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OF THE LOVE OF WEALTH. - Plutarch, The Morals, vol. 2 
Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by Several Hands. Corrected and Revised by William W. Goodwin, with an Introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 Volumes. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878). Vol. 2.
Part of: Plutarch’s Morals, 5 vols.
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OF THE LOVE OF WEALTH.
1. Hippomachus, a master of the exercises, when some were commending a tall man that had long hands as one that promised fair to be good at fisticuffs, replied, A fit man indeed, if the victor’s laurel were to be hanged up aloft, and should be his that could best reach it and take it down. We may say the same to those that esteem so extravagantly and repute it so great a felicity to possess fair fields, stately mansion-houses, and a great deal of money lying by them, — that they were in the right, if happiness were to be bought and sold. You may see indeed many persons that choose rather to be rich and at the same time very miserable, than to part with their money and become happy. But, alas! indolency and repose of spirit, magnanimity, constancy, resolution, and contentment of mind, — these are not a money-purchase. Being wealthy is not despising wealth; nor is possessing things superfluous the same as not needing things superfluous.
2. From what other evils then can riches free us, if they deliver us not even from an inordinate desire of them? It is true, indeed, that by drinking men allay their thirst after drink, and by eating they satisfy their longings after food; and he that said,
if more clothes had been heaped on than he needed, would have thrown them off, as being ill at ease. But the love of money is not abated by having silver and gold; neither do covetous desires cease by possessing still more But one may say to wealth, as to an insolent quack,
Thy physic’s nought, and makes my illness worse.
When this distemper seizes a man that wants only bread and a house to put his head in, ordinary raiment and such victuals as come first to hand, it fills him with eager desires after gold and silver, ivory and emeralds, hounds and horses; thus taking off the appetite, and carrying it from things that are necessary after things that are troublesome and unusual, hard to come by, and unprofitable when obtained. For no man is poor as to what nature requires and what suffices it; no man takes up money on use to buy meal or cheese, bread or olives; but you may see one man run into debt for the purchase of a sumptuous house, another for an adjoining olive-yard, another for corn-fields or vineyards, another for Galatian mules, and another by a vain expense,
has been plunged over head and ears into contracts and use-money, pawns and mortgages. Moreover, as they that use to drink after they have quenched their thirst, and to eat after their hunger is satisfied, vomit up even what they took when they were athirst or hungry; so they that covet things useless and superfluous, enjoy not even those that are necessary. This is the character of these men.
3. As for those that spend nothing although they possess much, and yet are always craving more, they may still more increase our wonder at their folly, especially when one calls to mind that of Aristippus, who was wont to say, that when a man eats and drinks liberally and yet is never the nearer being filled, he presently goes to the physician and enquires what is his disease and his indisposition and how he may get rid of it; but if one that has five beds desires ten, and having ten tables is for purchasing as many more, and having land and money in good store is not at all filled, but still is bent, even breaking his natural rest, upon getting more, and when he has never so much never has enough, this man thinks he has no need of a physician to cure him and to show him from what cause his distemper arises. Indeed, when a man is athirst that hath not drunk at all, we expect that upon his drinking his thirstiness should cease; but as for him that drinks and drinks and so goes on without giving over, we do not think such a one needs further repletion, but evacuation; and we advise him by all means to vomit, as knowing that his trouble proceeds not from the want of any thing, but from some sharp humor or preternatural heat that is within him.
Among those persons, therefore, that are for increasing their substance and getting more, he that is poor and indigent may perhaps give over his cares when he has got a house or found a treasure, or, by a friend’s help, has paid his debts and his creditors have discharged him. But as for him that, having more than enough, yet still desires to have more, it is not gold nor silver, not horses, sheep, or oxen, that can cure him of this disease, but he needs evacuation and purgation. For his distemper is not penury and want, but an insatiable desire and thirst after riches, proceeding from a depraved and inconsiderate judgment of things, which if it be not plucked out of men’s minds, like a thing twisting across and contracting them, they will always be in want of superfluities, that is, be craving things they have no need of.
