The Stoic Metaphor of Profitable Transactions

This short article explores the recurring Stoic metaphor that life is a series of financial transactions, that may be profitable or involve loss, and that the wise man does not see externals as worth buying at the expense of his own character and excellence.

“For what shall it profit [ôphelei] a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark, 8.36)

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew, 6.24)

What if we were to view life as consisting of a series of “transactions”, in which our own actions and character are “spent” in exchange for various things?  According to the Stoics, virtue is always profitable, because it is a reward enough in itself but also leads to many other good things, such as friendship. Accepting that your fate entails the occasional loss of external things is the price nature demands for your sanity.  If the price you pay for external things is that you enslave yourself to them or to other people, says Epictetus, then be grateful that if you renounce them by saving your freedom you have profited insofar as you put a higher value upon that.

This metaphor goes back at least as far as Socrates, who says in Plato’s Phaedo:

The exchange of one fear or pleasure or pain for another fear or pleasure or pain, which are measured like coins, the greater with the less, is not the exchange of virtue. O, my dear Simmias, is there not one true coin, for which all things ought to exchange?—and that is wisdom; and only in exchange for this, and in company with this, is anything truly bought or sold, whether courage or temperance or justice. …in the true exchange, there is a purging away of all these things, and temperance, and justice, and courage, and wisdom herself are a purgation of them.

The early Stoics reputedly defined the good as, among other things, that which is lusiteles or “profitable” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 7.98).  According to Diogenes Laertius, this term was used as a synonym for the good specifically “because it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort”.  However, the same concept is appealed to by the late Roman Stoics.  For example, Epictetus refers to the incident when a thief stole his (relatively valuable) iron lamp during the night:

That is why I lost my lamp, because in the matter of keeping awake the thief was better than I was.  However, he bought a lamp for a very high price; for a lamp he became a thief, for a lamp he became untrustworthy, for a lamp he became like a wild-beast.  This seemed to him to be profitable [lusiteles]. (Discourses, 1.29.21)

He also alludes here to another Stoic theory, which held that insofar as we abandon reason and hand over our actions to our passions we become like animals rather than rational human beings.  By placing too much value on external objects we risk sacrificing our very humanity.  At times, indeed, this analogy with financial transactions is made very explicit in Stoic writings:

[…] and bear in mind that, if you do not act the same way that others do, with a view to getting things which are not under our control. you cannot be considered worthy to receive an equal share with others. […] You will be unjust, therefore, and insatiable, if, while refusing to pay the price for which such things are bought, you want to obtain them for nothing.  Well, what is the price for heads of lettuce?  An obol, perhaps.  If, then, somebody gives up his obol and gets his heads of lettuce, while you do not give your obol, and do not get them, do not imagine that you are worse off than the man who gets his lettuce.  For as he has heads of lettuce, so you have your obol which you have not given away.

Now it is the same way also in life.  You have not been invited to somebody’s dinner party?  Of course not; for you didn’t give the host the price at which he sells his dinner.  He sells it for praise; he sells it for personal attention.  Give him the price, then, for which it is sold, if it is to your interest.  But if you wish both not to give up the one and yet to get the other, you are insatiable and a simpleton.  Have you, then, nothing in place of the dinner?  Indeed you have; you have not had to praise the man you did not want to  praise; you have not had to put up with the insolence of his doorkeepers. (Enchiridion, 25)

Likewise, we’re told that for the early Stoics the most important synonym of the good (agathos) was the noun “benefit” (ôpheleia) or “help” (yes, perhaps like the name of Hamlet’s “girlfriend”, Ophelia).  This word can mean the “help” a physician provides to a patient, military support, but also help or assistance in a more general sense, including financial assistance, and it is sometimes also translated as a “profit”.

What, must you lose a bit of money so as to suffer damage, and does the loss of nothing else damage a man? Yet, if you lost your skill in the use of language or in music, you would regard the loss of it as damage but if you are going to lose self-respect and dignity and gentleness, do you think that does not matter? […] What does the adulterer lose?  He loses the man of self-respect that was, the man of self-control, the gentleman, the citizen, the neighbour.  What doe the man lose who is given to anger?  Something else.  Who is given to fear?  Something else.  No one is wretched without loss and damage.  Furthermore, if you look for your loss in  money, all those whom I have just mentioned suffer neither injury nor loss; nay, if it so chance, they even get gain and profit [ôpheleia], when, through some of their deeds just mentioned they also acquire money. […] Is there, then, no such thing as a faculty of the mind, the possession of which means gain to a man, and the loss, injury? –What faculty do you mean?  Have we not a natural sense of self-respect [which is lost or harmed]? (Discourses, 2.10.14-22)

In other words, “the good” was interpreted as analogous to something profitable in a financial transaction or, as we might say, it’s a “good investment” on our part, one that “repays” everything we put into it.  We might say the Stoic refuses to “sell out” and abandon his fundamental principles for material gain.  There are, in fact, many references to the metaphor of financial transactions in the surviving Stoic literature and so this concept appears to have been a very old and important one in the Stoic tradition.  It seems likely that the founders of Stoicism, whose writings are almost entirely lost to us now, may have written more on the subject, which inspired the later Roman Stoics to continue the theme.

