Wealth Through The Eyes Of Sages

Over the years I've found myself in many conversations that turned rather briskly on the subject of money and wealth. The focus, invariably, would be on all the corruptions that accompany abundance: smugness and complacency in character; the monomaniacal obsession of having more and more; indifference to the suffering of others; the inclination to sequester oneself from society, and so on. Then as now, I tended to sympathize with the person too mindful of the trappings of power.

In recent years I've wondered whether the moral pose doesn't conceal mere envy or lessen the anxiety that someone else has gotten along quite well in life. Denunciations of the better-off can be a rationalization for mediocrity, a deflection from the absence of riches and fame in one's own life. And the heart of the moralist may yearn as profoundly for universal esteem and recognition as that of the most ambitious tycoon, so that very little distinguishes the two in motive and disposition.

So, what have philosophers over the ages had to say about wealth? Here is a random sampling of viewpoints.

"We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one [sic] who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly, --- the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting is certain that the fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers."

-- William James (1842-1910), The Varieties of Religious Experience

"I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure individuals is the only thing that can lead us to noble thoughts and deeds. Money only appeals to selfishness and irresistibly invites abuse. Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?"

-- Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Mein Weltbild

"We are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly, and from these Taxes the Commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an Abatement. However let us hearken [sic] to good Advice, and something may be done for us; God helps them that help themselves, as Poor Richard says, in his Almanack of 1733."

-- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), The Way To Wealth

"Wealth is excessive when it reduces a man to a middleman and a jobber, when it prevents him, in his preoccupation with material things, from making his spirit the measure of them. There are Nibelungen who toil underground over a gold they will never use, and in their obsession with production begrudge themselves all holidays, all concessions to inclination, to merriment, to fancy."

-- George Santayana (1863-1952), Reason In Society

Your name or your person,
Which is dearer?
Your person or your goods,
Which is worth more?
Gain or loss,
Which is a greater bane?"
-- Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

"Riches are valuable at all times, and to all men; because they always purchase pleasures, such as men are accustomed to, and desire: Nor can any thing [sic] restrain or regulate the love of money, but a sense of honour and virtue; which, if it be not nearly equal at all times, will naturally abound most in ages of knowledge and refinement."

-- David Hume (1711-1776), "Of Refinement In The Arts"

"Without a rich heart wealth is an ugly beggar."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), "On Wealth"

"There is a wealth of humbug in this life, but the multitudinous little humbugs have been classified by Chinese Buddhists under two big humbugs: fame and wealth. There is a story that Emperor Ch'ienlung once went up a hill overlooking the sea during his trip to South China and saw a great number of sailing ships busily plying the China Sea to and fro. He asked his minister what the people in those hundreds of ships were doing, and his minister replied that he saw only two ships, and their names were "Fame" and "Wealth". Many cultured persons were able to escape the lure of wealth, but only the very greatest could escape the lure of fame. Once a monk was discoursing with his pupil on these two sources of worldly cares, and said: "It is easier to get rid of the desire for money than to get rid of the desire for fame. Even retired scholars and monks still want to be distinguished and well-known among their company. They want to give public discourses to a large audience, and not retire to a small monastery talking to one pupil, like you and me now."...many wise men know that the desires for success, fame and wealth are euphemistic names for the fears of failure, poverty and obscurity, and that these fears dominate our lives."

-- Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living

"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo [sic], Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty."

-- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), "Walden"

See the second part of this article.