New Course: Concepts Made Clear

“Well, you see, my property is enough to supply me with all my needs…
Socrates, in Xenophon’s Estate Manager

The wise help us to see better. By looking through their eyes, we learn to see things more as they are. One great fruit is that we can be more grateful. There is always more for which to be grateful than we have yet realized.

Socrates was grateful for the financial condition of his household. He assures 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 we do think about wealth and wealth-getting? More importantly, how do we practice it?

A perennial question is this: if wealth is 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. But as usual, there is a root principle here. In short, we can put it this way:
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 and used 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 and used for desires in excess of genuine needs, then it hinders 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 quite 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. 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 to first 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 measure. 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 human needs. Not vice versa. 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.

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.

Image: Floris van Dyck (Dutch, 1575-1651)

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