Practicing poverty, so that you have nothing to fear

Around 63 AD, a Roman stoic philosopher named Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote 124 letters to a knight named Lucilius. These letters explain and extol the virtues of a philosophy known as Stoicism.

For example, Letter 18 (On festivals and fasting) suggests that you:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

Seneca suggests that practicing a fear, helps diminish the fear. So if you fear poverty or losing your job, practicing being content with less (the scantiest, cheapest fare) can help reduce your fear.

Seneca goes on to say…

…my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

Seneca argues that if you rehearse poverty on a regular basis, say a few days each month, you’ll better appreciate your current situation and understand that happiness is not dependent on wealth.

…let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

Here are some things I’ve done in the past that I found rewarding:

  • Food: Ate oatmeal for breakfast, hard-boiled eggs for lunch, vegetables and lentils for dinner (cost of about $3 a day).
  • Transportation: Rode my bike or walked whenever possible.
  • Electricity/Heating: Cut back on electricity and heating/cooling; read by candlelight, went to bed early and got up with the sun.
  • Spending money: Counted how many days I could go without spending money.

And here are some new things I’m contemplating after reading Seneca’s letter:

  • Sleep: Sleep on the kitchen floor instead of my comfy bed.
  • Food: Fast for a portion of the day or drink Soylent once a day (liquid nutrition that tastes like chalk).
  • Clothing: Wear the same clothes for several days, washing them by hand.

What do you think? Is practicing poverty worthwhile or just annoying?

To read more letters, check out Moral letters to Lucilius or at your library checkout Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.

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