Reading List: Timeless Financial Wisdom From 100 to 2,000 Years Ago

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Morgan Housel has an excellent post about Cumulative vs. Cyclical Knowledge, which points out how humans don’t seem to be able to solve behavioral financial problems like living below your means, asset bubbles, overuse of leverage, and more. In a nutshell:

Reading old finance articles makes you feel like the ancient past was no different than today – the opposite feeling you get reading old medical commentary.

The article lists several quotes from 100+ year-old sources – but not always full sources – so I felt the need to track them down to create a “timeless advice reading list”. Some have already been mentioned here previously, others have not. Book links are Amazon affiliate links (may need to visit this post at to see them), although the really old books are free on Kindle due to copyright expiration.

The Quest of the Simple Life by William J. Dawson is a book from 1907 that talks about escaping the grind and spending less money to create a simpler life (sound familiar?). My review and highlights: The Quest of the Simple Life: Escaping The Work Grind in 1907 vs. Today. Here is a sample quote on the cost of “keeping up appearances”:

Money may be bought at too dear a rate. The average citizen, if he did but know it, is always buying money too dear. He earns, let us say, four hundred pounds a year; but the larger proportion of this sum goes in what is called ‘keeping up appearances.’ He must live in a house at a certain rental; by the time that his rates and taxes are paid he finds one-eighth of his income at least has gone to provide a shelter for his head. A cottage, at ten pounds a year, would have served him better, and would have been equally commodious. He must needs send his children to some private ‘academy’ for education, getting only bad education and high charges for his pains; a village board-school at twopence a week would have offered undeniable advantages. He must wear the black coat and top-hat sacred to the clerking tribe; a tweed suit and cap are more comfortable, and half the price. At all points he is the slave of convention, and he pays a price for his convention out of all proportion to its value. At a moderate estimate half the daily expenditure of London is a sacrifice to the convention or imposture of respectability.

The Snows in Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway. There is a famous exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway where Fitzgerald is quoted as saying “The rich are different from you and me” and Hemingway is quoted as responding with “Yes, they have more money.” The following passage from this book is the original source, but read about the full story behind this legend here.

The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth. Benjamin Roth was a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio during the Great Depression and kept a regular diary of his impressions during the era. The diary was required reading for his son who also became a lawyer at the firm he started, in order to understand what their clients went through. My full review here.

In normal times the average professional man makes just a living and lives up to the limit of his income because he must dress well, etc. In times of depression he not only fails to make a living but has no surplus capital to buy stocks and real estate. I see now how important it is for the professional man to build up a surplus in normal times. […] His practice suffers and he has no chance of rising above the level of the ordinary practitioner who lives from day to day and from hand to mouth.

Bubble in the Sun by Christopher Knowlton. A narrative history of the massive Florida real estate boom in the 1920s (not the 2000s!) and how it helped trigger the Great Depression (not the Great Financial Crisis!). Repeating cycles indeed. Even now, how can “Buy Now, Pay Later” be considered a new invention when it’s simply more consumer debt?

From 1919 to 1929, both forms of personal debt – mortgages and installment credit – soared. The volume of home mortgages more than tripled, and the amount of outstanding installment debt more than doubled. Other kinds of credit became widely available, such as that offered through credit finance companies and department stores.

Seneca: A Life by Emily Wilson. (Listing is weird, the US version might be The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by Emily Wilson.) This should be an interesting biography for many FIRE devotees, as Seneca was both a Stoic philosopher and someone who amassed a huge amount of wealth doing questionable things. Oh, and he died nearly 2,000 years ago.

The life and works of Seneca pose a number of fascinating challenges. How can we reconcile the bloody tragedies with the prose works advocating a life of Stoic tranquility? How are we to balance Seneca the man of principle, who counseled a life of calm and simplicity, with Seneca the man of the moment, who amassed a vast personal fortune in the service of an emperor seen by many, at the time and afterwards, as an insane tyrant?

From this Emily Wilson Guardian article:

We might then label Seneca a hypocrite, since he failed to be ethically rich by his own criteria. But most of us, including those who would call themselves middle class rather than fat cats, would have to say the same, if we were fully honest with ourselves. We buy things we don’t need. We get caught up in consumerist desire and lose track of what we might really want in life.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same” – Bon Jovi.

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  1. Have always lived within my means as any money my parents were going to give Me are going to my brothers who are dumb and broke when it comes to money. Because it’s All going to them now.

  2. And my favorite, “The Richest Man in Babylon,” by George Clason.

    Written in 1926, I discovered it only a few years ago, already past age 70. Was happy to see I had somehow absorbed the author’s lessons.

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