I now begin a series of posts on the “problem of wealth” in the ancient world — that is, the problems posed by wealth, as identified by a number of elite authors, both pagan (Greek and Roman) and Christian.  The particular *problem* was understood differently between these two camps, but both camps had extremists, who said the rich should give it all away, every penny, and the moderates, who said that the problem was not wealth itself but a rich person’s “attitude” toward wealth.  The latter group, which, as you might expect, was far more numerous, claimed it was fine to have TONS of money so long as you weren’t much attached to it.

But what was the actual problem?   Wealth is a problem?  With problems like that….

To explain the problem from the perspective of traditional Greek and Roman moral philosophy, I will first describe it in in its barest form, as found in the teachings of philosophers who argued for complete divestiture (get rid of every penny!).  These were known as “Cynic” philosophers, for reasons I will explain later (the term does not mean they were just being “cynical”; “Cynic” is a technical term for a particular philosophical school).

[Note: The following discussion is a revised version of my description of the Cynics and their views of wealth found in my book Journeys to Heaven and Hell (Yale University Press, 2022) where I discuss them (and Christians) in relationship to fictional narrative accounts of guided tours of the afterlife (this chapter of the book is highly readable for non-scholars)]

Unlike other philosophies, especially around the time of early Christianity, Cynicism cannot appropriately be considered a “school.” [i]   There was no formal instruction, no classes or lectures, and no doctrines or detailed philosophical justifications for them, for example, in a well-thought out system of physics.   Lots of other philosophy at the time (Stoicism, Platonism, Epicureanism) was moving away from deep reflections on physics and metaphysics to focus on “practical” issues, giving advice about how one should live in order to maximize happiness and satisfaction.  For Cynics, however, that was virtually all that mattered.  It was all about practice.

For that reason, being a Cynic required no education or, indeed, mental labor.  The later Stoic Apollodorus famously called it “a shortcut to virtue” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.22).    It was a way of life, one that denied the values and worth of virtually everyone else.  The Cynic life entailed abandoning all the trappings of life to live without possessions and therefore without needs that could be frustrated.  Cynics did not pursue or even abide human comforts or conform to traditional human social standards.  And so they lived like KYNES, the Greek word for “dogs.” Hence the label others gave them, “Cynics.”

In the Cynic view, most people are miserable precisely because they think that all their happiness derives from things outside themselves:  their possessions, status, reputation, position, influence, and so on.  But none of these things provides true happiness.  Look at those who have them in spades: the wealthy and powerful; the major athletes and social elite – are they happy?  No, most of them are miserable, always wanting more, endlessly complaining about their investments, enemies, work loads, struggles, losses, and occasional failures.  Possessions and social position are not keys to happiness; it does not reside in anything outside of ourselves that we can “acquire.”

Moreover, anything acquired can be lost:  you may go bankrupt; your house may be burnt to the ground; someone may steal your possessions; your status and reputation may be ruined; you may lose your job; your strong body may grow ill; if you survive, you will certainly grow old and decrepit.  If these are the things you live for in pursuit of happiness, you will be miserable once they are taken away.  So do not cling to them.  Get rid of them.  If you hold onto them, they will take hold of you.

Instead, value those things you can never lose, things no one can take away.  No one, for example, can take away your judgments about what is right and wrong, about what is good and bad.  No one can compel you to agree that something is true when you know it is false; or to call what is evil good.  No one can force you to be rich.  No one can force you to lose your poverty.  If such choices are within your sole power to make, they are what can make you happy, free from restraint from others.  They, then, are what you should live for. If they are all you desire, you will always get exactly what you want.  Dispose of everything else.

In the summary overview of (the Stoic) Epictetus (one of my all-time favorite philosophers) (he was not a Cynic but here he is explaining the Cynic view, with which he has sympathy):

This is the way of the Cynic who has become worthy of Zeus’s scepter and diadem, who says, “Look people:  you are searching for happiness and not where they are but where they are not.  See, I have been sent to you by God as a model.  I have no possessions, house, wife, or children, not even a bed, cloak, or furniture.  And see how healthy I am!   Put me to the test and see my serenity (ἀτάραχον): hear about my medications and what things have healed me. (Discourses 4.8.30-31).

He then explains: he has been healed because he “does not desire or seek after anything, not another person, a position, or a way of life.”  He instead is “equipped all around with self-respect” just as other people are equipped with walls, doors, and doorkeepers (Discourses 4.8.33).

For Cynics, this way of living had obvious relevance to wealth.  It was Diogenes – whom many consider to have been the first Cynic — who called “the love of money … the mother-city of all evils.” That may sound familiar: it is picked up by the New Testament author of 1 Timothy “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).

And so, when the Cynics lambasted people (and they lambasted *everyone* who wasn’t a Cynic) it was the wealthy who were subject to the harshest criticisms.  Wealth leads naturally to vices: greed, avarice, rank materialism, injustice, hubris, and profligacy.  But more than that, obsession with wealth interferes with what really matters, such as time for reflective thought, self-sufficiency, and freedom from worry.  And so, in many senses, it was precisely the renunciation of possessions that made a Cynic a Cynic   Happiness required a complete independence from the trappings of life, “self-sufficiency,” “AUTARCHEIA” in Greek.

To be happy you can’t rely on any thing external to yourself.  So get rid of it all!

This was considered an extreme view by most Greek and Roman philosophers of antiquity, and the Cynics themselves came under a good bit of criticism.  BUT, the extreme view in some ways highlights a more widespread view which ALSO saw “wealth” as a problem.  Most people at the time decidedly did not think it was problematic per se, just as most people today do not.  But many pagan philosophers did – and for very different reasons than later Christian thinkers.  I’ll explain the more common view of the problem starting in my next post.


[i] For a nice overview, see William Desmond, Cynics.  Berkeley: University of California, 2008.