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Of Acquiring and Using Riches
(1340 to 1400)

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey ChaucerWhen Prudence had heard her husband avaunt himself of his riches and of his money, disparaging the power of his adversaries, she spake and said in this wise: Certes, dear sir, I grant you that ye are rich and mighty, and that riches are good to 'em that have well obtained 'em, and that well can use 'em; for, just as the body of a man may not live without soul, no more may it live without temporal goods, and by riches may a man get him great friends; and therefore saith Pamphilus: If a neatherd's daughter be rich, she may chose of a thousand men which she will take to her husband; for of a thousand men one will not forsake her nor refuse her. And this Pamphilus saith also: If thou be right happy, that is to say, if thou be right rich, thou shall find a great number of fellows and friends; and if thy fortune change, that thou wax poor, farewell friendship and fellowship, for thou shalt be all alone without any company, except it be the company of poor folk. And yet saith this Pamphilus, moreover, that they that are bond and thrall of linage should be made worthy and noble by riches.

And just as by riches thee come many goods, so by poverty come there many harms and evils; and therefore says Cassiodore, poverty the mother of ruin, that is to say, the mother of overthrowing or falling down; and therefore saith Piers Alphonse: One of the greatest adversities of the world is when a free man by kind, or of birth, is constrained by poverty to eat the alms of his enemy. And the same saith Innocent in one of his books; he saith that sorrowful and mishappy is the condition of a poor beggar, for if he asks not his meat he dieth of hunger, for if he ask he dieth for shame; and dire necessity Solomon: That better it is to die than for to have such poverty; and, as the same Solomon saith: Better it is to die of bitter death, than for to live in such wise.

By these reasons that I have said unto you, and by many other reasons that I could say, I grant you that riches are good to 'em that well obtained them, and to him that well uses riches; and therefore will I shew you how ye should behave you in gathering of your riches, and in what manner ye should use 'em. First, ye should get 'em without great desire, by good leisure, patiently, and not over hastily, for a man that is too desiring to get riches abandoneth him first to theft and to all other evils; and therefore saith Solomon: He that hasteth him too busily to wax rich, he shall be not innocent: he saith also, that the riches that hastily cometh to a man soon lightly goeth and passeth from a man, but that riches that cometh little and little waxeth always and multiplieth. And sir, ye should get riches by your wit and by your travail, unto your profit, and that without wrong or harm doing to any other person; for the law saith: There maketh no man himself rich, if he do harm to another wight; that is to say, that Nature defendeth and forbiddeth by right, that no man make himself rich unto the harm of another person.

And Tallius saith: That no sorry, no dread of death, nothing that may fall unto a man, is so much against nature as a man to increase his owyn profit to harm of another man. And though the great men and the mighty men get riches more lightly than thou, yet shalt thou not be idle nor slow to do thy profit, for thou shalt in all wise flee idleness; for Solomon saith: That idleness teacheth a man to do many evils; and the same Solomon saith: That he that travaileth and busieth himself to till his land, shall eat bread; but he that is idle, and casteth him to no business nor occupation, shall fall into poverty, and die for hunger. And he that is idle and slow can never find convenient time for to do his profit; for there is a versifier who saith, that the idle man excuseth him in winter because of the great cold, and in summer then by reason of the heat. For these causes, saith Cato, waketh and inclineth you not over much to sleep, for over much rest nourisheth and causeth many vices; and therefore saith St. Jerome: Do some good deeds, that the devil, which is our enemy, find you not unoccupied, for the devil he taketh not lightly unto his working such as he findeth occupied in good works.

Then thus in getting riches ye must flee idleness; and afterward ye should use the riches which you have got by your wit and by your travail, in such manner, that men hold you not too scarce, nor too sparing, nor fool-large, that is to say, over large a spender; for right as men blame an avaricious man because of his scarcity and niggardiness, in the same wise he is to blame that spendeth over largely; and therefore saith Cato: Use (saith he) the riches that thou hast obtained in such manner, that men have no matter nor cause to call thee neither wretch nor miser, for it is a great shame to a man to have a poor heart and a rich purse; he saith also: The goods that thou hast obtained, use 'em by measure, that is to say, spend measurably, for they that foolishly waste and squander the goods that they have, when they have no more proper of 'eir own, that they prepare to take the goods of another man. I say, then, that ye should flee avarice, using your riches in such manner, that men say not that your riches are buried, but that ye have 'em in your might and in your wielding; for a wise man reproveth the avaricious man, and saith thus in two verse: Whereto and why burieth a man his goods by his great avarice, and knoweth well that needs must he die, for death is the end of every man as in this present life.

And for what cause or reason joineth he him, or knitteth he him so fast unto his goods, that all his wits will not dissever him or depart him from his goods, and knoweth well, or ought to know, that when he is dead he shall nothing bear with him out of this world? And therefore saith St. Augustine, that the avaricious man is likened unto hell, that the more it swalloweth the more desire it hath to swallow and devour. And as well as ye would eschew to be called an avaricious man or a chinch, as well should ye keep you and govern you in such wise, that men call you not fool-large; therefore, saith Tallius: The goods of thine house should not be hid nor kept so close, but that they might be opened by pity and debonnairety, that is to say, to give 'em part that have great need; but the goods should not be so open to be every man's goods.

Source: The Best of the World's Classics, Vol. III,
Great Britain and Ireland-I 1281 to 1748,
published by Funk & Wagnalls Company,
New York and London;
Henry Cabot Lodge, Editor-in-Chief.

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