Stoicism and the Virtuous Path to Financial Independence

For the first time in a decade, this past week I started and finished reading a book. I was a voracious reader in high school, but when I hit college I completely stopped and just haven’t had the desire to read a book since.

After seeing the umpteenth reference to how impactful someone found Meditations, the series of personal writings by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius nearly 2,000 years ago, I finally decided to give it a read myself. Meditations is a classic of stoic literature. It’s divided into twelve books of no particular organizational structure, which are further divided into passages varying in length from a sentence to a few paragraphs.

The passages are written by the emperor as a series of notes to himself of actionable advice and his ideas on Stoic philosophy. Historians think it’s almost certain that the book was a sort of private journal and was never intended for publication.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a book that you read at a traditional pace. Stopping frequently to digest the meaning and impact of a particular passage is essential.

I liked Meditations, so I then went on to read another recommended (and shorter) stoic classic, The Enchiridion by Epictetus. Throughout both of these books I found concepts which tie nicely into financial independence. There’s a huge overlap between pursuing FIRE and deciding to live more intentionally.

I’m definitely not claiming to be the first person to discover this connection, and in fact I remember reading about Stoicism on Mr. Money Mustache’s blog just over a decade ago. Of course I was around 18 years old at the time, so I’m pretty sure my reaction was something like “philosophy-shmilosophy, whatever man.” MMM read some other, more modern summary book on Stoicism and not the original works, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the primary sources.

A brief summary of Stoic philosophy

Mostly copied from Wikipedia:

Stoicism is a philosophy of personal virtue ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, asserting that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve eudaimonia (happiness). The Stoics identified the path to eudaimonia with a life spent practicing the cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation) and living in accordance with nature.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and those external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good nor bad in themselves but have value as “material for virtue to act upon.” The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will that is “in accordance with nature”. Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved.

Connections between Stoicism and FIRE

I’ve been involved in the FIRE community for a decade, and it’s such a large part of my life that it has changed not only how I think about my personal finances, but also shaped my feelings about broader things including the value of my finite time on this planet, consumerism, and social norms regarding money. I think this happens to a lot of people pursuing financial independence, and the overlap with some aspects of stoicism is interesting given the 2,000 year gap. While reading Meditations and The Enchiridion I noted several areas where it seemed stoicism had provided inspiration for FIRE philosophy.

Example 1: On living more simply

And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free — free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them — those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess — and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind — to prize it — will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well — embracing what they allot you, and what they ordain.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.16 (translation by Gregory Hays)

Marcus Aurelius’ commitment to a simple lifestyle in line with the stoic virtue of moderation was clear. Arguably the most powerful man in the world during his time, the Roman emperor eschewed the luxuries that his position could have provided to him. He was reported to have slept on a cot with animal skins rather than a plush bed and wore simple clothing.

The argument presented by Aurelius is that people who prize things like fame and material goods are unlikely to find self-satisfaction due to the all-consuming nature of these pursuits and the mental burden that they create. Someone who has achieved total control over their rational faculties would not desire such things, and would find contentment with what they have in life.

Aristotle called moderation “the golden mean” where virtue is found precisely in the middle between excess and deficiency, hence the source of moderation in all things as a stoic virtue.

Those on the path to FIRE must necessarily live quite a bit below their means in order to save and invest quickly enough to retire early. Many of us opt for a frugal yet comfortable lifestyle, optimizing to get the most value out of each dollar and cutting off spending when the marginal returns no longer make sense. This hits two of the stoic virtues: moderation, as well as wisdom (the good sense of keeping one’s affairs in order).

Example 2: On hedonic adaptation and consumerism

The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

Epictetus, The Enchiridion XXXIX (translation by Elizabeth Carter)

This was conveyed by Epictetus as a rebuke to Hedonism, a competing philosophy in the same time period which argued individuals should seek to maximize pleasure above all else.

Hedonic adaptation references the tendency of humans to return to a baseline level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes. Because we adapt to our circumstances, short-term gains or losses in happiness do not translate to long-term changes in our happiness set point.

Think of the last major purchase you made, maybe a new car, maybe a phone, or some sort of fancy electronic toy. The joy you get from acquiring these items slowly fades over a week or two, and before you know it you are back at the same level of happiness in life as before you bought the item.

This phenomenon has also been referred to as the “hedonic treadmill.” Although people may increase their consumption over time in search of spending their way to increased happiness, for example by purchasing progressively nicer cars as their salary increases, they never truly make any progress towards a happier life.

Epictetus is warning us of the slippery slope that can occur when we look past the functions of our possessions and instead focus on the form.

Example 3: On making the most of our limited time

Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time — even when hard at work.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.7 (translation by Gregory Hays)

In Stoicism, “externals” are anything that we do not have control over. It is considered foolish to spend your time and mental effort worrying about externals. Rather, we could have spent that time improving ourselves, our communities, or working towards something of value to us.

Almost everyone pursuing financial independence is doing so to have more freedom over how we spend our time. On the path there we have some varying degrees of control over how much we save, which jobs we work, and how much we earn. Though many of us choose to work jobs we aren’t passionate about in order to reach FIRE more quickly, this is still a decision that we choose to make.

This is a nice motivational passage to remind us to focus our limited time on the things that are truly valuable to us.

Can Stoicism add value to your life?

Overall I found my read of these two introductory stoic texts to be valuable far beyond the FIRE connection. It gave me some things to think about applying as broader life philosophies. In many cases the passages struck me as more eloquent reminders along the lines of things that I’ve previously considered that I “should be” doing.

There are some valid criticisms of Stoicism, such as it being a deterministic belief system in which people have no free will. However for being nearly 2 millennia old, many of the texts hold up very well. Meditations can get a tad repetitive, but I think this is due to the nature of the text where Marcus Aurelius is writing these things as reminders for himself, and some of the reflections seem like drafts for other passages. The sheer number of passages related to death may indicate that the emperor spent more time worrying about that topic than his writings would have prescribed.

I think the best course of action here is the same as with most things philosophical — pick and choose the parts which you feel have value. You don’t have to become a dogmatic follower of anything just because you read a book or two on the subject.

Which translations of these texts to read?

Due to the age of these texts, several translations are in the public domain.

For Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, I tried a couple of the public domain translations which were apparently in Early Modern English and honestly could not get through all the “thee/thou.” I did some research and went with a more modern translation of Meditations by Gregory Hays and I’m glad that I did as it was a lot more readable. For a free option, the translation by A. S. L. Farquharson appears to be the least obtuse one in the public domain, however comparing passages directly I find it much more difficult to decipher in places than the Hays translation.

For The Enchiridion by Epictetus, I went with the public domain version translated by Elizabeth Carter. Free! For a translation done in the mid-1700’s it has held up amazingly well in terms of modern readability.

I’d definitely recommend that you read both Meditations and The Enchiridion. Bring an open mind, your thinking cap, and a highlighter.

Questions? Additional thoughts? Leave a comment below!