Poverty: Seneca on What Makes a Person Poor

This is one of the most important lessons of Stoicism

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“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the man who hankers for more.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

This sentence from Letter II is one of Seneca’s most often quoted ones. Unless you’re desperately poor, you feel Seneca’s talking straight at you.

What’s wrong, you say, with wanting a car when you don’t have one? Nothing really. What makes you poor is how you want things -that is, never being satisfied or grateful with what you do have, and coveting that which others have.

Read on from Letter II and, a couple of sentences later, Seneca points out that it makes no difference how much property and wealth a person has “if he is always after what is another’s, and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already.”

“Hankering” for a car and working for one while being immensely grateful for your legs and bike are two vastly different things.

Have you ever met people who are extraordinarily wealthy and for whom having more and more becomes a vice? They’re the extreme example of what Seneca’s getting at. They almost are looking for things to need, but their real need is to satisfy their addiction for more.

What I take away from Seneca’s teaching is this: the appreciation for what one has must be much greater in intensity than the desire for what one doesn’t have. 

It goes another way too: the more we appreciate, the less we will feel poor.

Day 22 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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