I have been explaining that among those few people who thought having substantial wealth was a “problem” in the Greek and Romans worlds – that is, the few philosophers who thought about the issue (since for most people getting lots of money was precisely not a problem!) – the issue was never that it just wasn’t fair for some people to be barely able to get by, or worse to be starving to death, when others were blissfully rolling in the dough.  The issue was that having lots of money almost always corrupted someone’s character, and having a bad personal character was a problem for the person personally (and for broader society) (but not because others were poor as dirt).  The greedy, manipulative, self-centered, tyrannical personality was not someone you wanted to be or be around.

And so the problem with wealth was that it could hurt the person who had it.  Those poor people:  burdened with wealth!  But what was the solution for them?  We have seen: there were two well-attested options.  At one extreme were those who argued you should simply give everything away (e.g., the Cynic philosophers); but the more moderate and by far more popular view was found among other philosophers, e.g., Platonic and Stoic philosophers.  You can have wealth, but don’t be attached to it.  And don’t spend your life trying to get it.  It can just create headaches.

These latter views are expressed, for example, throughout the writings of the famous Roman philosopher Seneca (a tutor to the emperor Nero), who preaches against greed and high living (Epistle 108. 12); claiming that “having wealth is more torture than seeking it” (Epistles 115.16) and wishing that anyone wanting to get rich would consult with a wealthy person to see what it is really like (115.17).  And yet, an incredibly wealthy man himself, Seneca does not argue that the problem is money itself; the problem is that it stirs up bad attitudes, making people self-important and haughty, unsettling their minds (Epistle 87. 31-32).

The way to deal with that is not by giving up the money, but by cultivating virtues that only wealthy people can have.  For Seneca, in fact, wealth is a pathway to virtue, unavailable to anyone who is poor (On the Blessed Life, 20-24).

This may seem like a rich-man’s argument (again, it is), but Seneca points out that the poor literally cannot be obsessed with their wealth or unnecessarily worried about it. They don’t have any. Only the rich can choose not to be obsessed or worried.  Money allows someone, therefore to develop virtue. So too the poor cannot give their money away to those who deserve it, only the rich can.  More virtue.

For that reason,

So to whom would the wealthy give their money to be “generous”?  Keep reading and you’ll see. To read you need to join the blog, but it’s inexpensive: and every penny actually *does* go to those in need.    Click here for membership options