4. When a physician visits a patient that has thrown himself upon his bed and lies there groaning and refusing to eat, he feels his pulse and asks him some questions; and finding that he is not at all feverish, he tells him it is his mind that is distempered, and goes his way. When we see therefore a man pining away for more means and sighing sadly at any expenses, forbearing no sordid or painful course that brings him gain, when yet he hath houses and lands, herds and slaves, and clothes enough, what shall we call this man’s disease but poverty of mind? For as for want of money, one friend, as Menander says, by being a benefactor to him can cure it; but as to this other of the mind, all a man’s friends, living or dead, cannot satisfy it. It was therefore a good saying of Solon concerning such persons:
To those indeed that are wise, the riches that Nature requires are limited, and confined within the compass of their real needs, as within a circle drawn from a centre at a certain distance.
There is also this particular mischief in the love of wealth, that this desire hinders and opposes its own satisfaction, which other desires do procure. For no man abstains from a good morsel because he loves dainties, nor from wine because he thirsts after wine, as these men abstain from using money because they love money. Does it not look like madness and a piteous distemper, for a man not to make use of a garment because he shakes with cold, to refuse to eat bread because he is ready to famish with hunger, and not to use wealth because he is greedy of getting it? This is the evil case that Thrasonides describes: “I have such a thing within by me, I have it in my power, and I will this thing (like those that are madly in love), but I do it not. When I have locked and sealed up all, or have told out so much to the usurers and tradesmen, I scrape together and hunt after more; I quarrel and contend with the servants, the ploughmen and debtors. O Apollo, hast thou ever seen a more wretched man, or any lover more miserable?”
5. Sophocles being asked by one whether he was able yet to company with a woman; Heavens defend, said he, I have got my liberty, and by means of my old age have escaped those mad and furious masters. For it is very fit and becoming that, when our pleasures leave us, those desires should do so too, which, as Alcaeus says,
But it is otherwise in the love of wealth, which, like a hard and severe mistress, compels us to get what it forbids us to enjoy, and excites an appetite but denies the pleasure of its gratification. Stratonicus wittily abused the Rhodians for their profuseness, when he said that they builded their houses as if they were immortal, but provided for their tables as if they were to live but a little while. So covetous men seem to be profuse by what they possess, when they are sordid wretches if you consider what they use and enjoy; for they endure labor, but taste no pleasure.
Demades once came to Phocion’s house and surprised him as he was at dinner; and when he saw his frugal and slender diet, I much wonder, Phocion, says he, that you should manage state affairs, and can dine as you do. For this orator himself pleaded causes and harangued the people only for his gut; and looking upon Athens as affording too little a supply for his luxury, he fetched his provisions from Macedonia. For which cause Antipater, seeing him when he was an old man, compared him to a sacrifice when all was over and there remained nothing of the beast but only the tongue and the stomach. But who would not wonder at thee, O wretched man, who, being able to live as thou dost, — so sordidly, so unlike a man, bestowing nothing on anybody, being currish to thy friends, and without any ambition to serve the public, — yet afflictest thyself and watchest whole nights, hirest out thy labors, liest at catch for inheritances, crouchest to every one, when thou art so well provided by thy sordid parsimony to live at ease?
It is reported of a certain Byzantine, that, surprising a whoremaster with his wife that was very hard-favored, he cried out, O wretch, what compelled thee to do this? — for her dowry is my solace. It is necessary for kings, for procurators under them, for those that covet pre-eminence and rule over cities, that they should heap up treasure; they are forced through ambition, pride, and vain-glory to make feasts, to gratify friends, to maintain a retinue, to send presents, to feed armies, to purchase gladiators. But thou hast so much business lying upon thy hand, tormentest thyself, tumblest up and down, and all this while livest the life of a snail in thy shell through parsimony, and endurest all hardships, receiving no advantage at all; just like the bath-keeper’s ass, that carries the wood and fuel for the fires and is always filled with the smoke and ashes of the stove, but itself is neither bathed nor warmed, washed nor cleansed there.
6. I have said enough of this sort of covetousness, which makes a man live the life of an ass or ant. But there is another sort of it which is more savage, that calumniates and gets inheritance by bad arts, that pries into other men’s affairs, that is full of thoughtfulness and cares, counting how many of their friends are yet alive, and after all enjoying nothing of what by all these arts has been heaped up.
