The Stoics on economic agency: is wealth moral? By Aistė Čelkytė

As wealth inequality rises sharply in many parts of the world, the questions about the relationship between morality and wealth is very topical. Although this problem is not new to the history of economics, the modern scientific discipline has an uneasy relationship with moral discussions. In the seminal An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Lionel Robbins produces what is now the standard definition of economics as the study of the management of scarce means. He also argues against those who take economics to be inseparable from moral philosophy, as his own definition makes it a science studying a very specific kind of rational behaviour, distinct from any considerations about morality.

This understanding of the scope of economics has been challenged in recent years. Irene van Staveren, for example, showed that moral values cannot be separated from economic agency (The Values of Economics). The debates on the role that moral values play in economics are increasingly more prominent, and perhaps they will lead to a new understanding of economics, bringing it closer to moral philosophy.

In the meantime, it is interesting to note the oeconomia, the ancient Greek version of economics, had no problem incorporating moral philosophy and the questions of wealth management. In fact, Étienne Helmer has recently argued that it is a distinctive part of the oeconomia genre. It might be tempting to rush to the ancient texts with robust ethics, for example, Stoicism, to look for the possible ways of incorporating moral considerations into approaches and attitudes to wealth.

There is, however, a significant obstacle to such an endeavour: ancient philosophers, among them the Stoics, were writing about oeconomia, not economics. The latter is linked to the former by etymology and not much else. Oeconomia is a genre of literature/philosophy that deals with the management of an estate, oikos, and its members. The standard text is Xenophon’s Oikonomikos, but some parts of Plato’s Republic and Laws, Aristotle’s Politics and various Stoic fragments also engage with this area of expertise and therefore are generally read as parts of the oeconomic corpus.

Unlike modern economics, these texts discuss the proper treatment of a wife and the raising of (male) children. Some of them also address the question of the proper means of income to the household and proper expenditures, but it hardly ever deals with markets, wealth distribution in a society and other complex structural phenomena that the modern science of economics is preoccupied with. As a result, it cannot give us any meaningful insights into rising global inequality by way of helping us answer the question of what the moral limits of wealth gain are. Having said that, it would not be quite accurate to say that ancient philosophers have nothing to contribute to the discussion about wealth and morality. The Stoics, after all, discuss wealth fairly extensively, it is one of the most often occurring examples of so-called preferred indifferents. Thus the Stoics can offer various pertinent insights, with the important caveat that their discussion is focused on an individual, and this limitation arises not only because of their interest in personal responsibility but also the general nature of oeconomic discussions in antiquity. In this blog post, I will look at some of the evidence on Stoicism and economic agency, asking what the relationship between the pursuit of virtue and acquisition of wealth is and whether the latter can stand in the way of the former.

 

A Preferred Indifferent

With the exception of Aristo of Chios, who denied any value whatsoever to everything but virtue, the Stoics take wealth to be one of the preferred indifferents. The ancient sources give us a long list of these, including, wealth, health, status, pleasure and so on; their opposites are called dispreferred (Diogenes Laertius 7.101-3). All of these conventional goods receive at least a small argument, explaining why they do not actually contribute to or even detract from a person’s happiness. Some of them receive quite a lot of attention, and, wealth is one of the most discussed, if not the most discussed, item on the list of preferred indifferents. At first sight, it might be surprising. After all, approaching the loss of life as just a dispreferred indifferent is so much more challenging than approaching the loss of wealth in the same way.

The explanation that might come to mind immediately is that wealth is simply a very attractive conventional good, and the general public usually shows great interest in it. Therefore, a Stoic philosopher has a lot of work to do here, and it takes many arguments driving home the same point. A closer look at the selection of the fragments below, however, will show that the case of wealth is more complex than it might seem at first sight, the Stoic treatment of this topic is highly nuanced.

 

Is it reasonable to be upset that an unjust person is wealthier than you?

