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.