Thus then in life also the chief business is this: distinguish and separate things, and say, Externals are not in my power: will is in my power. Where shall I seek the good and the bad? Within, in the things which are my own. But in what does not belong to you call nothing either good or bad, or profit [ôpheleia] or damage or any thing of the kind. (Discourses, 2.5, 4-5)

What then is being bought and sold?

Do you suppose that you can do the things you do now, and yet be a philosopher?  Do you suppose that you can eat in the same fashion, drink in the same fashion, give  way to anger and to irritation, just as you do now?  You must keep vigils, work hard, overcome certain desires, abandon your own people, be despised by a paltry slave, be laughed to scorn by those who meet you, in everything get the worst of it, in office, in honour, in court.  Look these drawbacks over carefully, and then, if you think best, approach philosophy, that is, if you are willing at the price of these things to secure absence of irrational passions [apatheia], freedom [eleutheria], and absence of distress [ataraxia]. (Discourses, 3.15.8-12; cf. Enchiridion, 29)

Essentially, we are selling our own essential nature as rational beings, our ruling faculty (hêgemonikon) or volition (prohairesis), into slavery.  More specifically, Epictetus repeatedly refers to the price we are willing to pay for:

  1. “Absence of irrational passions” (apatheia), sometimes translated as tranquillity or calm
  2. “Absence of distress” (ataraxia), sometimes translated as peace of mind
  3. “Freedom” (eleutheria), which contrasts with the many references to “slavery” in Stoic writings

Hence, we are by nature “free” but sell ourselves, throughout life, in a way that must, to the ancient  Greeks and Romans, have recalled the selling of a slave, a metaphor widespread in Stoic literature.

Now it so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable, are different for different persons.  It is for this reason especially that we need education, so as to learn how, in conformity with nature, to adapt to specific instances our preconceive idea of what is rational and what is irrational.  But for determining the rational and the irrational, we employ not only our estimates of the value of external things, but also the criterion of that which is in keeping with one’s own character.  […] For you are the one that knows yourself, how much you are worth in your own eyes and at what price you sell yourself.  For different men sell themselves at different prices. (Discourses, 1.2.11)

Study these things, these judgements, these arguments, look at these examples, if you wish to have freedom [eleutheria], if you desire the thing itself in proportion to its value.  And what wonder is there if you buy something so great at the price of things so many and so great? (Discourses, 4.1.170-172)

The price of being a philosopher, and fulfilling our potential as rational beings, can be particularly high but the rewards make it a profitable investment.

But that this may take place [the attainment of wisdom] a man must accept no small troubles, and must miss no small things.  You cannot wish for a consulship and at the same time wish for this; you cannot have set your heart upon having lands and this too; you cannot at the same time be solicitous for your paltry slaves and yourself too.  But if you wish for any one of the things that are not your own, what is your own is lost.  This is the nature of the matter: Nothing is done except for a price [proika ouden ginetai].  And why be surprised? […] For absence of irrational passions [apatheia], then, for absence of distress [ataraxia], for sleeping when you are asleep, and being awake when you are awake, for fearing nothing, for being in great anxiety about nothing, are you unwilling to spend anything, to make any exertion?  But if something that belongs to you be lost while you are engaged in these affairs, or be spent to no purpose, or someone else get what you ought to have got, are you going to be vexed immediately at what has happened?  Will you not balance off what you are getting in return for what, how much in return for how much?  Nay, do you wish to get such valuable things for nothing?  And how can you?  “One serious business [has no partnership] with another.”

You cannot be continually giving attention to both externals and your own ruling faculty [hêgemonikon].  But if you want the former, let the latter go; otherwise you will have neither the latter nor the former, being drawn in both directions. (Discourses, 4.10.18-20)

The proverb “One serious business has no partnership with another” resembles “You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Also, “Do you wish to get such valuable things for nothing?”, etc., might be seen to resemble Spinoza’s “All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Your paltry oil gets spilled, your miserable wine stolen; say to yourself, “This is the price paid for absence of irrational passions [apatheia], this is the price for absence of distress [ataraxia].”  Nothing is got without a price. (Enchiridion, 12)

In short, it’s possible that the phrase “nothing is got without a price”, which occurs twice in Epictetus, is being presented as a maxim employed in Stoicism, albeit one which could have been an already-established folk-saying.

Before the Stoics, in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates uses the analogy of financial transaction to suggest that men who show courage in one situation out of fear of another, or moderation in one area for the sake of licence in another, are doing so at no profit and that the only “valid currency” which pleasures and pains should be exchanged for the sake of, is wisdom (Phaedo, 69ab).  When we endure pain or forbear pleasure for wisdom, we have genuine virtue, otherwise we have pseudo-virtues.  Yet if men are willing to suffer danger for lust, we might add, or to sacrifice pleasure to avoid danger, then this proves that virtue is possible, and lovers of wisdom should be even more willing than these men to do the same things for greater profit.  If men are willing to show great courage and self-discipline for small change then why are we not willing to do so for the chief good in life?

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