The changing nature of wealth: stuff is out


Let’s return to Croesus for a moment. That’s the guy who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus” and who learned the hard way about the ups and downs of life. Today I want to use him, the richest of the rich, to begin a brief meditation on wealth, as a way of understanding our modern problem with stuff. Because stuff is what we’re trying to figure out in this thread.

It used to be that wealth was a thingy thing, a state of having lots of stuff, especially stuff that others wanted and did not have. Let’s savor for a moment a brief passage from Herodotus, in which he dwells lovingly on the details of Croesus’ stuff/wealth. This was the porn of the fifth century BCE.

Croesus, in this passage, wants to impress the Delphic oracle, so he gives it lots of stuff:

three thousand of every kind of sacrificial beast, and besides made a huge pile, and placed upon it couches coated with silver and with gold, and golden goblets, and robes and vests of purple…. The king melted down a vast quantity of gold, and ran it into ingots, making them six palms long, three palms broad, and one palm in thickness. The number of ingots was a hundred and seventeen, four being of refined gold, in weight two talents and a half; the others of pale gold, and in weight two talents. He also caused a statue of a lion to be made in refined gold, the weight of which was ten talents…

On the completion of these works Croesus sent them away to Delphi, and with them two bowls of an enormous size, one of gold, the other of silver… Croesus sent also four silver casks, which are in the Corinthian treasury, and two lustral vases, a golden and a silver one… Besides these various offerings, Croesus sent to Delphi many others of less account, among the rest a number of round silver basins. Also he dedicated a female figure in gold, three cubits high, which is said by the Delphians to be the statue of his baking-woman; and further, he presented the necklace and the girdles of his wife.

Necklace and girdles? That sounds like the junk we just got rid off at the yard sale.

This, in other words, was the age of things, of stuff. Almost all people had extremely little of it, so to get any stuff at all was a stroke of fortune, and immediately imposed the need to hoard it and the anxiety of losing it. When you gave people gifts (and I’ll have more to say about gifts in another post), you gave things/stuff, because that’s how worth and sacrifice was defined.

All that is over, at least for the middle and upper classes of the rich countries today. (If you’re reading blogs, you belong to that set.) Our wealth is no longer thingy/stuffy. If anything, an excess of things is a mark of poverty. Any household today, even a trailer in Appalachia, is filled with gadgets that would have made Croesus green with envy.

What has taken the place of things? Two things:

  1. Time. We have so little of it, and so much stuff, that the exchange rate between the two has shifted hugely toward time. If you have money/things but no time, you are poor. Time is now one definition of worth and sacrifice, so when you really want to give a special gift, you give your time. You volunteer, or you spend a few hours of totally focused playtime with your children, or you take time to talk, really talk, with a friend/lover.
  2. Experiences. While the people in the Appalachian trailer haul in more TVs and fridges and toasters, the wealthy now buy themselves and their children experiences. Education is the big one, and that includes piano and tennis lessons, the trip to Europe and the Louvre. In my twenties, wealth was having hiked the Annapurna Circuit, say, or having sat in on a session of the House of Commons. Now, in my thirties, wealth is giving my children the experience of snow in the winter, seawater in the summer, and so forth.

So stuff is obsolete. Out of date. Unnecessary. Not worth anything. Which raises the question: Why do most of us hang on to it anyway, ruining their Feng Shui and making themselves miserable? I’ll try to tackle that anon, but I’m sure you’ve all got your ideas, so let’s have them.

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Croesus learns about success and happiness


I mentioned that A.E. Housman might have got the idea for his poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, from his study of the classics, in particular Herodotus. I had one particular story from Herodotus in mind when I said that. It is the story of King Croesus.

(The story almost made it into my coming book about success and failure in life, but then it got a bit crowded and I cut it out.)

1) Croesus the happy

In the sixth century BCE there was a king named Croesus in Lydia (today’s Turkey). He was so rich that we still today say “rich as Croesus”. But he always wanted confirmation from others that he was indeed the richest, the most successful, the happiest man alive. Why would he need confirmation? One wonders. But people always do.

As it happened, Solon, the man who had given the Athenians their laws and who was the wisest man in Greece at the time, came for a visit. This was exactly the sort of man Croesus wanted to impress.

I paraphrase (the text is here):

Croesus: ‘Welcome Solon. You’re the wisest man in Greece. I’ve heard so much about you. Please take a tour of my palace and look at all the gold and silver, the women and slaves and fruit, and all my splendor. Isn’t it wonderful? Tell me: who is the happiest man in the world?’

