The French essayist and philosopher Jean de La Bruyère achieved a degree of notoriety for his work Characters (Les Caractères ou les Mœurs de ce siècle), which he published in 1688. He died young, at the age of 50 in 1696; perhaps his pen might have produced more marvels had fortune provided him more longevity.
As it is, though, the Characters is a stimulating collection of thoughts and observations on nearly everything: women, money, fortune, offices, morals, even contemporary gossip. This admirable gnomology he groups under related topical headings, presumably so readers can take their cynicism in applied doses. We will here discuss a few of his astute observations on money and fortune, which are contained in Chapter VII of his book, “The Gifts of Fortune.” Here he says,
In all conditions of life a poor man is a near neighbor to an honest one, and a rich man is as little removed from a knave; tact and ability alone seldom procure great riches. A show of a certain amount of honesty is in any profession or business the surest way of growing rich.
I find this sentiment confirmed by my own observations. The surest road to success in any business or endeavor is simply to convey honesty and competence. I suppose many reading these words will believe this is as obvious as 1 + 1 = 2; but they might be surprised that it really is not obvious. It is not obvious because it does not offer the prospect of easy, instant success. It demands a hard road and a clear standard, a road and standard that many are unwilling or unable to accept. We are hounded and harassed on all sides by “advice” from counselors, consultants, and “coaches” who stampede us into believing that we need this “secret trick” or that “special method.” If only we could secure this special magic wand—we are stridently told—then all will be well, and we will be on our road to riches.
This mentality also ignores the perceptiveness of human nature, which can generally distinguish a fraud from a legitimate figure. It also ignores the skills necessary for survival; what lasts in this world is what is solid and built on a foundation of good faith. What does not survive is the slight-of-hand artists, the flim-flam masters, and the connivers. Of course, one of these roads involves a great deal of work and effort; the other does not, and for this reason it attracts those predisposed to gamesmanship and trickery. Here is another of his observations:
The shortest and best way of making your fortune is to let people clearly see that it is in their interests to promote yours.
I suppose this adage is sound enough, but is still one of those bits of advice that is easier to state than to make use of. The reason is simple: no one is going to promote someone else’s interests unless they see some sort of reciprocal value conferred on themselves. Only your mother is going to promote you for no consideration. What La Bruyère is trying to tell us is that the prospective fortune-seeker must provide some sort of direct value to another. Men are generally, though not always, actuated by selfish notions; their horizons are usually restricted by the extent of their appetites and desires. The fortune-seeker must, then, link his own offerings to the appetites and desires of the masses, if he wishes to make any headway. In addition—and La Bruyère does not speak of this—what the fortune-seeker is offering must be something of quality and utility. Men have a discerning eye for quality and garbage. In the long run, that which is of low quality will not stand the test of time, for time is the ultimate arbiter of taste. A third sentiment of his is this one:
Some men, stimulated by the necessities of life, and sometimes from a desire to gain money or glory, improve their secular talents or adopt a profession far from reputable, and overlook its dangers and consequences for a considerable time. They leave it afterwards from secret and devout reasons, which never stirred them before they had reaped their harvest and enjoyed a considerable income.
I think this is a profound statement, and one worth considerable reflection. We often see people who enter jobs or professions that they believe will provide them with a pathway to riches. And in doing so, they overlook their own natures, and what their targeted profession will entail. They blindly force themselves forward, seeking “security” and piles of wealth. And yet, this course eventually takes its toll on their psyches, bodies, and modes of living. As time wears on, their souls begin to rebel, first slightly and indistinctly, and then finally with a distinct chorus of revulsion. Soon they look for an exit, and wonder if they have wasted a good number of years in soul-consuming pursuits. This is the kind of wisdom that only comes from hard experience; if one were to try to convey it to someone who has not lived it, the response would likely be dismissive. We should, then, evaluate our own natures honestly and sincerely, and look for a profession that suits us—not one that we believe will provide this illusory “security” we believe is within reach.
There exist miseries in this world, which wring the very heart. Some people want food; they dread winter and are afraid to live. Others eat hothouse fruits; the earth and the seasons are compelled to furnish forth delicacies. And mere citizens, simply because they have grown rich, dare to swallow in one morsel that which would nourish a hundred families. Whatever may be brought forward against such extremes, let me be neither unhappy nor happy, if I can help it; I take refuge in mediocrity.
Now when La Bruyère uses the word mediocrity here, he is not using it in its modern sense of substandard performance or lowness. He is not telling us that he wants to be a mediocre person. He is saying that he seeks a median position between the two extremes he identifies: luxury and ease at one pole, and desperate poverty at the other.
A man is rich whose income is larger than his expenses, and he is poor if his expenses are greater than his income. There are some men who with an annual revenue of two million are yearly still five hundred thousand livres in arrears. Nothing keeps longer than a middling fortune, and nothing melts away faster than a large one. Great riches are a temptation to poverty. If it be true that a man is rich who wants nothing, a wise man is a very rich man. If a man be poor who wishes to have everything, then an ambitious and miserly man languish in extreme poverty.
These sentiments, which almost sound like they could be taken from the pages of Cicero, force us to reflect on the true nature of wealth. I have found it especially true, from my own observations of people with vast and middling fortunes, that “nothing keeps longer than a middling fortune, and nothing melts away faster than a large one.” This is so because large quantities of money become an irresistible invitation to increase one’s expenditures.
And before the possessor of great wealth even detects it, he is roped into a lifestyle that requires him do make outlays of money that he never really wished to make. He believes that if one store is good, then five similar stores are even better. And he plows ahead and opens these four similar stores, dramatically underestimating the expenditure in money and time required. Soon he becomes a captive of his stores, and never knows a moment of peace. He finds out—too late!—that he has become trapped by his greed, in the same way that the seekers of the cursed treasure ship “The Starry Crown” drove themselves to ultimate ruin.
These, then, are some of Jean de La Bruyère’s thoughts on wealth and fortune.
Read more about the true nature of wealth and riches in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: