It was the great Athenian leader, Pericles, who said that there was nothing wrong with poverty. It could be caused by so many things—a business failure, the sudden loss of a family’s breadwinner, theft, even just plain old back luck. Like the Stoics, he knew that Fortune could swoop in, and, in the blink of an eye, undo years of hard work and careful planning.
But Pericles would not have said, as religious leaders and populist demagogues have tried to argue for thousands of years, that there was anything special or holy about poverty. While it wasn’t necessarily someone’s fault they were poor, and so they shouldn’t be judged for it, Pericles said, there was “real shame...in not taking steps to escape it.”
This too matches with the Stoic attitude, both about poverty and any fate Fortune might throw at us. Stuff is going to happen. We are going to experience setbacks. Some of us are going to experience major setbacks--in terms of where we are born, what our parents were like, how other people see members of our race or gender--and none of that is fair or says anything about who we are as people. How could it? We didn’t have anything to do with it happening.
But how we respond to those situations--be it poverty or disability or a bad upbringing--hell, that we respond at all, well, that says everything about who we are. Are there big systemic problems too? That will require coordination and political action? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we can start taking our individual steps right now, right this morning, big or small.