Solon: ‘Tellus of Athens, sire.”

Croesus: [Blank look. Silence.] ‘Sorry, but… Who?’

Solon: ‘Tellus, sire. He was this guy who lived when his country was prosperous, and he had two sons and some grandchildren.’

Croesus [still uncomprehending]: ‘Right. So what? What does that have to do with anything?’

Solon: ‘Well, you see, he died on the battlefield, and the Athenians gave him a proper funeral. So he died knowing that everything was good in his life.’

Croesus [rather miffed, irritable]: ‘Well never mind. Who is the second happiest man in the world?’ [smiles and nods, leans forward]

Solon: ‘Cleobis and Bito.’

Croesus [jumpy, shocked]: ‘Who the hell are Cleovice and Vico?’

Solon: ‘Cleobis and Bito, sire. They were these two young lads in Argos. Their mom wanted to go to a festival but couldn’t find any oxen to pull her cart. So the two sons put the yoke on their own necks and pulled the cart to give their mother a ride. The whole town was watching and everybody loved them for it. Their mom was really proud. Later that night, both her sons fell asleep and never woke up. What a wonderful way to die.’

Croesus: ‘You’re supposed to be a wise man, Solon! What is this gibberish you’re talking? I asked you who the happiest man in the world is. Look around, for god’s sake. Look at me! What about me?’

Solon: ‘You? How would I know? You’re doing well right now. But wealth and success don’t last. And what comes next, nobody knows. I will know whether you were successful and happy after you die.’

Croesus thought Solon was a senile idiot and sent him home. Then he went back to enjoying his life.

2) Croesus the miserable

He fell from happiness in stages.

It started with a bad dream. In it, one of his two sons, his favorite, was killed by an iron weapon. Croesus immediately banned all iron weapons and tools from his palace. But his son soon got bored and went with his friends into the woods for a boar hunt. They cornered the boar and one man hurled a spear. It missed the boar and killed the prince. Croesus was devastated.

But he still had his kingdom, his wealth and another son, even though that son was mute. Even so, that was a lot to be happy about.

At this time, Persia was a rising empire in the east, and Croesus wanted to know his future. So he asked the oracle of Apollo some questions:

  • Will my surviving son ever speak? Answer: ‘You will rue the day when he speaks.’
  • Should I launch a preemptive war against the Persians? Answer: ‘If you march, a great kingdom will be destroyed.’
  • How long will I rule? Answer: ‘Until a mule rules over Persia.’

Apollo, you see, always said enough to be interesting and not enough to be helpful. (Ask Oedipus.) Croesus couldn’t figure out the bit about his son at all. He loved the second answer, since he was apparently fated to destroy the Persian kingdom. And he liked the third answer, since the Persians, as far as he knew, did not obey mules.

Off he went to war. The Persians won and stormed Croesus’ city, Sardis. A great kingdom was destroyed.

As the Persian soldiers were running through the streets to slaughter, Croesus took his son by the hand and ran for his life. One Persian grabbed Croesus and flashed his blade. Suddenly the mute boy screamed: “Do not kill him, for this is Croesus, king of the Lydians.” You will rue the day when he speaks.

So Cyrus, the Persian ruler, had Croesus, his defeated enemy, brought before him. Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian–a mutt. A mule.

A pyre was built, and Cyrus took his throne to watch the spectacle. Croesus was about to be burnt alive. The flames were already licking his feet.

Croesus on the pyre

Croesus on the pyre

3) Croesus the wise

Death was near, and Croesus suddenly thought of Solon. He started moaning:

“Solon, Solon, Solon!” “Solon, Solon, Solon!”

Cyrus sat up. What was this man muttering? This was not the name of a god. Just then it started raining. Cyrus looked up. Whatever Croesus was muttering seemed to be effective.

“Stop the fire. Bring him down. I want to ask him a question!”

Croesus was brought before Cyrus.

Cyrus: “Tell me what you were moaning.”

Croesus: “Solon, sire. He was a man who offered me wisdom and I spurned it.”

Cyrus: “What wisdom is that?”

Croesus: “He said to count nobody happy until the end is known.

Cyrus [thoughtful, empathetic, reflective]: “You may have spurned Solon then, but you seem to be a wise man now. I would be foolish to be the one spurning the wisdom now. I will let you live. I want you to be my adviser.”

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