As therefore we have a greater aversion and hatred against vipers, poisonous flies, and spiders than against bears and lions, because they kill and destroy men, but serve themselves no farther of their carcasses, which they do not feed upon as those other wild beasts do; so they that become bad and ill men through sordidness and parsimony deserve more of our abhorrence than those that prove such by luxurious living and excess, for they deprive others of what they are neither able nor inclined to make use of themselves. Hence it is that the luxurious, when they are rich and well provided, give some truce to their debaucheries; as Demosthenes said to some that were of opinion that Demades ceased to be an ill man. Now, says he, you see him full and glutted, like lions, that then hunt not after prey. But as for the others, who in the management of affairs propose no end to themselves either of pleasure or profit, their covetous desires have no truce or cessation, they being always empty and standing in need of all things.
7. But some perhaps may plead on their behalf, that these men keep and hoard up their wealth for their children and heirs, — to whom they part with nothing whilst they are alive; but, like those mice that live in mines and pick up and eat the golden sands and ore, you cannot come by any of that gold, till you anatomize them to find it after they are dead. But to what end, I pray, would they leave such a deal of money and a great estate to their children and heirs? That they forsooth may preserve it also for others, and those others in like manner shall hand it down to their children (just like those earthen pipes the potters make for a water-course, which retain none of the water themselves, but one pipe only conveys it to the next), till some informing false accuser or tyrant appears and cuts off this keeper in trust, and when his breath is stopped, derives and diverts the course of his wealth into another channel; or, as they say, till some one that is the most wicked of the race devours and consumes all that those who went before him had preserved. For not only, as Euripides says,
but it is as true of the children of the parsimonious; as Diogenes wittily abused this sort of men, when he said that it was better to be a certain Megarian’s ram than his son. For, under the pretence of training them up and instructing them, they undo and pervert them, implanting in them their own love of money and meanness of spirit, and erecting as it were a fortress for the securing their inheritance in the minds of their heirs.
For the instructions and lessons they give them are such as these: Gain as much and spend as little as may be; value yourself according to what you are worth. But certainly this is not to instruct, but to contract and sew them up, just like a purse, the better to conceal and keep what is put into it. The purse indeed becomes foul and musty after money is put up in it; but the children of the covetous, before they are enriched by their parents, are replenished with covetous desires which they derive from them. And indeed they pay them a deserved reward for their instructions, not loving them because they shall receive a great estate from them, but hating them because they have it not so soon as they fain would. For being taught to admire nothing but wealth, nor knowing any other end of living but to get a great estate, they account the life of their parents to be a hindrance to that of their own, and fancy so much time is taken from their own age as is added to theirs. Wherefore, whilst their parents are yet living, they secretly always steal their pleasures; and what they bestow upon their friends or spend upon their lusts, and even what they give to their teachers, is fetched as it were from another’s estate, not from their own.
But when their parents are dead and they are once possessed of their keys and seals, then their way of living is of another fashion, and they put on another face and aspect, grave, severe, and morose. You hear no more of their former pastimes, nor of exercises with the ball and in wrestling, nor of the Academy or the Lyceum; but they are wholly taken up in examining the servants, looking over writings, in debating matters with those that receive or owe them money. Their hurry of business and thoughtfulness will not give them leave to dine, and they are forced to make the night their time of bathing; the gymnastic schools in which they were educated and the water of Dirce are neglected. If any man ask him, Will you not go and hear the philosopher? How can I, says he, now that my father is dead? I am not at leisure. O miserable wretch! What has thy father left thee to be compared with what he has taken from thee, thy leisure and thy liberty? And yet it is not so much he that hath done it, as the wealth that flows round thee and overpowers thee, which, like the women Hesiod speaks of,
bringing on thy soul those cares — like untimely wrinkles and old age — that spring from covetous desires and multiplicity of business, that shrivel up all thy vigor and gayety, all sense of honor, all kindness and humanity within thee.
