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Principles from Plutarch (4) – Hard Work and Frugality

In my last message I wrote about the importance of aesthetics and neatness. This week I am going to write about the value of hard work and frugality.

Alexander the Great believed that “those who labor sleep more sweetly and soundly than those who are labored for and . . . it [is] the most abject and slavish condition to be voluptuous, but the most noble and royal to undergo pain and labor.”

While we humans are both producers and consumers, our primary identity is that of a producer—we were created to work in the Garden and we will continue to work in our eternal redeemed state. This fundamental truth has been hidden and marred by our great wealth and ease. We live in an age where our machines have greater strength than Hercules, our jets fly faster than Mercury, and modern farming techniques produce an abundance of food far beyond anything the Greeks could even imagine for the gods of Olympus. In such a world it is very difficult to embrace frugality and hard work. But it is essential that we teach our children the value of hard work done well.  

Buying things never brings peace and contentment, never. Indeed, it often brings the opposite for things never provide what they promise. What is more, the promises of consumption are flashy and they appeal to our deepest, most bestial desires, which makes them hard to resist. This is especially true when we can afford to indulge in buying things above and beyond our needs and society encourages us to indulge. Indeed, billions are spent to prompt us to spend; if we all lived frugally I reckon our economy would contract if not collapse.

Encouraging our children to resist this, to say “no” when there is no shame or great cost in saying “yes” is incredibly difficult. And yet it must be done if we want our children to find peace and contentment. Our desires are infinite, so no matter what we get they will never be satisfied. Instead of trying to get more things we must train ourselves to desire less. (Note: I am here only talking about physical things. This most certainly is not true of spiritual things—we should constantly hunger and thirst for wisdom, righteousness, and above all God Himself. Indeed, we should train our hearts to desire not the things of this world, but the things of Heaven.) The things of this world promise more and more and offer less and less so we must not give ourselves over to them. As Plutarch wrote, “The only certain way to be truly rich is not to have more property, but fewer desires. For whoever is always grasping at more avows that he is still in want, and must be poor in the midst of affluence.” As parents and educators we see truths our children are blind to and we must train them to love what is good for them, even if what is good seems painful. When Alexander sought to restrain his men, when he sought to limit their indulgence so they would be better fit for good and noble pursuits, his men complained. He bore this patiently, “saying it became a king well to do good to others, and be evil spoken of.”

Our children, our students do complain—they complain about homework, chores, curfew, and limits on screen time. But they often don’t know what is good for them; that is why God gave them us! For better or worse they are not computers that we can simply program. Instead, we must do all that we can to show them the value of things like hard work and the dangers of unfettered consumption.