Cato the Elder had a favorite walking path that led him past the small estate of Manius Curius Denatus. Denatus, a previous consul of the Roman republic, was long dead by the time of Cato, but the stories about him had become legendary. Although a military hero, and considered the greatest Roman of his time, Denatus had chosen to live a quiet life—to live frugally, eat modesty, and to work with his hands.
As he walked by the estate, Cato would recall how once, in that very house, a delegation from a neighboring tribe had come bearing large sums of money and expensive gifts, hoping that they could curry Denatus’ political favor.1
Arriving at the house, they found Denatus at the hearth roasting some turnips. When he saw who had come, and what they had brought, he quickly dismissed them, saying he had no need for their money. Because, he said, if one could be content with the meal he was cooking, he would have no need for more gold. For Denatus, simply acquiring more wealth had no appeal. And he wasn’t going to let the desire for more drive what he decided to do.
He was content with what he had, and that contentment brought him great freedom in how he chose to live his life. The same can be true for us. If we’re able to be content with what we have, we’ll no longer be driven by the desire for more, which can in turn keep us from unnecessary pain.
In one of his letters to Timothy, St. Paul wrote:
“…we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
The issue isn’t having more, but rather the ongoing desire for more. Instead of being grateful for what we already have, we grow discontent with what we don’t have. We forget that more is an elusive goal, something we’ll never reach—there will always be more to go after. And sadly, in our pursuit of more, we may even end up going down paths and making decisions we later regret.
The key in all this, as Denatus embodied, is contentment. For him, a dinner of roasted turnips and some manual labor were plenty to be content. He may not have ended the day with more money in his pocket, but he was content—a state of mind that even gold can’t buy.
From Plutarch’s account of Cato the Elder in Lives. ↩︎