Socrates & Personal Finance

Painting by Jacques-Louis David of Socrates drinking Hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens.

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Many people would ostensibly observe that there is no connection between the philosophers of antiquity and the modern challenges of achieving financial freedom.  The financial gurus talk about various tactics and strategies to make money and build businesses, but there’s a piece most ‘finance’ people miss because they don’t teach philosophy in business school.  

I’m a Certified Public Accountant, but since an early age, I’ve been autodidactic when I suspect there is something valuable to learn outside my formal academic education.  I believe knowledge combined with wisdom is how we solve our greatest personal and collective problems.  

One connection that I’ve yet seen be made by the personal finance community is the enormous value of classical Greek philosophy, specifically, the teachings of Socrates and Plato to those striving for financial freedom.  

They are undoubtedly disparate subjects, but at their core, they are basically the same. When you commit to achieving financial freedom what do you do?  You first recognize why you aren’t free then you progress logically to determine the best strategy to achieve your goals.  In essence, you’re engaging in the same intellectual exercises that philosophers use to find pearls of truth and wisdom.

Philosophy has been determined to be a useless activity by many people the world over.  I believe this is due to the fact that academia destroys its essence because it doesn’t teach philosophy within the context of how it can benefit people today in the real world.

I offer you the most powerful philosophical ideas presented by the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. I will show you what the connection is to your life, your goals, and your pursuit of financial freedom.

Over 2,500 years ago, in the city that gave birth to democracy, a poor and ugly man roamed the Athenian streets.  He did not have status, visible power, or attractive looks, but he had a youthful following and a love for truth.  This man was famous for engaging his fellow Athenians in conversations that were facilitated by inquisitive questions that eventually exposed flawed thinking.

His name was Socrates, the father of Western Philosophy.  What could a penniless man who rejected vanity and material possessions provide those seeking financial freedom?  

Socrates provides nothing less than the philosophical blueprint to self-create and become an autonomous free thinking individual.  Socrates’ teachings are a sort of navy seals training manual for your mind.  He gives you the intellectual weapons to eviscerate illusions from your midst and drive towards the truth you seek.  

How can we change anything without knowledge of reality? Ignorance is our only enemy and truth our loyal guide in any endeavor, but especially on the road to financial freedom.

Allow me to begin in the year 399 BC, in the days before Socrates’ death, which would ironically become the climax of his life.  After Athens’ defeat to Sparta in the protracted Peloponnesian War and decades of questioning the assumptions that Athenian society was built on, Socrates was brought up on charges of corrupting the youth of the city.  

Under the hot Athenian sun, he addressed 500 of his fellow Athenians and would set forth a code of living that would benefit mankind for thousands of years.  Thanks to his disciple Plato millions of people would come to learn of this obscure philosopher’s life credo. 

Midway through his defense, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates hits a universal tone, “Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much…”

Seek wisdom and virtue first, then worldly success.  For if a man achieves wealth, but lacks virtue and wisdom he is a danger to the human race, not a benefactor.  And what is the purpose of wealth if it does not bring increased justice and good to the world?

In the midst of the trial Socrates was given several choices: 1) eternal silence give up your way of life, stop engaging the youth to be freethinkers 2) exile from Athens, or 3) commit suicide by hemlock poisoning.

“There are many reasons why I am not grieved, O men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected it, and am only surprised that the votes are so nearly equal…”

In light of these 3 choices Socrates chooses to die for what he believes in.

“And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly, that which is my due. And what is that which I ought to pay or to receive? What shall be done to the man who has never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care about – wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to follow in this way and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to everyone of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests.”

Look at the long list of people who achieved wealth, but not wisdom.  Is there anything more dangerous than a person who is wealthy and powerful, but not wise?  The world’s ills are more or less premised on this truth.  History is full of figures that amassed enormous fortunes on the broken dreams of millions of others.  Men and women who used their wealth and power not to empower their fellow Man, but rather enslave and destroy for profit and dominance.

If you achieve financial freedom by betraying human decency it defeats the very purpose of being financially free.  For what is the purpose of wealth if it does not advance Mankind? Financial freedom gives you power, it doesn’t necessarily change you, but rather magnifies your virtues and flaws.  This is why so much is dependent on you building a rock solid character on universal virtues and wisdom, just as Socrates suggested.  If you don’t, your pursuit of financial freedom will be vain, vacuous, and inevitably self destructive.

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