5 Timeless Financial Tips from Greek and Roman Philosophers

Greek and Roman philosophers were not only wise in terms of philosophy but also had some great financial advice.

Mar 26, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

financial advice greek roman philosophers


Many people consider themselves financially literate, but in reality, many of them mismanage their income. Nowadays, financial advice from well-known experts always looks like a fantastic idea, but ancient Greek and Roman philosophers should not be overlooked: they also wrote about debt, investments, wealth, and how to preserve it. From Epictetus to Plato, nearly every philosopher has something to say about money and how to use it. Their recommendations are still useful nowadays. So, let’s take a look at five pieces of timeless financial advice given by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers!


1. The Ability to Control Desires in the Enchiridion of Epictetus

Epictetus, William Sonmans, engraved by Michael Burghers in 1715. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the immense world of financial advice, one can easily get lost in an ocean of tips and strategies. But maybe, instead of looking through the latest books and blogs, it could be a good idea to go back and see what wisdom survived the test of time. For example, one can take a lesson or two from the Enchiridion, a compilation of teachings taken from the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus.


Epictetus believed that real wealth does not lie in material possessions. Chaos and prosperity are beyond our control, so true happiness lies within us if we decide to identify what is under our control and what is not.


This vital principle remains important when it comes to managing our money affairs. We usually fret about external factors like market fluctuations or economic crises. But Epictetus tells us to turn attention to what lies within our power—our own choices and attitudes.

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One piece of financial advice derived from Epictetus’ teachings is the following: cultivate a mind of frugality. He reminds us that real happiness cannot be found in a world obsessed with consumption. Coming into possession of more things doesn’t make you happy; rather, happiness is a product of unity with what you already have. And how easy it is to forget that. You just need to understand it carefully to free yourself from the endless desire for material wealth.


And then again, Epictetus teaches us to be cautious regarding spending and saving money. He advises us to carefully assess our needs versus our wants before making purchase decisions. If you internalized his teaching properly, impulse buying habits that bring you into debt or financial worries would otherwise never occur.


According to Epictetus, we command our desires, thoughts, and actions. Everything else is out of control, though we constantly try to influence external events. When your emotions or desires take over you, remember: you can yield to them or not. It always depends on you.


2. Developing Your Own Financial Principles: Sophocles’ Antigone

Antigone and Polynices, by Lytras Nikephoros, 1865. Source: National Gallery


In the timeless tragedy of Antigone by Sophocles, amidst all the political strife and family drama, there lies a hidden treasure trove of financial advice. While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of this famous Greek play, the wisdom imparted throughout can be easily applied to our relationship with money and wealth.


One of the most prominent themes in Antigone is duty and responsibility. The whole play is seen through the eyes of the titular character: King Creon orders Antigone not to bury her brother Polynices, whom he deems a traitor to the state, but she defiantly refuses.


Throughout their struggle, Antigone argues that her duty to her family supersedes any man-made laws or decrees. This concept reminds us that oftentimes, money and material wealth can tempt us away from our true responsibilities and priorities.


In our modern world, where money swirls around us on every level—entertainment, media, and commerce—this reminder is particularly poignant.


Another central theme in Antigone is the inevitable consequences of excessive pride and arrogance. Both King Creon’s and Antigone’s pride ultimately lead them into their grisly fates. Creon’s hubris blinds him to reason and logic, causing him to make decisions driven by ego rather than sound judgment.


Antigone, Felix Ressurrecion Hidalgo, 1872. Source: Lopez Museum & Library


Similarly, Antigone’s unwavering pride drives her towards a path of self-destruction. The lesson here is clear: unchecked desires for wealth and power can cloud our better judgment and lead us down ruinous paths.


Finally, Antigone highlights the importance of valuing human connections above material possessions. Again, the play explores the consequences of putting wealth and power ahead of empathy and compassion.


According to Sophocles, money is an instrument of exchange. When what we have is insufficient, this leads to discouragement. Moreover, many find themselves in a situation where there is not enough money not only to achieve their dreams but also to make ends meet. Saving in such a situation is very difficult.


To avoid this, work out basic financial principles for yourself and stick to them. For example, spend less than you get and keep track of all expenses. The more control you have over your daily activities and spending, the more likely you are to reach your big goal. When you clearly understand why you are saving, it will not be so hard to limit yourself.


3. Learn the Principles of Wise Men According to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Title page of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves, 1811. Source: Classical Wisdom


The ancient text Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and philosopher, contains timeless advice on finances that resonates even today. He considers matters about money in a thoughtful and balanced light.


One of Aurelius’ central ideas is the importance of developing discipline in regard to finances. He reminds us that the pursuit of excessive wealth often leads to dissatisfaction due to always wanting more.


Rather, it is important to find contentment that comes from living within our means. One should focus on what really brings value and joy rather than constantly chasing material goods.


