Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Platonic Wealth Building

A couple of nights ago, I was reading Plato's Republic only to be surprised by the fact that the first issue to be discussed was wealth building! The Republic is a political philosophy, indeed the political philosophy. The basic thematic question is: what is justice? Plato not only wants to understand and articulate a theory of Justice but he also wants to propose a pragmatic model that could be implemented. As a piece of literature, it is staged as a dialogue, which is characteristic of most of Plato's writings. This particular dialogue is completely narrated by Socrates, who is incidentally the main character of the drama. At the beginning of the drama, Socrates is invited to participate in a festival that is taking place in the city. On his way to the city, he encounters a pleasant older gentleman named Cephalus.

Cephalus is unusual older gentleman because he possesses a sense of contentment and happiness, which seems to run contrary to many older people who no longer enjoy the benefits of youth “as the physical pleasures wither away” (I. 328d2). Socrates, was quite astonished by this, inquires about how he has achieved this state of mind. Celphalus provides an astonishing rationale for his philosophy of thinking young. He basically says 1) old age does not “cause many evils” 2) rather it is “the way people live,” or a lack of personal responsibility. This personal responsibility is founded on the principles of moderation and contentment, which is practically demonstrated in the way one approaches personal-finance.

Cephalus is admittedly one who has great wealth, but it is well that he himself has acquired and no thanks to his father's wasteful opulence. Cephalus is indifferent to wealth itself, but is satisfied by the benefits that he has achieved by means of his wealth. He clearly states that his wealth has benefited him in two areas: 1) he is able “to leave my sons here not the last but a little bit more than I inherited,” 2) he stands fearless before the gods because he knows he has lived "the just and pious life" and this life was made possible by the fact that wealth enables one to speak truthfully – without coercion – and one his people to a man and gods.

This is extremely interesting because Cephalus has drawn attention to the significance of money in three different yet related social spheres: family, economy, and religion. He doesn't have a strained relationship with his family because he has put them in the best possible financial circumstance. This means, even in his old age he is taken care of by his children because he has ensured (at least in part) there wealth. He's not at odds with the state because he has been able to pay his debt. He does not have to fear the gods because he has lived a good life and he has paid for all the proper sacrifices (this last point certainly is theologically suspect, but the principle remains true). Money does not just affect I – It relationships. That is, money is not just a way for an individual to relate to a large impersonal society. On the contrary, money is also a way of relating to family, neighbor, and God. Money is reflective of one's personal character. This does not mean that a lack of money equals a lack of character. In other words, character is not measured by quantity, however character is reflected in one's use or misuse of money. The acquisition and use of wealth should be guided by a sense of moderation and contentment. The acquisition of wealth will enable a person to provide for his family, speak the truth in confidence, and live with complete integrity before God. The purpose of acquiring great wealth is not mere acquisition but personal character and provision.

Now, admittedly, Socrates dismisses Cephalus’understanding of justice on the grounds that it does not provide a sufficient definition of justice, specifically in the case of truth speaking. However, if we are to be fair to Cephalus, he was simply referring to personal justice and not widescale political justice. In addition, even though "Socrates" (the literary character) dismisses Cephalus’case study, I believe that Plato is holding up Cephalus as a paradigm example of somebody who is a Just citizen and who has achieved a just balance in life by means of a pure state of mind. The principal here is: just character begins the heart but is expressed outwardly through one's use of allotted power, which in this case is money. Truly, this is the first principle of Platonic wealth building!