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When in Rome

Jim Wasserman  |  July 3, 2019

WE DON’T NORMALLY think of classical philosophy as relevant to modern money management. Perhaps it’s the perception that philosophers live humble, financially insecure lives ruminating on ethereal matters. Or, as my businessman father said when he saw I was taking a philosophy course, “That will make you interesting at parties, but how will you eat with it?”

Meet Marcus Aurelius.

If you aren’t a classics person, Marcus was born to a powerful and rich Roman family, spending the greater part of his life being trained for leadership. He became emperor in 161 A.D., ruling or co-ruling for some 20 years. His legacy from his time as the richest, most powerful man on earth: He’s considered one of the “five good emperors” and one of Rome’s greatest leaders. He was also the philosopher emperor, specifically writing about stoicism, which was very popular among Rome’s wealthy and powerful.

Marcus thought there was a natural flow to the universe in which we all operate. One of the keys to a “good life” is to recognize that flow and our place in it, specifically identifying which parts we have control over and which we don’t. For the parts that we can’t control, we should “assent” and accept them, rather than fruitlessly fighting against them. For Marcus, the happy life comes from leading a virtuous life of right actions, which in turn is derived from using logic and reasoning to decide where best to focus our efforts, so we can positively influence matters.

This might seem like old school commonsense, yet consider some modern dilemmas:

  • We feel insecure about our worth, so we spend lavishly to impress others—which may or may not work.
  • Parents feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their children, so they buy the kids cars and take them on exotic vacations—only to disappear again from their children’s lives.
  • We overwork at our jobs—which we may not even like—and then overcompensate by spending on distractions from work, including opiates and other harmful substances and activities.
  • We’re worried about our spending habits relative to our income and retirement saving needs. But instead of cutting expenses, we go in search of a higher paying job.

In all of these cases, we fail to examine what might be made better by right focus and effort. We refuse to recognize, assent and embrace the problem, instead using our money and power to mask the real issue or fruitlessly try to counterbalance it. It’s spending based on negative emotion rather than reason, focusing on a patch, not the problem. Marcus might say that, if we feel swept along by the river of life, we should stop using our money to try to build a hurried and temporary dam. Instead, we should learn to swim.

Marcus seems to speak to today’s affluent society. We shouldn’t wield our money and power like a broadsword, swinging blindly and in resentment against general unhappiness. Instead, we should use our tools like a rapier, with precision, after having calmly reasoned where we can affect positive change—and accepting that which we can do nothing about. That reasoned action should include using our money and power to help our fellow man, along the way gaining virtue—and hence greater happiness—by addressing community problems where we can make a difference.

Take it from one of the most successful and wealthy emperors in history: Judicious use of our money isn’t just important to a life of contentment and happiness. Rather, it’s imperative.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include Bundle of JoyGetting Played and The S Word. Jim’s three-book series on teaching behavioral economics and media literacy,  Media, Marketing, and Me, is being published in 2019. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at YourThirdLife.com.

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