Peri Oikonomias is the original title of the work by Philodemus that deals with Epicurean economics. I will not attempt to paraphrase, but to share a brief overview and commentary of the work On Property Management, which was authored by the first century Epicurean teacher Philodemus of Gadara and demonstrates how, removed by several generations from the Four founders of our school, he was able to adapt the teaching and show its relevance for the benefit of wealthy Romans of his day.
It must from the onset be said that oikonomike translates as household (=oikos) management, or property management. The oikonomos is the expert manager. In the past, I’ve used the term autarch to refer to the ideal of the self-sufficient, emancipated philosopher. While the monarch must manage an entire kingdom and is troubled with many worries and responsibilities, the autarch instead easily and diligently manages only his estate without sacrificing much of his serenity. That said, the autarch must be an oikonomos.
While contemporary economics has, for the most part, become corrupted and come to have a very different meaning today, the true meaning of oikonomike can still be discerned in the verb ‘economize’, which retains the sense of economy as frugal, as consisting of having the prudence to save and manage resources diligently. According to dictionary.com, to e·con·o·mize is:
1. to practice economy; avoid waste or extravagance.
verb (used with object), e·con·o·mized, e·con·o·miz·ing.
2. to manage economically; use sparingly or frugally.
According to Philodemus, true economics are pleasant and easy to learn, lead to other virtues, gives health and beauty and removes concerns of the mind.
The Natural Measure of Wealth
The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure;
but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.
– Principal Doctrine 15
One fundamental concept in the Epicurean understanding of economics is the concept of natural wealth. In our assessment of desires, we classify them as either natural or unnatural and as necessary or unnecessary. Those that are neither natural nor necessary, are said to be vain and empty. The natural measure of wealth is that which corresponds to our natural and necessary desires, as opposed to empty desires.
This is how we believe that one who is able to fully enjoy the simple pleasures of things that are necessary (shelter, friends, simple foods, water), lives like a king. We have the proverbial example of Epicurus, who when he relished his favorite cheese sent to him by friends, felt like a God among mortals. The goal of our nature is pleasure–not simplicity–however, being able to find this kind of opulence in such simplicity also allows us to better enjoy the greater amount of opulence when we have it, according to the Letter to Menoeceus.
Natural wealth corresponds to the third of the Four Cures in our doctrine, which teaches that the things that are pleasant are easy to procure. Just as friendship is seen as a type of insurance against difficulties, and it’s not so much our friends’ help but the confident knowledge that they will help that gives us tranquility, similarly our knowledge that we can easily obtain a natural measure of wealth given our skills should give us imperturbability.
The sage must understand the natural measure of wealth. Philodemus says:
Indeed, I think that the right management of wealth lies in this: in not feeling distressed about what one loses and in not trapping oneself on treadmills because of an obsessive zeal concerning the more and the less.
It’s not surprising that this indifference towards profit and loss does not mean that the household manager will not work for a profit, but that –even as he prudently seeks profit– he has the confidence needed to live happily and pleasantly whether he gains or loses.
Philodemus also mentions the vice of philokrematia, or love of money, which opposes the virtuous confidence that we can procure natural wealth. By not having an accurate insight on what our true needs are and by not separating them from empty and vain desires, we may degenerate into Manonists, suffering from an immature attachment to the fantasies of what is vulgarly known as materialism in common speech. It’s this cult of Manonism that breeds needless desires that extend to infinity.
While we must not fall into the worship of Manon/Money, we must also be careful to understand the instrumentality of money and that it is, indeed, a natural and necessary desire in human society to have means of exchange so that we can meet our basic needs. Money is not evil, it’s simply instrumental, and the evil lies in not having an accurate opinion about money. Philodemus argued that to live penniless was impractical and conflicted with reason:
Surely, Socrates always had the characteristic of impracticality. Besides, as regards his claim that five minae seem to him sufficient for the necessary and natural needs of men, that prosperity in life is something empty, and that he does not need anything more in addition to those, it is impracticable and conflicts with reason. – Philodemus, On Weath Management, Column IV
In column XXV, Philodemus gives practical advise against instant gratification and in favor of saving for the future, “for this strategy both gives us hopes right now and, when it comes to be present, makes us happy”. He later advises that we spend according to what we have and not based on the current price of things, in other words that we live prudently within our means. If we can’t afford a certain fashion, we should dismiss it.
Here is one area where every Epicurean may analyse his desires and ponder, for himself, what true economics entails. We’ve all heard of Greece’s woes, and America’s ever-increasing national debt signals, to many, the end of the American era. Epicurus gives us a doctrine that helps us to do the introspective work needed to become conscious consumers.
On Non-Monetary, Social Wealth
Philodemus also advises that we share our wealth with friends “just as those who sow seeds in the earth. From these things … it becomes possible to reap many times more fruits“.
This piece of advise is vindicated in recent research by Dr. Nicholas Christakis, who was able to compare the results of a study that linked happiness to wealth and another study that linked happiness to the amount and kind of friends one has, and boldly capitalized friendship by saying that “a happy friend is worth about $20,000”.
I personally do not necessarily favor that we think of friends in such blatantly capitalist terms, but I do think this insight should change our wealth and value paradigms. When we say that friendship is a good, we mean that quite literally. What this means is that, in our philosophy, although this type of wealth is not monetary and not as apparently tangible as money, we should and in fact we do think of nurturing wholesome friendships as an auspicious investment that reaps, literally, the returns of social capital gains.
Balancing the Management of One’s Estate with Ataraxia
Philodemus agreed with other philosophers that no one can manage our property as well as we would and with as much attention and care, therefore we should manage our estate directly. However, the micromanagement of a large estate is cumbersome and not conducive to a life of tranquility and pleasure. He advises assistance (the use of bailiffs or overseers) in management of a large estate.
Some inconveniences and some stress are to be expected in the management of our property. We should not have inaccurate expectations in this regard and always keep in mind the important things (the kyriotata) that make life worth living. This is true in life, not just in property management.
One curious and worth-sharing piece of advise that we get from Philodemus has to do with how some things cause pain when present, but cause even more pain when absent and, therefore, shouldn’t be avoided. This is the case with health, which requires some work and some inconvenience to secure, but without it we suffer greatly. It is also the case with family members and friends who oftentimes are difficult to understand and to get along with, but whom we miss when absent.