Seneca part 17: A Poor and Simple Life

This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday.

Who makes a better Stoic: a rich man or a poor one? Do riches allow you the leisure and time to study philosophy or does the poor life free you from the burden of maintaining your wealth? I believe both the rich and the poor can become great Stoics. Seneca, in his seventeenth letter, makes an argument for the benefits of a poor and simple life – or at least a life in which you behave like a poor man.

First of all, the maintainance of wealth and the worry about money may distract you, and cause you to postpone your study of philosophy. Seneca says:

Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired? Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. When the trumpet sounds, the poor man knows that he is not being attacked; when there is a cry of “Fire,” he only seeks a way of escape, and does not ask what he can save

When you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to worry about. Personally, I don’t consider this to be a very strong argument. The same could be said about everything, which would dismiss all ambition. You could even say: ‘why chase the good life if you can lose it?’

But Seneca brings up an interesting point later in his letter. Instead of actually being poor, you can behave like a poor person.

If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty.

In the current time, there seems to be a trend of simple, minimalistic living (for which I have some sympathy as well). Instead of acutally letting go of your wealth, whether in material possession or relationships, you can try to just let in go in your mind. The idea is simple: don’t get too attached to externals. I am aware, by the way, that this can be difficult in reality. Yet you really don’t need much. As Seneca puts it:

Nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature.

The nice aspect of philosophy is that you can practice it without any riches. It is the most important thing for a good life, and all you need is your capacity for reason:

One may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey. It is indeed so. After you have come to possess all other things, shall you then wish to possess wisdom also? Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now, whether you have anything or not, – for if you have anything, how do you know that you have not too much already? – but if you have nothing, seek understanding first, before anything else.

So: does it matter if you are rich or poor? It matters, because you have to compensate for it in a different way. A rich man must learn to detach from his possessions. A poor man must master the art of studying philosophy without financial resources. The one may need to let go of a copy of Seneca’s letters, while the other must find wisdom without possessing a book. But all you need for a life in accordance with Nature is reason. You don’t need wealth.

Change the age in which you live, and you have too much. But in every age, what is enough remains the same.

Seneca ends his letter with an analogy I especially like. In a few sentences, it completely clarifies why the end result of practicing Stoicism is no different for a poor man or a rich one. Because the ultimate wealth is in the mind: the only thing that truely matters in the end, is your use of reason and your life in accordance with Nature:

For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whithersoever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty. His malady goes with the man.

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