Guest Blog Post

Advice is free but good advice is priceless, particularly when it comes to your finances. The internet is filled with people who promise you all sorts of things, from wealth, to health, to happiness and beyond. Some are genuine, some are genuine free thinkers; many are charlatans and worse pedaling cyber snake oil or tired old tropes in emperor’s new clothes. Perhaps in financial advice – and in other parts of our lives – we should be looking elsewhere, at advisers whose words have stood the test of time, and where better to start than with the words of people who thought about this stuff full time, philosophers.

The Bigger Picture

You won’t, of course, find detailed advice on the stock market, the best investment or savings products or how to reduce your mortgage in the works of a man who lived in an ancient civilization like Greece or had to navigate the treacherous waters of Renaissance Italy. No, this is about the big picture – how to approach your life and perhaps to assess what things are really valuable to you.

The Enemy of Capitalism Understood his Foe  

Search for advice on success and you’ll find yourself directed to the thoughts of entrepreneurs and the like – some of whose prime ability seems to be the ability to get their voice heard. Many of the nuggets of wisdom they pass off as their own are in fact simply being passed on, rebranded and charged for of course. Perhaps we should be looking to the source material – put aside the financial guides and head for the philosophy textbooks. This widening of our reading can lead us to some surprising places. A phrase that became popular as the Soviet Union crumbled into what is now Russia was “Marx lied to us about communism, but he was right about capitalism”. While Karl Marx – the father of communism – is often painted crudely as a bogey man who was personally responsible for the evils of every communist dictatorship that took his name in vain, he was a magnificent economist who died in 1883 34 years before the Russian revolution. Marx’s economic thought is now coming back into vogue. In 2014 you’ll find Rolling Stone of all people listing five ways in which Marx successfully predicted that capitalism would developEconomist Richard Wolff is not afraid to refer to the Marxist inspiration in his thought. He is of the left, but even some high flying free marketers are admitting to finding parts of Marx’s critique of capitalism compelling after the 2008 crisis.

Free Your Mind

Marx was an opponent of capitalism, and to oppose it he sought to understand it, doing so more successfully than almost any other thinker. You don’t need to share Marx’s view that the system should be dismantled to recognize that there’s value in learning from his understanding of our economy. In fact to thrive or survive you need to understand your environment.

Marx was at least an economist, but we can look further afield to find interesting thinkers and to learn from them – not just about financial success, but about success in life. Social media has turned some of these guys into minor meme stars, their thought chopped into easily digested morsels and shared across Facebook or Twitter with a nice graphic attached. Why not indeed? Wisdom endures and wisdom sells.

Straight out of Ancient China

Let’s take a look at just one example, some of whose thoughts could come straight out of the latest best-selling money-making guide.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop,” he advises. In a phrase that could come right from the latest management book, he wrote, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” Those are from Confucius who died nearly 500 years before the birth of Christ. It’s interesting to note that Confucius remains a revered figure in modern China – a mega-growth economy still run by a communist party. In fact, the Chinese government are keen to promote the old boy and sponsor links with western academic institutions that promote not just Confucius but China as a whole; it’s the exercise of soft power. That you won’t find much mention of Mao is surely a good lesson in modern marketing.

A Whole World of Thought

Confucius is just one. Modern thinkers have found inspiration in the political double-dealing of Niccolò Machiavelli, business ideas in the war strategies of Sun Tzu or perhaps the gentler life lessons of the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu.

Read widely, then, and remember that when you see some financial guru turn away from the specifics of the economy to the broader picture that you are almost certainly hearing someone else’s thoughts given a modern twist. You may find a clearer picture by going to the originals whether they worked in ancient China, fourth century BC Athens or Renaissance Florence. After all, why pay a middle man when you can go to the source.

Originally posted 2015-03-17 00:52:09.