“Let’s pass over to the really rich – how often the occassions they look just like the poor! When they travel abroad they must restrict their baggage, and when haste is necessary, they dismiss their entourage. And those who are in the army, how few of their possessions they get to keep…” – Seneca, On Consolation to Helvia, 12, 1.b-2
How often do you look at someone driving an expensive car, wearing a nice suit or sitting in first class and consider them as successful? As much as I try to focus on the intrinsic qualities of a person, I find myself, at times, making judgements based on material representations. Our Western ideals such as owning property and work as a measuring stick of success create a world view where material success is a goal.
Is there something wrong with wanting nice things, or taking pride in achieving occupational success? Absolutely not. Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome, and he struggled to mirror the Stoic life he wrote about. One example is his banishment to Corsica as a punishment for sleeping with Caligula’s sister. It was during this banishment that he wrote On Consolation to Helvia, which were letters to his mother Helvia.
What it must have been like for someone with Seneca’s wealth and political power to receive such a punishment? If we look at the above quote we can understand the reality of what happens to the rich can happen to any of us. Yes, money and power can get you privilege, but these trappings cannot absolve you being treated even like someone who is poor. Also, as rich as one might be there is usually someone with more money who, if crossed, can invoke some degree of justice greater than the lesser rich person can.
The philosopher Albert Camus wrote:
“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”
Camus was referring to the existential problem of “why”. All material things and achievements cannot absolve us of our internal problems and questions. Rich or poor, we are all in search of something to value that is lasting.