“Well, you see, my property is enough to supply me with all my needs…”
Socrates, in Xenophon’s Estate Manager
While Socrates was not destitute, the value of his estate was relatively low. Yet he expresses gratitude for his financial situation. He assures his friend Critobulus—a very wealthy man—that he prefers the condition of his own household to that of Critobulus’s. Though Socrates did not have very much, he deemed himself to have all that he needed.
For Socrates, as for the other great Greek philosophers and the tradition of Christian thinkers in continuity with them, the significant category concerning wealth is need, as distinct from want or desire. This is as profound as it is challenging, and as implication-rich as it is unappreciated. Here is a thorny issue at the very heart of household and of human life itself.
How do we think about wealth and wealth-getting? More importantly, how do we practice it? A perennial question is this: even if wealth is most about supplying needs, why not supply needs and then go further? Put otherwise, how could having too much be a problem? Isn’t having too little the real problem?
This is a question of civilizational import. It is multi-faceted and nuanced. But as usual, there are basic principles at work here, such as the following:
1. Human life consists essentially in living well and pursuing the higher things.
2. Material wealth should serve this end, not hinder it.
3. When wealth is pursued in view of real human needs (understood broadly, and to include needs of others), then it serves truly human life.
4. When wealth is pursued in excess of genuine needs, then it tends to hinder truly human life.
The truth of the fourth proposition is difficult to see, and difficult to defend. It is even more difficult to live. But the wise have been uniform in asserting it. It always has been and will be a point of contradiction.
Let us be clear: Socrates is well aware that some people can and should be ‘wealthy.’ He had no wish for Critobulus to forsake all his wealth. But he did want to teach him a very different approach to it: to getting it, and to using it.
The wise always seek to bring us back to basic principles. The getting and use of wealth is a fundamental part of life. It calls for constant reexamination and self-knowledge. How can wealth truly serve the good life, and how does it often hinder it? What about in my life?
The notion of need is rich—as is the human flourishing which is its foundation, measure, and goal. It admits of real variation. And yet it is always distinguishable, even if with difficulty, from simply ‘what I want.’
Yet then again, part of the paradox and the gift, is that I can train my wants. I can learn to form my wants in view of real needs: my own, my family’s, my friends, my community’s. And therein is perhaps the ultimate lesson, which Critobulus, and we, might learn from Socrates: the oft-hidden, golden key to wealth and its place in human life.
This new VIDEO unfolds this amazing ancient principle:
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household, and perhaps ours too. This post is a re-presentation of an earlier post.
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