8. But some will say, Do you not see rich men live splendidly and spend high? To whom we answer: Dost thou not hear what Aristotle says, that some there are that do not use wealth, and some that abuse it? For neither sort do what is fit and becoming; but what the one sort possess does neither advantage nor adorn them, and what the other sort have does both hurt and dishonor them.
But let us further consider, What is the use of riches, for which men so much admire them? Is it the enjoyment of what suffices nature? Alas! in this respect the wealthy have no advantage of those that are of a meaner fortune; but wealth (as Theophrastus says) is really no wealth and need not be coveted, if Callias, the richest man of Athens, and Ismenias, the wealthiest of Thebes, made use but of the same things that Socrates and Epaminondas did. For as Agathon sent away the music from the room where he feasted to the women’s apartment, contenting himself with the discourses of his guests, so you would reject and send away the purple beds and the high prized tables and all other superfluous things, should you see that the rich make use of the same things with the poor.
I do not mean thou shouldst presently
but much rather the impertinent labor of goldsmiths, turners, perfumers, and cooks, when thou resolvest wisely and soberly to banish all useless things.
But if the things that suffice nature lie in common among those that have and those that want riches, — if rich men pride themselves only in things superfluous, and thou art ready to praise Scopas of Thessaly, who, when one begged somewhat of him he had in his house, as a superfluous thing he had no use for, made answer, “But we rich men count our felicity and happiness to lie in these superfluities, and not in those necessary things,” — if your case be thus, have a care you do not seem like one that magnifies and prefers a pomp and public show at a festival before life itself.
Our country’s feast of Bacchus was in old time celebrated in a more homely manner, though with great mirth and jollity. One carried in procession a vessel of wine and a branch of a vine, afterwards followed one leading a goat, another followed him bearing a basket of dried figs, and after all came a phallus. But all these are now despised and out of date, the procession being made with golden vessels and costly garments, driving of chariots and persons in masquerade. And just thus the things that are necessary and useful in riches are swallowed up by those that are unprofitable and superfluous.
9. The most of us commit the mistake of Telemachus. For he through inexperience, or rather want of good taste, when he saw Nestor’s house furnished with beds and tables, garments and carpets, and well stored with sweet and pleasant wine, did not look upon him as so happy a man in being thus well provided with things necessary and useful; but when he beheld the ivory, gold, and amber in Menelaus’s house, he cried out in amazement: —
Whereas Socrates or Diogenes would have said rather: —
Thou fool, what is it thou sayest? When thou oughtest to have stripped thy wife of her purple and gaudy attire, that she might cease to live luxuriously and to run mad after strangers and their fashions, instead of this, dost thou adorn and beautify thy house, that it may appear like a theatre or a stage to all comers?
10. The happiness riches pretend to is such that it depends upon spectators and witnesses; else it would signify nothing at all. But it is quite otherwise when we consider temperance or philosophy, or such knowledge of the Gods as is requisite. For these, though unknown to all other mortals, communicate a peculiar light and great splendor within the soul, and cause a joy that dwells with it as an inmate, whilst it enjoys the chiefest good, though neither Gods nor men may be privy to it. Such a thing is truth, virtue, or the beauty of geometrical and astrological sciences; and do riches, with their bravery and necklaces and all that gaudery that pleases girls, deserve to be compared with any of these? When nobody observes and looks on, riches are truly blind and deprived of light. For if a rich man makes a meal with his wife or familiars alone, he makes no stir about magnificent tables to eat on or golden cups to drink in, but uses those that come next to hand; and his wife, without any gold or purple to adorn her, presents herself in a plain dress. But when he makes a feast, — that is, when the pomp and theatre is to be fitted and prepared, and the scene of riches is to enter, —
then they provide lamps, and much ado is made about the drinking-cups, they put the cup-bearers into a new dress, they bring forth whatever is made of gold and silver or set with precious stones, thus plainly declaring that they would be looked upon by all for rich men. But even though he should eat his meal alone, he wants hilarity of mind and that contentment which alone makes a feast.
[* ]Il. XV. 453.
[* ]Hesiod, Works and Days, 703.
[* ]Hesiod, Works and Days, 45.
[* ]Odyss. IV. 74.
[* ]See Il. XXIII. 259.