“Nobody is born on purpose,” at least that’s what Morty said to Summer in my favourite contemporary cartoon series, and so it goes that nobody has any control over the circumstances surrounding their birth or the conditions that they were born into.
Whether you are born into luxury with a silver spoon in your mouth or born into poverty with a plastic spoon in your mouth or spoonless extreme poverty is just a roll of the cosmic dice that none of us has any control over whatsoever, so why worry about it all you might ask?
“Contented poverty is an honourable estate.”
It’s like this, Stoicism is all about peace of mind, the ultimate goal being to attain sage like clarity of thought so that you can make the most ethical choices in order that you attain virtue.
Virtue is its own reward, so is it wise or virtuous to be jealous of the rich man in his castle? Likewise, do you envy the millionaire playboy that has just shot past you in his limousine with his harem of cocaine-addled girlfriends poking out through the sunroof waving their champagne bottles above their heads in ecstatic delight as they whizz through the electric night?
If you do it’s probably because he has something that you want, whether it’s money, power and influence or high-quality sexual partners, the fact that he has these things may serve to make you feel inferior by comparison.
This can and often leads to resentment that when you boil it down to the bare elements is simply an envy of sensations that the rich man can experience that you cannot.
To live for sensation and the consumption of pleasure is truly to live it may seem, except that it is not, following that logic when the sensation ends your happiness ends with it.
Nobody wants to feel their happiness slipping away because it invokes within them an inner fragility that silently and quietly whispers that all things must pass, that happiness cannot last forever and is at best fleeting. It’s the same qualia of mind that quietly evokes death. All things must pass including you.
No wonder people try to hang on to their happiness for as long as they can, often falling into Hedonism or addictively repeating all that they find to be pleasurable as often as they can.
They fail to understand that every time they do this it produces diminishing returns.
They make the mistake that of thinking that their pleasure is a real and tangible item that they can simply hang onto and keep grasping at as if it’s something that they can put in their pockets and keep for a rainy day.
It’s understandable that some people come to resent those that have access to more sources of pleasure and their associated trappings such as wealth and power. To put it mildly, an unfulfilled desire is a form of anguish that you mistakenly believe to be good for you.
When we exhaust the feeling of happiness or pleasure that we get from something tangible such as good food, sex, consumer items or hobbies we experience a little death within the mind.
To Enjoy is to win…
Moments ago we experienced a nice sensation, a feeling of winning that was here and suddenly is gone. It’s the hangover from the night before played out in every conceivable way, in every situation that we can think of.
If you spend too much time with the same friend you will eventually be sick of him, if you eat the same food over and over again, you will come to detest it. If you spend too much time with your spouse you will resent him or her and they may even come to resent you. Clingy partners kill marriages!
Experiencing the same stimuli over and over again diminishes it, this makes it obvious that to pursue pleasure for its own sake is a folly. Eventually, nothing will satisfy you and you may desire even greater and greater stimulation to achieve the same levels of pleasure that you had before. This is the path of the drunk, the gambler, the drug abuser and the serial adulterer. Society rightly condemns these types of people but it does not know why.
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”
Isn’t the rich man simply encumbered by his wealth? Does it truly make him happy?
“The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.”
The true stoic would immediately state that happiness comes from a peaceful mind, material goods and possessions are just accumulations of dead matter that might be fun to have and to play with but their associated joys will diminish with time. Fun has its own kind of entropy, yet carefully nurtured peace of mind can last forever.
“When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk he said, “Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.”
Seneca, Moral and Political Essays
So why be jealous of another’s good fortune, even if it’s just the result of an accident of birth, isn’t it natural that those born with advantages would seek to use them and enjoy their fruits? Wouldn’t you do the same if you were born into identical circumstances?
The fact is that the benefits that someone else may get from having rich, well connected and powerful parents are deserved because it’s human nature to want to provide the best circumstances and the best starting point for your own children.
“One who understands the limits of the good life knows that what eliminates the pains brought on by need and what makes the whole of life perfect is easily obtained, so that there is no need for enterprises that entail the struggle for success.”
― Epicurus, The Art of Happiness
If your parents have worked hard for your privilege isn’t it deserved? Isn’t it fair, that you should benefit from the fruits of their labours? Isn’t it natural that all parents would want to see their children in the best possible circumstances and have the best start in life?
What if your family have inherited their wealth from plantation owners that profited from slavery on their lands? Does it make any difference? Is there a moral and ethical case for removing a man from his privilege?
What if your whole family has benefited from the privilege created by the grandparents or the grandparents own grandparents or some nefarious ancestor whose bones now rest even further back in time, such as a European warlord that managed to establish an aristocracy. Is your privilege still deserved even then?
