Saturday, February 04, 2006

Money and virtue

In Friday’s “Latin Proverb of the Day”, Bob Patrick offered us

Cui deest pecunia, huic desunt omnia.

Bob wisely intreprets this to mean that he who lacks money lacks the means to do anything worth doing. The indigent person is effectively “locked out of life”, money being the key he needs and lacks to gain entry to a life worth living.

I am fairly sure how a Stoic would reaction to this sort of aphorism. I am tempted to tease with him more of the same:

Quis est qui probus sine pecunia?

or Horace’s memorable

Quaerenda pecunia primum est, virtus post nummos.

Pecunia here is standing stead as the arch-extrenal. The claim is that securing externals must come first and anything else, including virtue, after we have secured a materially acceptable life. “First” not necessarily in the temporal sense, but in the sense of importance. Money has first priority, then other things if they are compatible with money-seeking.

In opposition to this view Epictetus, I believe, has staked out an equally radical and hard to defend position. His view is that you must be devoted to securing either a tranquil inner life or a prosperous outer life, BUT NOT BOTH. We are continually told in the Discourses that we cannot face in both directions at once. We must choose one and go after it, and let the other go.

The point I have been hammering away at here—ad nauseam, some of you are saying—is that we NEED to face both ways at once. Don't put virtue on the wrong side of an either/or. It is right and even necessary that we desire and pursue and secure certain externals, because if we don’t, we have no chance at the tranquil inner life the Stoics prize most. Ataraxia and euroia require a calm and safe and productive outer life, absurd Stoic “happy on the rack” pretensions notwithstanding. Indeed, inner peace and calm are a product and reward of dealing successfully with the world for the things you need, just as failing to obtain these things earns a miserable and uncalm existence.

The Stoics say that they do not completely neglect externals because they “select” preferred indifferents when the situation presents itself. But that formula for living, “select the preferred indifferent that are on offer”, is hopelessly inadequate to obtaining a life worth living. We must fervently desire and relentlessly pursue and finally capture the externals that the life we want requires. Waiting to select preferred indifferents is what directionless teenagers do until their parents tell them it’s time to get a job and a life. Yes?

Externals may be pursued virtuously or without virtue. [ The Stoics seem to despair of the argument that important externals can only be secured virtuously. They shouldn’t. They should have read more Plato. ] “Virtus post nummos” sets the priorities clearly. Seek wealth as a means to a life worth living. Prefer to seek it justly. But seek it successfully by whatever means. That is the “ethic” of virtus post nummos. I do not personally subscribe. But the Stoic position seems to me equally radical: externals don’t matter, seek virtue within. My question remains, how do you that without (first seeking) externals?

Someone will inevitably allude to monastics at this point. Don’t. Their lives are devoted to maintaining a calm, orderly, pleasant, properous environment. Visit a monastery or temple if you think externals are not central to the lives of the people who live there.

Have I at last made myself clear?


Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>just as failing to obtain these things earns a miserable and uncalm existence<<<

No doubt this is your experience.

But your pointing it out does not even put a scratch on Stoic doctrine and practice.

It just makes me glad that I am not you.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

>>>My question remains, how do you that without (first seeking) externals?<<<

You don't. Having, just like everyone, first pursued externals in the usual way, desiring them and finding them valuable, the new Stoic-in-training adopts a different outlook in which externals are pursued in a different way, for partly the same reasons, and partly for different reasons, but with a different disposition.

6:18 PM  

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