Stoic Wisdom: Being Rich or Poor Doesn’t Give You an Advantage

This Seneca quote suggests the road to wisdom depends only on you

By with lantern
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

“If we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

This quote from Seneca is worth pondering because it’s both encouraging and suspect.

The motivating part is that having any amount of wisdom depends on how much you work for it. You can get better at wisdom with practice and intention. It’s not bestowed on a specific group by fate.

The suspect part comes from having pondered other takes on the subject of wisdom and moral enlightenment.

When I read Seneca’s words, I instantly thought of a quote by Mark Twain I came upon at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut -a worthwhile visit if you ever happen to be in the area.

“Prosperity is the best protector of principle.” I wrote it down because it rang true. It’s easy for anyone prosperous to criticize the beggar and the shoplifter as lazy, dishonest and crooked.

But the beggar might be mentally ill and not have access to health care. The shoplifter may have been fired from a minimum wage job due to a recession plus his wife got sick. He stole some bread out of desperation. The beggar and the shoplifter can’t “afford” to stick to the prosperous people’s principles.

Then there’s this famous sentence from Matthew’s gospel: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

We have three different propositions here. According to Seneca, wisdom is equally accessible to anyone; Twain says the prosperous have it easier when it comes to keeping to principles; and the Matthew gospel says the poor are far more likely to get into heaven.

This is how I rationalize the three. Twain is merely getting at the fact that prosperity makes it easier for people to be preachy about principles. Matthew doesn’t deny that everyone must try to follow Jesus’s teachings (Christian wisdom); he’s just saying that the rich will have to work harder at it.

Seneca’s take is that wisdom is not a God-given gift and that anyone can attain some measure of it, and just leaves it at that. Of all three positions, Seneca’s is the most unifying and motivating for sure.

Seneca reminds us that we mustn’t stereotype the poor or the rich as more or less wise, and that the opportunity to grow in wisdom and moral enlightenment is available to all.

Day 15 of 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Share Article