Stoic Insights on Materialism

Stoics knew, in Irvine’s words, that luxurious living only whets one’s appetite for even more luxury. Exhibit A, the GalPal and I need hotel upgrades now. Consequently, they practiced poverty or voluntary discomfort—whether fasting, sleeping on the ground, or purposely not dressing warmly for cold weather—to harden themselves against misfortunes that might befall them in the future. They did this to extend their comfort zone, reduce their anxiety about future possible discomforts, and better appreciate what they already had. They also sometimes gave up pleasurable experiences because they knew pleasure seekers lose some self-control and end up serving multiple masters. Having written about this exact thing before reading Irvine means I’m well suited to modern-day Stoicism.

Even ancient Stoics knew that maintaining luxuries takes a lot of time. Musonius argued that luxurious living must be completely avoided, but Seneca said it was okay to acquire wealth as long as one doesn’t harm others to obtain it. He also argued it was acceptable to enjoy wealth as long as one was careful not to cling to it. Most Stoic teachers advocated simultaneously enjoying and being indifferent to the things wealth makes possible. Seneca and Marcus thought it was possible to live in a palace without being corrupted. Similarly, Buddha said, “He that cleaves to wealth had better cast it away than allow his heart to be poisoned by it, but he who does not cleave to wealth, and possessing riches, uses them rightly, will be a blessing unto his fellows.”

Seneca said “life’s necessities are cheap and easily accessible” and “the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man.” Socrates said “we should eat to live, not live to eat” and dress to protect our bodies and not impress others. We should favor simple housing and furnishings too.

Seneca, Marcus, and Buddha would have supported the non-consumerist, simple living, social justice orientation of the Occupy Wall Streeters. On the other hand, they would have rejected their knee-jerk antipathy towards the well-to-do.

5 thoughts on “Stoic Insights on Materialism

  1. I think we have to be careful Ron when we categorize people for the actions of a few and their behavior for the moment. My experience thus far with the OWS protesters doesn’t suggest they are anti-consumerist as a group or even promoting simple living. They’ll eat pizza or KFC if you supply it to them without thinking twice about it And many have backed off 24-7 vigilance at the protest sites from being overwhelmed by the unsanitary conditions.

    And though there are those who express a knee-jerk antipathy towards the well-to-do, the gist of the message from this movement is about justice where the hoarding by many within the 1% group use straw man arguments about how “economic uncertainty” is preventing job creation or how trickle down economics really does work. A lot of these people are your daughters’ age who want a job, have gone to college and paid their dues but are now faced with efforts by some who influence policy that sends jobs overseas, stagnates wages and opposes efforts to transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewable sources because it negatively impacts their profit margins.

    Some of these people are actually in sound financial shape but still see the damage done by special corporate interests that hides behind a veil of “humanity”, pointing out their goodwill efforts to the community while resisting those efforts that truly create a level playing field. Some of the 1%ers want to be the benevolent ruler model but want their critics to quit pointing out that their SUV ran over the neighbors cat after coming home drunk from an extravagant party celebrating their healthy bonus they just received, figuratively speaking of course.

    • Thanks for your last three or four comments Larry, appreciate it. Not sure I completely understand all aspects of this one. Your main critique is that I’m overgeneralizing too much about the OWS protestors. The one reference to OWS wasn’t integral to my primary focus—problematizing materialism—but even if it wasn’t my intention, you may be right. I have more to learn so thanks for sharing your perspective. Are you participating somewhere in TX, reading about what’s happening, or both?

      • Sorry if I read more into your comments than were intended Ron

        I have connected on a couple of occasions with the Occupation movement here in Denton. They’re located by the language building at my old alma mater, University of North Texas.

        A lot of what I have been writing goes to their Facebook page to be used as they see fit and I have left my contact information if I can be of service or provide supplies.

        I should be more physically involved but these old bones are not as willing as my mind is.

        How about you? Have you had a chance to visit with any Occupy movement in your area?

      • For the size of our hamlet, we have a large group of occupiers, but I’m too soft to live in a tent in the rain.

  2. Pingback: Why Stoicism’s mind hacks fit well with simple living – Voluntary Simplicity Melbourne

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