At first sight, Epictetus’ Discourse 3.17 (On Providence) provides a standard Stoic attitude towards wealth. It contains advice on how to cope with the feeling that providence has been unjust. The first complaint addressed by Epictetus concerns the situation in which an unjust person comes off better. Some questioning leads to the presumed realisation on the complainer’s part that this is only true in regard to money, and the unjust person acquires wealth by means of flattery and similar behaviour. Epictetus points out that only in the monetary respect such a person is better off, but in respect to being trustworthy or honest, he is not. The main point here is fairly straightforward: wealth gain only seems to be a desirable good; the unjust person actually embroils himself in much that is undesirable or even degrading. If you value moral virtues – such as being a trustworthy and honest person – there is nothing to envy while looking at an unjust person amassing wealth.

Thus, Epictetus applies the Stoic central tenet that the only good is virtue to a specific situation. The comparative lack of wealth is an indifferent matter as far as one’s happiness (eudaimonia) is concerned. By looking at the bigger picture and considering everything that any given choice involves, we can see that conventional goods are not nearly as desirable as people generally assume.

At this point, we could object that Epictetus sets the bar very low: right from the start he tells us that the person gaining wealth is unjust, so no wonder that the ways in which he gains his wealth are unjust and undesirable. But it naturally raises the question of whether there is an alternative. Is the wealth gain always unjust or is there a moral way of gaining wealth?

 

Is wealth gain always unjust?

If a person read these claims in isolation, without context, she might make a reasonable guess that the Stoics advocated for strict moderation when it comes to conventional goods and a kind of asceticism. However, an important group of evidence shows that this is not entirely the case.  One of the so-called Stoic paradoxes paints the Stoic sage not only as engaged in wealth management but, in line with the customary argument in these texts, the only kind of person who is a proper manager of wealth.

They say that only the worthwhile man is skilled in household management and a good manager of his household, and, in addition skilled at making money. For the skill of managing a household is a rule-based and practical condition with regard to what is useful for the household; household management is the organisation of expenses and deeds, and the care of acquisitions and the produce from the fields. The money-making skill is experience in the acquisition of money from appropriate sources and a condition which creates conduct in agreement (with nature) in the collecting, preservation, and expenditure of money to produce affluence… Only the worthwhile man is skilled at making money, knowing from what sources money must be gained, and when, how, and for how long (Stobaeus 2.7.11d, tr. Pomeroy).

The passage makes an even stronger case than what might be expected: not only is it appropriate to engage in economic activities for the sage, only the sage is able to do it properly. Another Stoic paradox, that only the sage is rich, is recorded in Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes too. The same sentiment is also found in a short fragment preserved in Plutarch, citing Chrysippus as stating that nothing ever brings any genuine use for the wicked (Plutarch De St. repug. 1038A). The form of this argument will be familiar to anyone who ventured into Stoic ethics. Socratic in origin, the argument here is that virtue informs the proper way to carry out any activity and the only way to benefit from it. More pertinently for our current purposes, these passages also tell us that a virtuous person does not turn away from economic activities, including money-making.

The question that immediately follows this point is what a sage’s money-making looks like. The way the claim is stated in the passage cited above could lead to various interpretations. For example, the claims that (i) only a sage is good at making money and (ii) the sage would only make as much as necessary and, in fact, engage in economic activities in a very limited way, are not inconsistent. It does not seem, however, that the Stoics advocated for only a restricted production of wealth. For example, Plutarch cites Chrysippus as writing in his work on rhetoric that a sage would manage his estate as if riches were really the good (Plutarch De St. repug. 1034B). Plutarch also cites from another treatise of Chrysippus, where the latter claims that the sage would become a king or live with kings for the sake of profit, as well as teach for money (Plutarch De St. repug. 1043E and F).

 

Are Stoic Claims about Wealth Inconsistent?

These fragments show that far from criticising the acquisition of wealth, the Stoics acknowledged its relative use for a person, even if it does not contribute to a person’s eudaimonia, and, to a virtuous person, a loss of the estate is equivalent to the loss of a single drachma (Plutarch De St. repug. 1048B). For this reason, it is surprising to find Plutarch citing another fragment of Chrysippus in which the latter suggests that a prudent person would live a quiet life, the kind few people would appreciate (Plutarch De St. Repug. 1043A-B). Is there an inconsistency in these claims? Despite Plutarch’s suggestion that Chrysippus was contradicting himself in arguing for a kingly lifestyle and then arguing for the quiet life, these claims are not irreconcilable. Instead, they show that the Stoic treatment of wealth was nuanced. In order to appreciate these nuances, we only need to take notice of two points.

