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Ancient Philosophy for Modern Finances

By Brandon Schleter


A quirky hobby of mine is that I like to find really, really old books and read them. The subjects range from mathematics, to history, to most recently, a book on philosophy. I love doing this because, first, you can see how people spoke and wrote 90-150 years back, but you can also learn how people thought. It's like catching a glimpse of history's little gems, and it really does take you back in time, especially knowing what we know now, in the 21st century.

I was reading recently about the writings of one of the world's most famous philosophers in the 1600s, a man named Baruch Spinoza. Now, I never took philosophy during my education, so bear with me if you have several notches in your philosophy belt.

A brief background on this Spinoza character. He grew up Jewish and a son of a wealthy merchant. Instead of following his father's business footsteps, in his early 20s he spent a lot of time with the elders of the synagogue and was looked at as a potentially great leader of the congregation. However, he had certain writings that criticized religion and its practices. While the synagogue didn't necessarily want to excommunicate him from the Jewish faith, the Dutch/Christian political pressure forced them to.

He was excommunicated from his family, his town, from leaders of the church, and even his own sister tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. He later won that court case, but, he still gave the money to his sister. It was this incident in his life that led him to live modestly, and his books and lifestyle both teach a lot about money.

He would remark to people that "...he was a serpent who forms a circle with his tail in his mouth," meaning that, he never had any money, as he always spent exactly what he had. Historians have found that he actually had the means to obtain quite a sum of money from some influential people at the time, but this is how he chose to spend his life.

One of the guiding principles of financial planning and saving for retirement is, of course, living below your means. Even as far back as the 17th century, Spinoza was teaching this lesson. In one of his popular books, The Improvement of the Intellect, he wrote: "To speak in a manner comprehensible to the people, and to do for them all things that do not prevent us from attaining our ends. To enjoy only such pleasures as are necessary for the preservation of health. Finally, to seek only enough is necessary for the maintenance of our life and health, and to comply with such customs as are not opposed to what we seek."

He did indeed live a modest lifestyle and found happiness not in material goods, but in his purpose. He found happiness in his teaching and writing philosophy, and the act of doing such was enough for him.

Personally, I find someone who grew up wealthy, shunned that wealth and still ended up content and happy someone to truly reflect on. The key lesson to take home here is to change how you think about your finances, whether it's saving, the stock market, or both. True happiness can only be found in a journey towards something better, not necessarily the near-term satisfaction. Find ways to enjoy and feel fulfilled in your financial journey, as you begin to gather your savings, invest for the first couple of years, and work on your career. Take Spinoza's lessons to heart, and the end of that journey is likely to take you somewhere where you never thought possible.

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