“It is not the man who has little, but he who desires more, that is poor.”


So, today we’re going to explore how Stoicism deals with material wealth. Not only because materialism has some really clear direction in Stoic philosophy, but also because it’s relevant for us today. Our western culture pushes materialism on almost all of us, and it will continue to do so because advertisers need to create desire in their audiences to be able to sell us things. So I think this is a  really good subject to cover.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

– Epictetus

I split this down into two parts; firstly we’ll look at whether materialism is good or bad in and of itself then we’ll have a look at how we can approach it and what we can do to prevent us from being drawn too far into a materialistic way of life in which we prioritise money and stuff over things like our values, relationships and wellbeing.

So….is materialism good or bad – the Stoics did vary a bit on this, but in general materialism is neither good nor bad.

Musonius Rufus encourages that luxurious living must be avoided completely, however Seneca argued that money and wealth was OK to obtain, provided that it didn’t harm anyone else in the process. Seneca also argued that it is OK to enjoy your wealth so long as we don’t become attached to it.

“It matters little whether the house be built of turf, or of variously coloured imported marble; understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold.” – Seneca

For the Stoics; money and wealth is neither good nor bad, owning stuff is neither good nor bad, and being rich with these things is neither good nor bad. These things to the Stoics  are neutral. The goodness and badness comes in how we use and perceive them. A simple analogy is a doctor – a doctor whose life’s passion and ambition  is to help the health of as many people as possible will very likely become a good doctor, and in being a good doctor they may well make good money – the money is a by product of a life of in the pursuit of a worthy goal which will benefit the people around them. The money is neither good nor bad, it is neutral.

However, a different doctor may be motivated by money above all else. This could lead them to over prescribing medicine, performing procedures that aren’t necessary and generally putting their own desire for wealth over the wellbeing of those in their care. In this case the money is no longer neutral – it has become negative, it has had a negative impact on not only the integrity of the doctor, but the people in their care.

This concept can be applied to our own lives – when material wealth shifts from becoming a by-product of our work and the value we add,  and becomes the ultimate target of our effort, it risks a shift from being neutral to being negative. Money and wealth have the ability to cause people to put aside their values, their beliefs and their integrity in the pursuit or promise of it, this is the risk and this is part of the reason why it can quickly shift from being neutral to being negative quite quickly if we’re not consciously aware of it.

Similarly the attachment to wealth can cause us to feel jealousy, anxiety, anger, mistrust and a host of other emotions that can take away our peace of mind. The Stoics warned against attachment to material possessions because they are ultimately outside of our control – our wealth can be taken from us, and because it can be taken, it is never truly ours. Moreover, when we place our peace of mind and wellbeing in things that are outside the reach of our control, they become beholden to chance, and by extension fragile.

As a general guide to life the Stoics promoted a balanced approach to money and possessions – there’s no real value in forcing yourself to live in abject poverty, but when you find yourself with enough it’s unlikely that having much more will make you any happier, the search for more, in all likelihood, will lead to a life of being unsatisfied with what we have and a constant pursuit of what we don’t have.

Often when we have enough we can increase our wellbeing far more as a result of gratitude for what we have than we can through trying to fill our lives with as much as possible. This path of constantly trying to fill an expanding bucket is called the Hedonic Treadmill for a reason, as soon as we get the thing we’re aiming for that no longer provides enjoyment after some time and we aim for something else, always wanting more and never being happy with what we have.

Stoic Virtue:

To serve as a guide for how to act, the Stoics had four core virtues that can be called on when we’re unsure whether or not we’re on the right path. These virtues were wisdom, temperance or discipline, justice and courage.

I’ll apply each of these to materialism to explain how they can help us decide whether or not materialism in our own lives is neutral or has started to become negative.

If we start with Wisdom; this is generally the ability to view the world clearly, putting aside our biases, judgements, perceptions and prejudices and trying to see the world as it is, not clouded by what we think it should be, or what we’d like to see. In the case of materialism wisdom can be used to help us decide if we have enough, or if we’ve fallen into the trap of wanting more and more. Wisdom can also help us understand if the way we view money and wealth is having a negative impact on our goals, connections, and wellbeing, or if we have a healthy relationship with it. This can be done through meditation and reflection, and if we’re open and honest with ourselves we’re all probably capable of finding out if we’re on the treadmill or not, whether we sacrifice our integrity or not, and whether we are grateful of not for what we do have.

Temperance is our ability to moderate our behaviour, it’s the discipline to say no when we don’t need an extra donut, to choose salad over pizza, decide not to have another beer tonight, and generally prevent over indulgence, laziness, sloth and behaviours that are attractive and alluring but can be counterproductive or even destructive. It’s not too hard to see how this one fits in with materialism – basically we don’t want to be greedy and fill our lives with stuff because we find it attractive at that time, despite it having a negative impact on our lives and our bank balance. Instead we can cultivate a healthy discipline for moderation. There’s no harm in treating ourselves every now and then, or doing things we enjoy, but we’ll all have a line at which we cross into over-indulgence – it’s all about balance.

Justice, as a Stoic virtue, is the ability to act in a way that’s beneficial to the group, and to society at large. It is the ability to act this way despite external pressure not to. If we think back to the example of the doctor who was motivated by money – they chose the pull of money over the choice to act for the common good, and in doing so harmed the people around them. In the context of materialism; when we feel the draw of money, wealth and stuff pulling us in a direction that can potentially have a negative impact on other people – this is where the neutrality of money begins to slip away into negativity.

Finally we have courage – the ability to do the right thing and act in alignment with our values despite pressures not to. In the context of materialism this is closely bound to the explanation for Justice. Money famously has the ability to cause people to disregard their own integrity, values and beliefs. Money’s promise of wealth and lifestyle changes is a difficult thing to resist when the sum is huge – however once you’re sold your values they’re very difficult to get back.

To end I’ll leave you with the words of Socrates; “we should eat to live, not live to eat”

Ultimately we should aim at materialism only so far as it covers our needs for comfortable living. wealth in excess of this is OK if it remains neutral, in that it doesn’t harm anyone and doesn’t require us to sacrifice our own values or wellbeing.

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