Philosophy and Money

Some great thinkers – Plato, Aristotle, Gautama Siddhartha, Epicurus, Thoreau, Rand, and many more – have reflected deeply on the place of money and wealth in human life. The reasons are not hard to find:

  • In many ways we are a grasping, materialistic, status-driven species.
  • It’s all too easy to have an unhealthy relationship (as we put it) with money.
  • The possibility of losing money can induce fear, whereas the prospect of acquiring money can induce greed – two of the most powerful human emotions, which can corrupt the human heart.
  • It’s difficult to pin down exactly how much wealth is enough in life – ascetics say any wealth is bad wealth, avaricious materialists say there’s no limit, and those of a more balanced disposition (e.g., Aristotle) try to find a reasonable mid-point between these two unbounded extremes.
  • On a more positive note, growing your wealth requires building the habit of delayed gratification, which itself requires the power of reflection. Especially in modern times, earning a living also requires excellences of character (or mere bourgeois virtues, according to some) like creativity, productivity, hard work, honesty, integrity, and frugality.

And the list goes on. Clearly there’s plenty of material here for practical philosophizing!

Several of the questions that arise from the foregoing human phenomena can be answered, at least for yourself, by thinking about the purpose of wealth. Is it an end in itself, or a means to an end? If the latter, which end?

A thought experiment can help clarify these matters: if you had enough money that you never needed to work again, what would you do with your life? Travel the world, chase whatever you find fun or pleasant, impress your friends, climb the social ladder, invest in business ventures, run for political office, engage in philanthropy, become a patron of the arts, pursue cherished hobbies, scratch a creative itch, study the great writers and thinkers of history? (The ancient Greek philosophers identified three primary ways of life: the pursuit of pleasure, political leadership, and intellectual research; in modern times we have more options.)

Few of us are born into that kind of money, so we need to earn it. Thus the scale of your dreams helps determine the extent of your wealth-building efforts.

If your preferred lifestyle is relatively modest – say, time with family and friends, a bit of travel, and pursuing a hobby like writing or woodworking – then you don’t need a great deal of money to achieve your dreams. (A good example is Henry David Thoreau, who was more entrepreneurial than we usually give him credit for but who didn’t allow his commercial activities as a surveyor and contributor in the family business to divert him from his chosen course.)

If you have bigger ambitions – say, becoming a CEO or a major philanthropist – then your work could easily consume most of your energies. Is that what you want?

As in so many areas of life, most people find that achieving the right balance is key. However, “the right balance” is different for every individual, and is nearly synonymous with the distinctive philosophy of life that you create for yourself through experience and reflection. Only you can find the answers for yourself.

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