In Praise of Poverty

Appearances can be deceiving. The Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) supposed that a person flitting from one indulgence to the next might be the most miserable soul alive. Like a drug, the more pleasure he experiences, the less he is able to curb his thirst for more. He lives for the ‘good times’, but every satisfaction leaves a vacuum in its wake.

What reason, again, can there be why a man should not rightly enough be called miserable whom we see inflamed and raging with lust, coveting everything with an insatiable desire, and, in proportion as he derives more pleasure from anything, thirsting the more violently after them? And as to a man vainly elated, exulting with an empty joy, and boasting of himself without reason, is not he so much the more miserable in proportion as he thinks himself happier ? (Tusculum V.6, trans. Yonge)

The problem, as Cicero sees it, is something of a paradox: the more that our pleasure-hunter believes happiness is to be found in food, drink, sensuality, and fame, the more miserable he becomes. Every time he experiences the elation of pleasure, he grows increasingly certain that he has found the secret to happiness. But it is an illusion. The moment is elusive. The achievement is temporary. No bliss is permanent. Happiness, ironically, leaves him miserable, and being miserable compels him to seek happiness. Around and around he goes.

True happiness, Cicero tells us, is contentment: “For as folly, even when possessed of what it desires, never thinks it has acquired enough, so wisdom is always satisfied with the present” (V.18). Virtue, then, is the capacity to find happiness anywhere, anytime. And the opposite of virtue is seeking pleasure and comfort for its own sake. True contentment does not need pleasure and comfort in order to be satisfied. In fact, it is exactly in the absence of superfluous luxuries and extravagances that contentment shines most brightly. This, therefore, is where virtue is most evidently found.

For Cicero, the above paragraph is no trifling insight. This, he tells us, is the heart and height of philosophy. All roads lead here. All who dare to exercise their intellectual capacity for reason ought to be able to follow the logic of the great philosophers to arrive at this conclusion. “And almost all philosophers, of all schools, excepting those who are warped from right reason by a vicious disposition, might have been of this same opinion” (V.32). If we were to ask Cicero, What is the point of philosophy? he would surely reply, “To show us that the happy life is one of virtuous contentment.”

Want, need, poverty — through these doors we learn contentment, and through contentment we learn happiness. Frugality and minimalism, therefore, lead us to the height of virtue. The desire for more is the ultimate prompt to be happy, as long as we do not rush out to fulfill our desire with more. The person who embodies happiness is the one revelling in what he already has, not calculating and plotting for what he thinks he must acquire.

The day would fail me, should I be inclined to defend the cause of poverty. The thing is manifest; and nature daily informs us how few things there are, and how trifling they are, of which she really stands in need. (V.35)

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