#64: How to live well, even in a palace (the ABC of money, part 16)
6th December, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that you can live well, even in a palace, including:
  • why you should never question someone’s historical life choices, especially if they’ve made a ton of money because of them;
  • how you can turn eight words from Marcus Aurelius into hours of useful reflection; and
  • a terribly interesting note for pedantic scholars of Roman philosophical literature.
This is part 16 of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See the series menu here.
Living well is not a function of your external circumstances, even really glittery ones.
For many, nothing is more emblematic of living a ‘good life’ than a palace.
As we saw in Idiot Money #53, even our roguishly handsome friend Aladdin, while he went on a journey from a dream of ‘We’ll be rich, live in a palace and never have any problems at all’ to one of realising that the love he shared with the princess was more meaningful than any palace, still ended up in a place that said certain levels of happy living are open only to those with sufficient square footage, and servants. Agrabah’s favourite A-list couple could be happy outside of the palace, but of course they are happier in it.
If you’ve ever politely asked someone with an enormous house if it feels at all wasteful, in even the teeniest, tiniest, most innocent of ways, you’ll probably have met with a barrage from their defensive arsenal. ‘I’ve worked hard all my life… blah blah blah.’
Such defensiveness may be a stupid (albeit unintentionally enlightening response), but it’s also a stupid question.
Because as I explain in one of my favourite bits of the book – borrowing from James Carse – the whole point is the waste. Palaces pulse with opportunity cost; people with palaces have by definition sacrificed a lot to own them. The palace justifies those sacrifices. It has to be worth it. And so asking if it were actually worth it is very rude indeed. When you do so, you question a lot more than the worth of a few spare rooms full of crap.
There is, however, another, more instructive, way to see palaces in relation to a good life.

Imperial insight

‘One can live well, even in a palace’ wrote Marcus Aurelius.
Packed into those eight words are ties that bind together everything we’ve covered in this series:
  1. 1.
    The three poisons – Becoming aware of the self-deceptive habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or poison the mind.
  2. 2.
    The four noble truths – Becoming aware that all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour, because the same machinery that makes us wise also leads us astray, and how rather than succumbing to self-destruction, we can embrace the countervailing opportunities.
  3. 3.
    The eightfold path – A systematic approach to developing better meaning-making machinery.
  4. 4.
    Neuroplasticity – The fact this is more than just woo-woo: any attempt at upgrading the lenses through which you see the world must account for the stories you’re mapping in your brain, and how you edit those stories.
  5. 5.
    Living mindfully with money – Refreshing your awareness of how you operate according to a philosophy in an inherently uncertain, impermanent world, not according to an algorithm driven by a simplistic set of numbers.
  6. 6.
    Enlightenment and freedom – Aiming not for some nebulous ‘state’ of financial freedom, but for a process of enlightenment.
There are a few ways to read Aurelius’ statement. Below, and over the next few weeks, we’ll look at three:
  1. 1.
    What it’s sort of about – what does it even mean to be rich, and how would being so really make your life better?
  2. 2.
    What it’s more sort of about – the difference between denunciation and renunciation, or why playing a different game is a better bet than bemoaning the same one while still ceding control over your life choices to its rules.
  3. 3.
    What it’s really about – seeing more clearly, and freeing yourself from fantastic illusions.
And, given that, what living mindfully with money really meeeeeaaaaaans.

What’s the use of being rich?

On one level, Aurelius’ words are about the story you tell yourself about what it means to be rich, and how being richer would make your life better.
It’s a useful quote, because it makes you do more than just scroll past while nodding sagely to yourself. It stops you in your tracks.
Wait, what? Even in a palace. Even? What’s he on about?
It encourages us to ponder the question Bertrand Russell posed in The Conquest of Happiness: ‘What is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are miserable?’
And hopefully that encouragement isn’t to assume something moronic like ‘all rich people are miserable’, but rather to question if the story that’s so deeply woven into our collective consciousness, that living in a palace is better than not living in a palace, is so objectively true that it makes sense, in myriad subtle ways, to dedicate your life to blindly following its implications.
  • Is being able to ‘solve’ problems (or puzzles) by yourself really better than solving them as part of a community?
  • Given you can only ever be in one room at a time, how would having 20 really be better than having only 2?
  • If I can throw money at any worry, will there come a point when the worries go away?
And so on.
The point isn’t that there are ‘correct’ answers to these questions. The point is that if you never ask them, then you’re ceding the outcomes of your life choices to luck, not judgment.
Not only is living a good life not off-limits to those that don’t own a palace, but maybe, if the goal is actually to live as beautifully as possible, the palace could just as easily be harmful as helpful.
If you’re really lucky, the quote will take you even further, and encourage you to realise that, as long as you believe people that live in different countries (and maybe even different times) are people too, palace or no palace, you are already rich. Now what are the implications of that?
Next week, we’ll dig a layer deeper, and look at how those that denounce something (for example those that would head to a palace with pitchforks) are psychologically identical to those that have dedicated their lives to owning the object of denunciation (those that are sat in the palace), and how there are less-silly games to play altogether.
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* Notes for pedants and other interested parties:
‘One can live well, even in a palace’ is one possible translation of part 16 of Book 5 of the Meditations. There are a ton of ways to translate this, and even more ways of interpreting those translations.
One way to read it is that the Good Life is about avoiding the temptations of debauchery and whatnot and it’s possible to avoid them even in the place – a palace – where they’re most readily available. Think of how it’s possible to go to Las Vegas and not spend a month’s salary on a lifetime of regret. This is a completely valid take. Though for our purposes we’re focusing less on the isolated incident of behaving yourself for a weekend, and more on the construction of a worldview which leads you to behave in ways that actually make you feel amazing all year round.
Another interpretation would point out that the context of the quote, and the fact that the whole of the Meditations are ‘notes to self’, means it could be read as ‘stop making excuses that being Emperor makes it harder to live well: every time you do so, you don’t combat the idea, you entrench it, and work against the very thing you want.’ As one translation poetically puts it: ‘the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts’.
He could also have been talking about how lonely it is to live in a palace, because it makes it so much harder in many ways to flourish in the fellowship that (in the second half of the same passage) he states is the highest good of humanity.
It’s probably a bit of everything. Not that it matters. The use of it for us isn’t in playing the game of ‘What did Marcus Aurelius really mean?’ but asking: ‘Regardless of what the author meant, how could this be instructive for me?’
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