A guest essay by Georg Kohler, Professor emeritus for political philosophy
You are rich if you are not fearful about what your future holds; if you are a curious and dynamic person. What is needed to take this courageous step forward can be discovered by looking back to the classical philosophy of 2000 years ago.
It is possible to own many possessions, yet still be poor. That is because you may be lacking happiness and contentment with your own life. One key to a truly rich life is offered to us by the philosophy and wisdom of the ancient Greeks, above all that of Diogenes and Aristotle. Already more than 2000 years ago, they dealt with the question of understanding the relationship between wealth, money and happiness. Shortened to a single formula, it could be said:
Happiness = (friendship+trust) × (money+courage+independence)
If you own many possessions, you also need the courage to freely decide which one of the many possibilities you have to attain personal happiness is the truly right one. Without courage, we remain trapped in the vacuum of possibilities. Or in other words, if you are not capable of giving away any of your possessions, ultimately you will be left with nothing.
However, courage alone is not enough. A second thing you need is the inner independence to keep needs and possibilities in balance: not to want more than you need to enjoy life. An anecdote from the life of Diogenes illustrates this.
The beggar philosopher, Alexander and independence
Once the mighty ruler Alexander the Great paid a visit to the happy ascetic Diogenes. This beggar philosopher lived in a barrel, apparently in need of nothing. When Alexander asked him what he desired, Diogenes replied, “I just want you not to stand in the sun. More than that, I don’t need.” At that moment, the powerful and wealthy Alexander the Great recognized the inner wealth of Diogenes, and replied, “Truly, if I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
Diogenes had balanced his needs with reality and made himself independent of the temptations that others put before him. In this way, he had found happiness. What’s more, no one could dispute this spiritual wealth – not even the most powerful man of his time.
“Happiness belongs to those who are self-sufficient.”
Aristotle, Greek philosopher
For most of us, however, radical asceticism is not a viable path to happiness. This was also clear to Diogenes’ contemporary Aristotle. In his view, possessions and material prosperity legitimately belong to a good life. But what Aristotle also believed – something that is still relevant to us today – is the importance of human solidarity: the capacity for empathy, the quality of fairness, and the willingness to see others as more than just dangerous rivals, indifferent strangers, or as people seeking to exploit our shortcomings for their own gain. In short: trust and friendship.
To become rich, it takes the courage to let go
Trust and friendship are the essential keys that open the door connecting material possessions with a meaningful existence. They give us the courage we need: the courage to first let go and then become truly rich. Only then can we achieve what we all strive to achieve: an enjoyable life.