Monday, January 02, 2006

Poverty is no problem

Perhaps this is somewhat peripheral to our central topic, but I would like to share with you several delighful little arguments from the 3rd century BCE Cynic philosopher Teles. Teles’ original works are lost, but some of his remarks were excerpted in a later anthology by Stobaeus.

In an essay whose title is lost to us Teles is arguing that acquiring wealth will cure neither a greedy, miserly character nor the actual deprivation that that kind of character inflicts upon a person who is too miserly to part with his money. That argument doesn't interest me as much as another he seems to offer almost en passant:

For example, poverty does not change the character of those who are temperate/prudent [ sophron], if they fall into poverty after having been wealthy. Sooner, I think, you could say that the acquisition of money changes your skin or size or appearance.

The coming of cosmetic surgery has made Teles’ analogies unfortunate, but disregarding that detail, what a remarkable claim about the effect of impoverishment on human character. How does Teles presume to know what impoverishment will do to someone’s character? Teles also lacked the advantage of the Great Depression and its effects on millions of men and their families. What would he say if we presented him with real sociological data from that unfortunate time? What do we actually know about how impoverishment is likely to affect people? We don’t think their health and psychological well-being will be immune, but somehow their characters will be?

A little later on in the same essay, another topic. Someone asks the Cynic philosopher Crates

What will be in for me if I study philosophy? “You will be ready to open your wallet,” he said, “and with your hand scoop out and dispense what is there, instead of, as you do now, squirm and hesitate and tremble like someone with palsied hands…And if you see that your wallet is empty, you will not be disturbed.

Another remarkable claim. Study philosophy and you’ll acquire detachment and indifferent to your financial situation. You will give money away lavishly and not worry if you have none. My hands are shaking as I write this. I must have missed that philosophy course.

In the sequel, Teles is arguing that poverty is no deterent to philosophy. On the contrary,

Don’t you see that as a rule the poorest men become philosophers, because the wealthy are involved in many activities related to their possessions?...Or don’t you see that because of their poverty the poor are compelled to cultivate a patience endurance, whilst with the wealthy the opposite holds true? In my opinion, whenever someone easily obtains what he wants, he is no longer eager for hard work and philosophical inquiry, but with wealth as his companion in vice refrains from no pleasure. Or don’t you see that the rich man is not allowed to be inactive because he has much to do, but the poor man, not having anything to do, devotes himself to philosophizing.

So poverty and enforced idleness are the royal road to philosophy, and the poor man, not having any to do ( like obtain the necessities of living), has the leisure and the motive to philosophisize. I just can’t think of what to say about such a claim, but there it is.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Virtue comes after money.

Horace wasn’t kidding when he exhorted his fellow citizens to pursue money first and virtue second. O cives, quaerenda pecunia primum est, virtus post nummos. And he wasn’t comparing apples and oranges. By money he meant the arts of money making. By virtue he meant the moral virtues such as justice and kindness and generosity. The former skills, he was saying, come first and take pride of place over the latter.

Notice that Horace isn’t saying that virtue, or least the reputation for it, is worthless. On the contrary, he implies that it does have value. But its value is inferior to the skills that acquire wealth and what wealth can buy.

How would we go about examining such a claim as this? And what exactly is Horace saying? That one group of skills is more important than another? More important for what? But we have one easy answer to that question. More important for acquiring the kind of life we desire and aspire to.

Many of you will probably think at this point, why does this even need to be argued? If we aspire to wealth, then the arts of money making are central and crucial. But I don’t think that assumption was behind Horace’s recommendation. That money making is more important only if you wealth above other things. No, I think we should intrepret Horace as commending the arts of pursuing money as the foundation for virtually any kind of life.

So how do evaluate the claim that one set of skills, aimed at money making, is more important than another set of skills, aimed at acting justly and kindly and generously? Well, perhaps we could look at what each set of kills is likely to achieve by itself when practiced well. If we become good money makers, here’s what we can acquire in our life and accomplish. If we become good at the moral virtues, here’s what we can do and accomplish. Horace is saying the gains from the first will be much more important and substantial than anything we get from the second.

That’s still not very clear, but perhaps it give us a way to start. We can looking at what we gain by being good money makers, then what we gain by being good at the moral virtues, and finally compare them. As a first approximation we take Horace’s view to be that we gain much more and more important things with the money making arts.

I hear someone objecting. “So is Horace claiming that money making should be the most important thing in our lives, because I don’t accept that.” And neither do I. And neither, I think, does Horace the poet. Poet, remember, not money lender. Certainly Horace never says that money is THE thing. We look in vain for the line omnia vincit pecunia in his letters and odes. We may pursue money to support our art or our family responsibilities or our recreations or whatever we place at the center of our life. Horace never implies that money is the most important thing or something to be pursued for its own sake. He says only that money making is more important in our lives than virtue.

“But suppose someone is very bad at money making. Does Horace imply that he’s doomed to a bad life?” He does not say that either. Notice he doesn’t say that one set of skills is essential to a good life and the other isn’t. He says only one set of skills is more important, which is not the same thing. We should look at a life that does not know how to make money and see what happens to it. Is it a livable life and life we’d care to live?

“But what about a life that lacks the moral virtues?” Yes, let’s look at that life too. What does it actually lack?

I think we have our work cut out for us, trying to see what place money and virtue should play in our lives, and whether we can agree that one of them is more important than the other.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I think I shall I take our epigraph from a passage in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics I. v. 8 :

The life of money making is something forced on us, and clearly wealth is not the great good we are seeking, for it is only good in sofar as it is useful and means to something else.

Shortly I propose to examine the arguments of the philosophers who misprize wealth and "count it as nothing" in comparison with the real virtues such as wisdom and justice. We shall see.