first the things of this earth, first money, and then you can have your child baptized; first money, and then earth will be thrown on your coffin and there will be a funeral oration according to the fixed rate; first money, and then I will make the sick call, first money, and then virtus post nummos [virtue after money]; first money, and then virtue, then the kingdom of God, and the latter finally comes last to such a degree that it does not come at all, and the whole things remains with the first: money – only in that case one does not feel the urge “to go further”.Søren Kierkegaard, Fœdrelandet Articles, The Moment, The Essential Kierkegaard
In The Moment, Kierkegaard tells a short story of Ludvig, a theological graduate who wishes to seek a life as a pastor, but in accordance with the bible verse Matthew (6:33), he must first seek the Kingdom of God.
Of course, in preparation for his future life as a pastor, what he actually did first was in fact attend high school and university to gain a degree qualification. Following this he then attended the pastoral seminary for a further year and a half, all the while postponing the work of seeking the Kingdom of God.
Even after his studies were complete, Ludvig filled his days with endless writing, “totally in the service of the unconditioned”. Kierkegaard likens this to Münchhausen’s Dog, who was originally a greyhound but became a dachshund on account of so much running.
Finally the young man becomes ordained and is required to do his first sermon. The gospel for the day is ‘seek first the kingdom of God ‘ and he faithfully delivers to his audience. The bishop praises his sermon and confides that he especially enjoyed the emphasis on how one should seek first. However, following this the young man is left thinking about the difference between the discourse and his life so far. And furthermore, he questions whether he has truly “practised the virtue he preached”.
Kierkegaard’s story highlights the danger of following doctrine to achieve a desired life, and missing the opportunities along the way. By delivering his sermon, although the young man appears to all others to have mastered his craft and found the kingdom of God, he knows he has not truly participated in his calling. More to the point, his immediate community praise his lesson, missing the chance to hold him to account.
In the personal finance blogosphere we see this all the time. Whether it’s the doctor / software developer earning several £’000,000s per annum, or someone who’s FI/RE story looks a little ‘off’ because of the 300k inheritance they received. They nonetheless try to relate to their audience. It is vitally important to recognise that those who are preaching the path to Financial Independence do not always have as much ‘skin in the game’* as they appear to.
There’s nothing inherently bad about collecting inheritance or having a high salary. In fact I think increasing your income is by far the best approach to creating financial freedom. What I have a problem with is the absence of self-disclosure, or perhaps even self-reflection.
The bishop praised the sermon, because that’s what he would do. He’s part of the system.
Virtus Post Nummos – virtue after money
If you are aiming for early retirement (or perhaps even normal retirement), you can perhaps sympathise with Ludvig. I certainly can. I always treated early retirement (or FI/RE) as a type of delayed gratification. By this I mean that I postponed the life I wanted to live until after my savings mature. I’ve even written about it.
It can be tempting to sink into hyper-focused saving mode, but we must keep to mind that we are the summation of your own habits. If all you do is optimise your spending and spend your time thoughtlessly looking at your net worth figures, you are surely without virtue or thumos. And you will remain so even after you retire.
This is also a reminder that we often spend our lives in the future without considering how to change the present. Particularly considering most of the benefits of early retirement are free. The ancient Greeks (in particular the Stoics) considered the cultivation of virtue (the core virtues being wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation) to be the highest good and the only thing really worth pursuing.
There are instances where having more money can lead to a greater benefit to society in the right hands. An example of this is charitable giving. With a larger amount of savings one can commit to donating larger amounts of money, thus benefiting many more people.
However, I think we can all be guilty of forgoing the present for the promise of a better tomorrow. Perhaps we need to start thinking of money less as a resource but more of a tool to do good. For this there is no time like the present.
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