand-up comedian one night with a friend, his wife, and a blind date. (Yes, this is you, Chris – the friend, not the blind date).  The comedian was making a joke about cars.  The reason, he thought, that we had so many traffic fatalities was that we didn’t make cars out of Nerf® stuff.

He looked, from the stage, down at me.

“You sir, you look like you drive a big-ass truck.”

Me:  “No, it’s a Toyota® Tercel™.”

Him, loudly into a microphone with everyone in the room listening:  “Well, you must be the world’s BIGGEST pussy.”

Needless to say, the blind date ended right there since I didn’t go and beat him up.  And, yes, I probably should have answered “yes” when he asked if I drove a truck.  But . . . like Seneca, a car to me is  . . . just a car.  The first virtue of a thing is in its utility.  Does it do the job?  Sometimes duct tape is the proper solution.

From the standpoint of a Stoic, even a wickedly rich one like Seneca, taking pride in personal possessions was to be looked down upon.  And, yes, his wife had earrings that cost more than a house.  And he had solid silver nose hair trimmers.  And we know this because he wrote about them.  But, did he care?  I don’t think so.  He bought the stuff because he could, not because the stuff had power over him.  I’m certain that he understood that he didn’t own the “stuff” but just had it until he died, so it had no power over him.

But we let stuff have power over us.  Does the neighbor have a nicer car?  Do they have a better stereo?  It’s normal, natural to envy that.  It’s totes Stoic if you go, “good for you!” and not want to go and buy an even better car because you’re good with the one you have.

When I was in Houston I would be stopped at a traffic light, surrounded by cars much nicer than my 2006 Ford® Taurusdadcar™.  And I would wonder how many of them owned their car.  And I wonder how much heartache was caused by that REALLY BADASS Mercedes® next to me when monthly payment time came around.  And, truthfully?  If it was being driven during work hours by a girl, I wondered how long she’d be with her husband after the money ran out.

So, for me?  Being Stoic about the stuff I own is a sanity preserver.  If I had to worry that The Mrs. would leave me if I didn’t have an awesome car, or, honestly, cared at all about what my neighbors thought, life would have a stress it doesn’t need at all.

But Seneca went further.  He said, get rich all you want, but don’t do it in a way that’s “stained by blood.”  My interpretation?  You got you money honestly, without forcing it out of other people.

How does this play out?  Well, let’s look at . . . Obama phones.  Regardless of how you feel about them, the money that comes to purchase them, and to provide monthly service is forcefully taken from others.  Don’t think that it’s forceful?  Try not paying your taxes and then you’ll learn that the IRS is not your benevolent aunt who bakes cookies.  Unless your aunt works for the IRS.  In which case, please tell me the rule on deductibility of capital losses from a prior year against current year capital gains.  Just kidding, I use TurboTax®, which is probably nicer to me than your aunt.

I digress.  But I think Seneca would think it was wrong to take money from one person (me) without their consent to give to another (Obama phone users) and taking a cut in the middle.  It’s wrong.  Unfortunately, it’s our government’s current business model (LINK) and Elon Musk’s (LINK).

Last?  Seneca thought you should be generous.  Bill Gates is certainly living up to that, shooting money out like a lawn sprinkler at causes he likes.  And I tip well at the restaurant.

But the biggest danger of generosity?  It has to be moral.  Give a man money and he will take it.  But he will resent you, because you didn’t give him more.

Let a man (or, I guess we let women earn money nowadays, and even own property and vote) earn money?  That will provide both support for him (or her or it, whatever the cool kids say nowadays) and self-worth.  So, generosity is good.  Charity is corrosive.

The really cool thing about being a stoic is realizing the beauty you can find in the weird, small bits of life that you often ignore.  The smoothness of a straw.  The stark sharpness of the edges of the clouds on a crisp winter night.  The wear marks on a keyboard you’ve typed a million words on.  The ability to take satisfaction out of nearly every experience you have is there.

If you let it.  And if Tommy will stop pounding the tin can on the top of your head with a rock for a moment.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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