Thoughts on Stoicism and Financial Independence.
Image from Wikipedia
I recently read ‘How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living’ by Massimo Pigliucci. Naturally, I am now an expert in this subject matter.
I kid, I kid. As always, writing helps me to process what I’ve read. So, I don’t write the following post pretending to be an expert in Hellenistic philosophy; instead, it is a way of “thinking out loud.” I found a number of ideas relevant to financial independence and thought they might be of interest. Furthermore, the best way to learn about something is to try to teach others about it. So, here goes!
Stoicism – a brief introduction
Stealing from Wikipedia:
“Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.”
One of the key teachings of Stoicism is that ‘virtue is the only good, and everything else is indifferent.’
Stoicism can be broken down into four virtues:
- Practical wisdom – navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.
- Courage – doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.
- Justice – treating every human being, regardless of their stature in life, with fairness and kindness.
- Temperance – exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.
Some of these are beyond the scope of a personal finance / investing blog, but maybe I’ll revisit them another time. There are a few things in particular that I wanted to focus on.
Useful ideas from Stoicism
Dichotomy of control
“Some things are under our control, and others are not. Our decisions and behaviours are under are control. Everything else is outside of our control. We should concern ourselves with that which is under our control, and handle everything else with equanimity.”
― Epictetus, The Enchiridion
I think this is particularly timely right now, when looking at the volatility of the stock market, or the advance of Covid-19.
You can’t control what the stock market does, in any capacity. Maybe you invest in it and it returns 10% annually over the course of 10 years. Or maybe the returns are negative. However, you can control the amount you save and invest over that time. The more money you invest (rather than spend), the more money you will have available to you at the end of a given period of time.
Continuing with the stock market allegory; if the stock market crashes, we should not panic. Instead, we should do what we can to improve our chances of success.
That might mean:
- upskilling to improve our chances of new/continuing employment.
- signing on to job seekers allowance / universal credit / unemployment if we have recently been let go.
- deciding to put more money into the stock market if we have some spare.
- tightening our purse strings and cutting back on some non-essentials until the world is back to normal.
Obviously, some of this is easier said than done. I don’t want to come across like those obnoxious tweets, “if you don’t come out of this lockdown with a new skill or business, you’re just lazy.” That’s a huge simplification of a very unusual and stressful time. Nonetheless, if you can follow some of this advice, I suspect it would put you in a stronger position in the future.
Seneca also came to a similar conclusion:
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Clearly he would be a “set and forget” type of investor!
The Shortness of Life
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
– Seneca, On The Shortness of Life
Seems like something that all those seeking to retire early should consider. Some will advocate working flat out for a number of years, before then quitting work and living a life of luxury. If you put off “living your best life,” until some indeterminate time in the future, all you have really done is spend some of the best years of your life toiling away. Whilst the principles of FIRE are sound and are of value to everyone, I think the secret lies in constructing the life you want to live, now. Save for the future, certainly, but don’t forget to live today.
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
― Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
On first reading, this quote appears to be perfect for the FIRE movement. Frugality and minimalism are frequently touted as routes to financial independence. And of course, with good reason. You’ll never reach “financial independence” if you’re spending most of your income each month.
Stoic teachings state that wealth (among many other things) is neither good nor bad. Obviously, people would rather be wealthy than live in poverty, but supposedly wealth itself does not make a fundamental contribution to human happiness.
On further research, though, this quote makes me laugh. Seneca was a massive hypocrite! Living in the 1st century AD, he was at one time the adviser to the emperor Nero, and one of the richest people in Rome. This quote is a bit much coming from a member of the 0.1%!
Nonetheless, the sentiment holds true; spending and owning less is certainly a fundamental part of reaching financial independence.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Luck demonstrably plays a huge part in life.
I was born in the UK during a time of relative peace, stability and prosperity, to white, middle-class parents. This alone affords me so much more opportunity than most people in the world. If life is a marathon, then I have the good fortune to start the race halfway along the track.
However, I also believe that success is (usually) down to a lot of hard work as well. I’m reading through Elon Musk’s biography at the moment (thank you, Tony! ). It’s clear that he is an extremely driven individual.
Jeff Bezos is another example; on the one hand, he was given $300,000 by his family to help start up Amazon. On the other, now the richest man on the planet. A lot of luck, but also a lot of hard work.
An example from my own personal experience: one of the reasons that I decided on a PhD was to have the opportunity to work abroad. I worked hard (… most of the time) with that in mind. Towards the end of my PhD, my supervisor approached me with just such an opportunity. A friend of his was looking to start a research institute in a foreign country, and was looking for applicants. Applicants who, conveniently enough, had the skills that I had been developing over the past three years. I was a little nervous, but I took full advantage and applied for the job. Twelve months later, I was travelling to Heathrow, and beyond! There was a large element of “right time, right place,” but I still had to put in the work to take that opportunity.
So, there we have it. Some of the most interesting / relevant ideas I’ve come across whilst reading about Stoicism.
I think my favourite is the first point; focus on what you can control, and leave everything else to do what it may. It strikes me as a good outlook to have, enabling you to focus on doing the best you can.
I don’t think I’m quite a fully converted Stoic, but the philosophy certainly has some good ideas. I’m now intrigued to read about other ideas and philosophies, both ancient and more recent. I’m actually most interested to read more about Epicureanism – “the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquillity.” At first glance, it sounds like the opposite of FIRE! But I’m sure there are some nuggets of wisdom to be found.
Over to you
What philosophies or guidelines do you try to live your life by?
Have you read anything from a seemingly unlikely place that has influenced your outlook on life, money or happiness? Maybe religion, a work of fiction, music, a different philosophy, etc.
Thanks for reading.