Aurelius also praises frugality and simplicity. He believes that when we practice moderation in our spending habits, burdens need not mount unnecessarily, nor is there any loss of stability in our lives. By not being wasteful and by only looking at essential needs, we can ease any financial strain.


Additionally, Aurelius calls for cultivating inner peace to detach ourselves from material wealth. He believes that individuals should assess their real needs as opposed to mere wants by regularly reflecting upon what they truly value in life. By following a course of action based on these values, we know ahead of time which way to go so that other people or temporary trends don’t easily sway us.


Aurelius also underscores ethical behavior in financial matters. In business matters or investments, whether one is seeking to make money or simply managing one’s affairs, this must all be done honestly. Doing so safeguards reputation and fosters increased trust inside the community.


Above all, Aurelius reminds us If you can’t come up with your own rules right away, study the principles of wise people. Learn the values of those you respect. Perhaps they are suitable for you too.


4. Know Your Limits: Plato’s Republic

The Symposium, Pietro Testa, 1648. Source: Saint Louis Art Museum


The ideal Utopian society described in Plato’s Republic does not give explicit advice about money. After all, this Utopia is mostly focused on the nature of justice and the ideal state. However, a deeper insight into Plato’s work reveals several important principles that can be interpreted as timeless financial wisdom.


One of the most important aspects of Plato’s conception of the ideal state is the notion of specialization and societal harmony. In his vision, people would be specialized in certain roles defined by their natural abilities and aptitudes. This division of labor contributes to the efficient and productive functioning of the community. It facilitates economic growth and prosperity.


From a money perspective, this principle shows why we must find ourselves to do the best we can financially. It suggests that we should develop our skills in relevant fields rather than trying to do everything all at once.


Knowing our limitations, we can make an informed choice whether to seek other people’s help or not. It is also recommended to build relationships with other people who may have complementary skills at hand.


Another key point of Plato’s philosophy is moderation and temperance. He warns us against excessive desires and says people should try to have a good meaningful balance both in terms of material wealth and spiritual happiness.


From a money perspective, Plato recommends pruning out extravagancies driven solely by insatiable greed. He stresses that true wealth lies beyond only material possessions, far beyond the paradigms of materialism.


Plato talks extensively concerning education in his ideas. He emphasizes the significance of cultivating knowledge and wisdom as vital tools to navigate life successfully. Be clear on your commitments, and don’t break them. Remember, money needs to be used only to live following your principles.


5. Learn to Control Yourself as per Epicurus’ Letters

Marble head of Epikouros, Author unknown, 2nd century CE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, was concerned not only with chasing after pleasure but also about how to achieve a peaceful life. In his famous Letters to friends and disciples, he offered countless wise words on how to make good decisions in the realm of finances without losing focus on what really matters.


One clear lesson we can learn from Epicurus is that shunning material excess is important. He believed that too much stuff would bring on unnecessary amounts of stress and anxiety.


Instead, he suggests moderation in material needs, realistic limits and restraint on spending, and the accrual of what is truly fulfilling. For Epicurus, wealth comes from having few needs rather than having great possessions.


He also understood the importance of having meaningful relationships independently of money as well. He advised against giving money blindly or taking debt for granted without careful consideration.


In fact, he suggested individuals should foster relationships that rely on common values—a relationship with a trusted friend, where money matters are broached with an open mind, can help us through tough times.


Another valuable bit of financial advice discovered within Epicurus’ Letters revolves around investing wisely. As far as Epicurus was concerned, investments didn’t primarily describe monetary gains but money spent on oneself—health, education, and personal growth.


He thought it very wrong to desire material riches at all costs next to serious educational endeavors and upgrading skills, as that is how to ensure long-term profit.


Moreover, Epicurus mentioned the importance of identifying individual needs when deciding financially. By understanding what provokes joy and what fulfills them, this knowledge enables avoidance of nonsensical pursuits society requires one to follow. For him, it was imperative to avoid senseless spending and senseless conformity.


So, What Can We Learn from Greek and Roman Philosophers?

The Card Players, Paul Cézanne, 1890-92. Source: The Barnes Foundation


There are some great lessons regarding money wisdom from these ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Some of their messages continue to be applicable in today’s world.


From Epictetus urging people to focus on the things they can actually control to Epicurus’ call on how one ought to invest wisely in themselves, what they teach still holds a lot of goodness.


The key messages we learn from them are quite clear: know your limits and don’t fall into the trap of materialism; make the financial balancing by mastering your goals; have deep relationships that do not converse only for reasons of having money; and most importantly, remember that wealth lies beyond all material possessions.


But by considering the intents of the above stated, we may feel certain about our financial decisions at least being firm and meaningful in line with the values of those we respect. Consider them. Perhaps they are suitable for you too. These wise words will lead us to a more peaceful and contented life—the one worth living!

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.