Wealth, Poverty and Freedom
Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, Freedom, Poverty, Wealth

By Henry van Wagenberg


We’ve all heard the argument that "development" and "aid" are necessary before human beings can have “capability.” It is the idea that only people who have certain resources can be "capable" or "free." 

In the context of the ancient Greek world, critics sometimes note that Aristotle and Plato's schools had many young aristocratic students (Plato's included women, Aristotle's did not). The argument is that only aristocrats could afford the schole (leisure) to practice philosophy and to live lives of capability and freedom. And (the claim goes) the same is true today.

I would like to make at least three arguments against this claim. 

Many of the "aristocrats" of yesteryear would be poor by today's standards. Think of all the crazy technologies even many poor people have access to - cell phones, internet and combustion engines (say, on little motorbikes). The ancient Greek aristocrats lacked access to even basic medical care. A doctor today in Liberia has access to cheap treatments that would change thousands of lives in, say, ancient Athens. One in every four Athenians died from plague during the Peloponnesian War. If an ancient Greek aristocrat stepped into our world, he might only have a few pairs of clothes. He would have no knowledge of even rudimentary tech skills like typing. He might own a decent number of herd animals. In other words, material and skill wise he might be comparable to a land-owning farmer today in rural India or China. Yet despite their lack of technology and radical vulnerability to the ravages of disease these ancients still lived lives of great capability, freedom and philosophy. How do we explain that?

Many people rich by world standards today act in ways that, upon close inspection, betray a lack of capability and freedom. How many people do we know, who, despite great wealth and privilege by world standards, are -- when we really cut down to it -- unhappy? How many people do we all know who are trapped and enslaved to bad/diseased conceptions of the good and the good life? Isn't it ironic that for thousands of years poverty was praised and celebrated by traditions like Christianity as the path to capability and freedom? Today, we argue, in contrast, that virtue is impossible without money. (Or at least, too unfairly difficult to expect from people). Doesn’t this show a change in what we worship?

Poor people alive in the world today living lives of great flourishing, freedom and capability. To take just one example, Tibetan Buddhist monks live lives of poverty. But who would argue that their lives are impoverished? These monks fast for days - on purpose. In many ways, aren't these monks more capable and more free than, say, a Wall Street banker chasing deals and trying to keep up with the Joneses? 

I would also add a fourth argument about the ancient Greeks. In adding this fourth argument, I would also like to suggest a replacement for the image of capability/freedom/philosophy of Aristotle's giant aristocratic research university with, instead, Diogenes the Cynic on the streets of Athens living in a barrel, or Epictetus in his slave quarters in Italy, or Cleanthes the boxer, carrying water at night up to the Athenian agora so that he can stand around philosophizing with his Stoic friends by day. All of these men were poor, or even enslaved. It is inaccurate to claim that Hellenistic ethics/capability/freedom/philosophy is or was only for the "rich". 

I will also add an anecdote from personal experience. I was working in the Philippines in 2011 and 2012. Most people in poor countries live a rural life, and the pace of rural life is slow. In fact, many Filipinos I saw, and met, lacked many things, but free time was not one of them. The schole to practice philosophy is available to them, just like it was to the ancient Greeks, or the yogis of India. 

Life in poverty poses many difficulties. People in poor countries do lack things that make it challenging to achieve capability and freedom. Education is a big one. Law and order, culture and basic stability in family life are others. If we lose sight of the fact that many poor people have lived and do live lives of virtue, freedom and capability -- and there are wealthy people who do not -- we might pick the wrong methods when we try to help other people to flourish.

Epictetus, the Stoic slave, and Jesus both brilliantly invert the meaning of two contrasts: wealth and poverty, and freedom and slavery. Epictetus, at the court of Nero with his master Epaphroditos (Nero’s secretary of petitions) had a perfect vantage point to observe the cravings affecting the most powerful people in the world -- men and women who were slaves to their ambition, their jealousies, their status at court and their cravings for luxuries (#Ancient Roman 1st-World Problems). By contrast Epictetus reflected on the freedom and richness of his own inner world. The slave Epictetus was the true master -- a master of himself -- and the Roman masters were the true slaves -- slaves to their impoverished cravings for money and status.

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