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5 Finance Tips From Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophers

Finance tips from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.
Finance tips from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Credit: 401(K) 2013. CC BY 2.0/flickr

The opinions and advice of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were much sought after, whether about learning, debating, biology, physics, or dialectics, but one thing that is perhaps undersold is the great advice on finance they provided.

Earning, lending, borrowing, spending; money management and the wider goals of financial literacy are a minefield, and there is plenty of advice out there given by today’s experts in the stock market or banking industries, but financial management is something ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought about too.

From Epictetus to Plato, nearly every ancient philosopher has at least some financial advice to give, and many of their suggestions are still useful and relevant today. In that light, here are five pieces of fantastic financial advice from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

Finance tips from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers

1. The ability to control desires, written about in the Enchiridion of Epictetus

Epictetus's Enchiridion.
Epictetus’s Enchiridion. Credit: University of Glasgow Library. CC BY 2.0/flickr

One could do worse than leafing through the pages of Enchiridion – a collection of teachings from ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus – if they are looking for sound advice on finance.
Epictetus believed that true wealth lies not in material possessions, but within ‘us’, and can be discovered if we learn to identify what is in our control and what is not.

The central point being made can still be applied to the managing of finances, in that it can teach us not to concern ourselves withy external factors like market fluctuations or economic crises, and instead focus our attention on wat lies within our own choices.

A key piece of financial advice which can be derived from Epictetus‘ teachings is that one should ‘cultivate a mind of frugality’, reminding us that true happiness is not found in a world preoccupied with consumption. Owning more and more ‘stuff’ does not make a person fulfilled, but learning to be grateful for the things one already has can bring about a greater joy.

Epictetus also dispenses the knowledge of caution, advising us to carefully assess our needs vs our wants before making any buying decisions. This is a great reminder not to impulse buy, and always keep a level head when spending.

According to Epictetus, we command our desires, thoughts and actions, and everything else is out of control.

2. Developing your own financial principles, as taken from Sophocles’ Antigone

Sophocles's Antigone Page.
Sophocles’s Antigone Page. Credit: College of William & Mary Law Library. CC BY 2.0/flickr

One of the central themes of Sophocles’ great play is that of duty, and responsibility. The audience sees the drama unfold through the eyes of the play’s namesake character – King Creon orders Antigone not to bury her brother Polynices, who he says is a traitor to the state, but she refuses.

Amid the struggle, Antigone state that her duty to her family is far greater than any man-made laws or decrees. This idea can remind us that in everyday life, money and material wealth can pull us away from the responsibilities and priorities that really matter.

This is a particularly poignant point because it goes against the general milieu of today’s societies, where money is central to everything – entertainment, media, commerce.

Another important theme in the ancient Greek playwright’s work is the eventual consequence of excessive pride and arrogance – pertinent to finance. Both king Creon’s and Antigone’s pride respectively, leads them to their disturbing ends. Creon’s hubris clouds his judgement of reason and logic, resulting in him making decisions driven by ego instead of rational thought.

In a similar way, Antigone’s ceaseless pride takes her down a path of self destruction. The moral message of this theme is clear: unchecked desires for wealth and power can cloud our judgement and better nature, leading us down destructive paths.

According to Sophocles, money is an instrument of exchange. When what we have is not enough, this leads to discouragement. Further, lots of people find themselves in a situation where they don’t even have the money to make ends meet, let alone chase their dreams, so saving in such a situation is very challenging.

This can be avoided by figuring out basic financial principles for yourself and sticking with them. For example, spend less than what you earn and keep a record of all expenses.


3. Learn the principles of wise men according to Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Credit: Michael Graham Richard. CC BY 2.0/flickr

The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius‘ work Meditations contains a litany of sound advice on finances that is worth heeding even today.

One of the emperor’s key concepts is the importance of developing discipline when it comes to money. He teaches us that the pursuit of excessive wealth typically leads to dissatisfaction because it always has us wanting more.

Instead, he emphasizes the importance of finding contentment by living within our means. Similarly to the previous two philosophers, Marcus Aurelius believes one should choose to focus on what really produces joy in life, rather than chasing material goods.

Marcus Aurelius also recommends frugality and simplicity, stating that when we practice moderation in our spending habits, burdens need not mount unnecessarily, nor is there any loss of stability in our lives. By spending money only on what we need, and not being wasteful, we can ease financial burden.

Further advice from Marcus Aurelius urges us to cultivate inner peace, so that we can detach ourselves from material wealth. He believed that people should assess their real needs against their shallow wants by taking time to reflect on what they truly value in life. By taking a course of action based on these values, a person can cease to be distracted by fads and trends.

The emperor also underscores ethical behavior in financial matters, highlighting the importance of handling business with integrity and honor.

4. Know your limits, as taught in Plato’s Republic

Plato's Republic.
Plato’s Republic. Credit: quinn.anya. CC BY 2.0/flickr

Although Plato’s seminal work is about the ideal state, it does capture a handful of important principles that can be interpreted as extremely useful financial advice.

Perhaps the most significant fraction involved in Plato’s idea of the ideal state is the notion of specialization and societal harmony. In the ancient Greek philosopher’s vision, individuals are specialized in specific roles defined by their natural abilities and aptitudes. This division of labor is essential to the efficient running of the community, and facilitates economic growth and prosperity.

From the perspective of finance, the Greek philosopher’s concept demonstrated the importance of ‘finding our true selves’ if we are to manage our finances effectively. It suggests we should aim to develop our skills in areas which we know we are already good in, rather than trying to improve on everything at once.

Understanding our limitations is the forerunner to making informed choices about whether to seek other people’s help or not, and it also helps when building relationships with other people who may complement the skillset you have.

A further key point in Plato’s Republic is that of moderation and temperance, where he warns us against excessive desires and advocates for a meaningful life balanced by both material wealth and spiritual fulfilment.

In terms of money, Plato advises throwing out extravagant luxuries driven solely by greed or the urge to impress. He argues that true wealth lies beyond material possessions.

5. Learn to control yourself, as per The Letters of Epicurus

Epicurus. Credit: mharrsch. CC BY-2.0/flickr

Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher who founded Epicureanism, devoted his life to indulging in and understanding pleasure, and how to achieve a peaceful life. In his famous Letters, penned to friends and disciples, he offered numerous wise words about making good decisions with finances without alienating fellow Greeks and losing focus on what really matters.

Again, Epicurus’ central message is that material excess is unimportant. He believed that owning too many possessions would bring about unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety. Instead, he advocated moderation in material needs, realistic limits and restraint when spending, and focus on what is truly important.

For Epicurus, wealth comes from having few needs, rather than owning many things.
At the center of the ancient Greek philosopher’s teachings is the importance of meaningful relationships, and he suggests people pursue relationships that rest on common values. With a close friend, money matters can be discussed openly and freely, without reprisal.

A further valuable nugget of advice on finance within the pages of the ancient Greek’s Letters revolves around investing wisely. According to Epicurus, investments did not solely pertain to monetary gains, but money spent on one’s health, education and personal growth.

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