First, the claims about the sage have loaded implications. When the Stoics, or any other ancient philosophers, argue that the sage would not engage in some activity, they are presenting this activity as morally harmful or inappropriate. By contrast, saying that a sage would engage in some activity does not mean that all the sages ought to always pursue that activity, but only that there is no harm in it. Thus, the claim that the sage would engage in money-making only means that there is nothing morally harmful about money-making as such. The activity just by itself is, in fact, morally neutral.

Second, a passage from Epictetus Handbook contains an example of a Stoic argument that can accommodate both of the claims made by Chrysippus with no inconsistency. Epictetus compares the proper attitude to any external circumstances in life to the proper behaviour at a banquet. If something is being passed around and comes to you, take your share politely; at the same time, do not try to hold it back if it passes on, and if it has not yet reached you, ‘don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you.’ (Epictetus Handbook 15, tr. Hard). Epictetus goes on to say that a person ought to act the same way in regard to children, public offices and – importantly – riches.

The core of Chrysippus’ argument was very likely similar to Epictetus’ banquet simile here. This line of reasoning certainly allows us to interpret Chrysippus’ claims in a consistent way: a virtuous person would practise virtuous behaviour in whatever situation she finds herself in. Thus, if born in a royal family, she would not go out of her way in order not to be a monarch. This point might seem trivial but it has very important consequences for the coherence of the Stoic ethical programme. If wealth is immoral, or in other words, if it is a kind of vice, then it has the capacity to affect our happiness. The Stoics are firm, however, that such a capacity belongs only to virtue alone. Vice is nothing but the absence of virtue. Thus, the Stoics simply cannot make wealth immoral, because it would lead to assigning wealth the kind of moral capacity it simply cannot have, at least within the theoretical framework of Stoic ethics. As a result, they also cannot say a sage would not perform activities pertaining to wealth or money-making, as wealth is not bad per se. At the same time, Chrysippus’ claim about the quiet life makes it very clear that, as long as the circumstances allowed for it, the sage would probably mostly enjoy a quiet and modest life, with little or no pursuit of wealth. Such a conclusion hints at an interesting stance: the Stoics seem to maintain that wealth and wealth acquisition is not necessarily immoral, but, circumstances allowing, a genuinely virtuous person would not pursue them either. Thus, the Stoic attitude towards personal wealth gain, although not very restrictive, is also ultimately not as liberal as one might suppose.

For this reason, if, after all, we did want to look for ancient wisdom (despite the warning of anachronism) and ask what an average Stoic would say about wealth inequality in our contemporary societies, the answer would have to be critical, even if the Stoic way would be to argue the misguided attitude towards wealth, not wealth itself, is the ultimate culprit.

Aistė Čelkytė is a postdoctoral fellow in Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her research interests include Hellenistic philosophy, ancient science and their intersections. Her monograph The Stoic Theory of Beauty was published in 2020.

Works mentioned

Hard, R., & Gill, C. 2014. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Helmer, É. 2021. Oikonomia: Philosophie grecque de l’économie. Paris: Classiques Garnier.

Pomeroy, A. J. 1999. Arius didymus. Epitome of Stoic Ethics. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Robbins, L. 1962. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. 2nd. ed., rev. and extended. London: Macmillan.

Staveren, van I. 2001. The Values of Economics: An Aristotelian Perspective. London/New York: Routledge.

4 thoughts on The Stoics on economic agency: is wealth moral? By Aistė Čelkytė

  1. JohnBurnside says:

    Love the Stoic insight on the topic. I find it interesting that politicians, at least in the United States, make the assumption that once their ideal of wealth redistribution is complete, everyone will be happy. It is a false premise. We would be a much more stable society if Stoicism was taught to the masses.

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