How far back do you have to go before it becomes undeserved and as such worthy of being appropriated by the state? At what point does a rich man’s descendants get removed from their inheritance? At which point does it become immoral or unethical to enjoy the fruits of the labours of your ancestors?
So the question being, if your as yet unknowable and unborn future descendants someday live well as a result of the work that you’ve done today would you be happy to see them stripped of their inherited wealth and possessions only for it to be redistributed by the government?
“Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.”
The correct answer is, of course, no, because to do otherwise is to live outside of natural law and contrary to the Stoic principle of living in accordance with nature. It is natural to see that your descendants benefit from your efforts today. You can call it instinct or a natural drive that all higher animals share, we want the best for our descendants and less so for those that do not have their genesis within us and that’s that!
It’s true, every human society that has ever existed anywhere in the world at any time have all placed great emphasis upon the notion that it’s right and noble to work hard today so that our children can have a better tomorrow.
This drive expresses itself in many ways, whether it’s creativity and inventiveness or simply hard work it pushes forward human civilisation by slow degrees and helps guarantee that the world tomorrow will be an improvement of the world today. After all, if you can improve conditions for just one child, then others may also benefit.
If you have privilege and willingly choose to not make the most of it you are trampling and thumbing your nose up at the collective efforts of all of your ancestors who have worked hard, ruined their health, suffered calamities and broke their spirits so that you could be better provided for. That’s simply not fair to those hard-working men and women. It’s disrespectful, to say the least. You might as well go and urinate on their graves.
So why would you want to take away privilege from someone else simply because they have more than you? Every stoic would agree that it’s not ethical and it’s not fair to take away someone else’s standard of living because they have more than you. Remember their privilege is their birthright.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
The simple answer is politicised jealousy or resentment, that today we refer to as ‘relative poverty,’ both of which are parts of human nature that can lead to you wanting to take someone else’s stuff by force or by appealing to force or authority.
That authority can, of course, be parental, societal i.e we can appeal to the state or go one level higher and ask God himself to strike down the privileged man because he has more than us, has lived well and did not choose to be born into privilege. How fair is that? Where is the justice in that?
“It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself.”
A true stoic would see that there is no virtue to be gained by forcing a man to give up his possessions, whether it’s through punitive taxes, land appropriations, clever legal manoeuvring or plain old violence. There is no virtue in the deployment of force or the threat of it.
Jealousy or resentment is not a virtue, it disturbs the mind, making it impossible for you to be happy.
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little,’
“If God listened to the prayers of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are forever praying for evil against one another.
You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.
Marcus Cole, Babylon 5
(J. Michael Straczynski )
So the answer must be to live virtuously and to desire what you have, and in doing so learn to be contented with your possessions and the privilege that you have, because like it or not you will have some.
If you are fortunate enough to be born into privilege then you should consider that it is virtuous to give freely out of your abundance or to use it to help those that do not have the wealth, power, influence or resources that you have.
A word of caution though, there’s a huge difference between benevolence and altruism, so if you give freely, then you must give out of the resources that you have that renew themselves automatically.
Altruism is, by comparison, anti-life and is defined as giving away something that you may or may not have in abundance so that you can feel good even though it damages your self-interests. There is no such thing as benevolent altruism. Altruism is simply choosing to suffer needlessly now so that others don’t have to.
Giving away your wealth and becoming poor in return is clearly a stupid thing to do, or spending what you do not have in order to ‘help,’ others is equally nuts. Giving away your inheritance is the same as setting fire to your house and calling it a ‘good.’
How would you feel if it’s poorly received by the uncouth and the ungrateful who without so much as a word of thanks simply squander it in front of you, nullifying the work of your ancestors?
In other words when you give away the fruits of your abundance which come as a result of your own hard work or your inherited privilege the people that you bless in this way must be worthy, because it’s a truism that not everyone is the same, and none of us is equal. We have never been equal and we never will be.
So whatever it is that you have in abundance, that when spent replenishes itself with little or no effort is where you should start.
This might be time, humour, passion or artistic talents. It could be anything, any aspect of your personality and privilege that you have in great amounts, you know where you are truly abundant.
“Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”
Instead of being ashamed of your privilege you can use it to make the world a better place, though a final word of advice, do not make others dependent upon you as a master/slave relationship is not virtuous. If you give to others the fruits of your abundance, do your best to teach them how to also be abundant so that they will have no need of you. Encourage them to share what they have also.
“The wise man who has become accustomed to necessities knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.”
Someone abundant in wisdom and a lover of philosophy might share his insights with those that need them for example as wisdom blesses everybody.
“Both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom: the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come.”