True Wealth: What early Western philosophers taught us

True Wealth: What early Western philosophers taught us

The peasant farmer in the classical musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” prayed, “Lord, how about giving me a small little fortune”. The question is, however, will the small little fortune make us wealthy? The answer to this, off course, depends on you view of wealth. If you live by the definition that wealth is a small little fortune, then the answer will be, “yes”?  The early Western philosophers would say that a small little fortune, is by far a too narrow definition of wealth. The first recognized Western philosopher was Thales who knew how to determine the height of a pyramid from the length of its shadow and who became famous for predicting an eclipse in 585 BC. As Thales was a poor man, he was ridiculed despite his wisdom. He set out to prove to the inhabitants of Miletus that he could use his wisdom to be as good as anyone else to accumulate material wealth. He predicted by the stars whether there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year. Few shared this view and he was able to buy olive-presses in Chios and Miletus at a low price. When harvest time came, many wanted olive-presses which he rented out at a higher than usual price and he made a fair amount of money. Thus proving that monetary wealth was actually not that difficult to come by. The more difficult part of wealth for him and for the Western philosophers after him was to find true happiness. Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), the first Greek philosopher, and also the first to teach that the priority of personal integrity was in terms of a person’s duty to himself – and not to the gods or the law, or any other authorities. For this he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens and had to drink the hemlock. Plato, a student of Socrates, continued along the same lines and concluded that the ideal state (in his work Republic) depends on how people conduct themselves. Of Plato’s many scholars, Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), who also was a teacher to Alexander the Great, taught (in his work Nicomachean Ethics) that to be truly happy, people had to be virtuous. In the end, true happiness, for the early Western philosophers, was therefore not about money, but rather linked to living a good and virtuous life. A virtuous person therefore, was in other words the truly wealthy person. Happiness was measured by the degree of one’s character rather than by the accumulation of material goods. In our personal quest towards wealth building we should take note of this and let character determine our wealth and not merely the small little fortune we would like to pray for.

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