On money, life and happiness

Money, money, money, always sunny, in a rich man’s world

After reading Mad Hatter’s and Arduos’ very interesting posts on the subject of Money and Happiness, and the ensuing discussions, I was reminded of something I read for the first time well over twenty years ago. It is part of a chapter from a book by Italian writer Luciano de Crescenzo, titled Storia della Filosofia Greca (first published in 1983). It is a popularized history of the Greek Philosophy, intercalated by semi-serious recounts of the author’s conversations with common people (with some highly uncommon insight in the human condition). One of these is Tonino Capone, an auto electrician based in Napoli (where else ?), whose views on the subject of money and happiness are rather peculiar.
I remember, when I first read it, dismissing it as silly and simplistic. I feel somewhat differently now; there are things about it which, at the time, I simply did not get, or could not appreciate.
Granted, it is not “research”, nor anything meant to be taken too seriously. The ideas expounded in it may not work for everyone, and in part Arduous has written some of the same things, but I thought it might be interesting to post it.
Unfortunately I could not find an English translation (I did find this one in Spanish). So, since I own a copy of the book, I took a stab at translating it myself (notes at the end are my own).

Among the many clichés that trivialize our daily conversation, a most annoying one is the motto ‘taking life with philosophy’. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that, for example, being stuck for an hour inside an elevator is an experience that requires some philosophical inclination, if nothing else to make more bearable the time spent waiting for help. Still, I am bothered by what I see as an attempt to reduce philosophy to some kind of ‘resignation practice’. To adopt a ‘philosophy of life’, means among other things to hold a scale of values, based upon which pivotal life decisions are made.
Enter Tonino Capone. The stage is Napoli, a hot Summer day. It’s noon, the temperature has reached its seasonal maximum, and my car is parked right under the sun. I sit at the wheel of the scorchingly hot vehicle, and am about to start the engine, when I realize that the battery is dead. I curse in a loud voice and walk toward the nearest auto electrician. Nobody is in, though; the shutter is down, and a conspicuous sign reads ‘Having earned enough money for the day, Tonino is off to the beach‘.
That of Tonino is a philosophy of life, worth examining in detail.

I met Antonio (Tonino) Capone in 1948, at a Salesian College; he was an intern, I would only go there to play football [0]. In those days, Antonio was a typical young man, little talk and all action; nothing about him would give away that one day he would become a philosopher.
After abandoning his religious career (essentially before even starting it), he developed only two passions: football and motors. Automobiles, motorbikes, motorboats, mopeds, anything with a combustion engine would fascinate him. He dropped out of college and started working as a car mechanic. He was always covered in grease, and stank of motor oil. He married very young and found a job as test driver for automaker FIAT, in Napoli. Neither the marriage nor the job lasted, though. At 24, he was again single, and unemployed.
In 1955 he took part in the Gran Premio Posillipo [1], driving his own prototype car. That race was won by Alberto Ascari. Tonino’s car skidded off the track at the first corner, that of Trentaremi; had it not been for a few haystacks and a magnolia tree, he would have jumped off a 200-mt high cliff right into the ocean. None of the spectators were injured. Tonino himself was lucky enough to end up with just two broken legs. While recovering from the accident at the hospital, in a state of forced immobility with both legs plastered, Tonino took advantage of his studies of greek and latin while a student at the Salesian College, and took on reading the classics, developing an interest for the greek philosophers. Today, Tonino is the only Italian intellectual capable of replacing a spark coil.
“Life is like a game of Monopoly“, he is fond of saying. “At the very beginning, each player receives 24 tokens of freedom, a token for each hour of the day. It is all about spending those tokens in the best possible way”.

It’s 1 am in a pizzeria located within Napoli’s Vomero. There are no more customers left; the place is about to close. The owner, O’ Maresciallo, is at the cashier running the numbers. Two waiters collect dirty table clothes, to be sent to the laundry. At a corner table, sipping on three cups of espresso, sit Tonino, Carmine (the eldest among the pizzeria waiters) and I.
“In life”, says Tonino, “only two things are really needed: a little bit of money, in order to be financially independent, and some love, not to be too lonely. These two things are not handed to us for free; they have to be purchased, hours of freedom being the currency. Southern Italians, for example, long for the security given by a paycheck that comes on the 27th day of each month. But in terms of freedom, that sense of security is very expensive: eight hours a day mean eight tokens of freedom, not including overtime and a possible second job. Now, let’s talk love. Here too, most of us opt for a stable arrangement, find a spouse and hope to derive from him/her that ‘affection paycheck’ that we need. But this solution comes at a price too; in the best case, we are talking at least six more hours of freedom. Spouses wait for us and place us ‘under arrest’, so to speak, at the end of each work day. So, let’s summarize: eight hours for work, six for the spouse, all we are left with are ten hours to sleep, eat, shower and drive to work and back.”
“Mr. Capone”, says Carmine who, not being close to Tonino, addresses him very formally, “I am not sure I follow. You seem to be saying that, in order to make money, I have to spend…” “That’s right !”, interjects Tonino, “but what you spend is imaginary, freedom money. Once you have given away all that you have to your work and your spouse, there will be nothing left for yourself.”
“But, you see, Mr. Capone”, says Carmine, hardly impressed with Tonino’s argument, “here is the thing: when I work, I never get bored, when I am with my wife I get bored sometimes, but when I am by myself I am bored out of my mind. Given all that, is it not better if I spend most of my time at work ?”.
“That’s because you have never learned to be by yourself”, says Tonino. “You know what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche used to say ? ‘Loneliness, you are my true home…’ ”
“Well, that may work in Germany”, says Carmine, “for us Neapolitans, loneliness is an ugly thing”. “Loneliness in and of itself is neither good nor bad”, says Tonino, “Loneliness is just like a magnifying glass: if you are happy and lonely, you feel great, whereas if you are sad and lonely, you are miserable”.
“Eh, I don’t know about that… and in any case, more time is spent being sad than happy, so…”, says Carmine, rather dismissively.
“All right, fine, I did not want to discuss loneliness anyway, but rather free time”, says Tonino. “And let me make one thing clear: each and every one of us is entitled to spend his/her free time as (s)he pleases. Alone, in the company of friends, at a restaurant, even driving through traffic. It does not matter how, what matters is to have some time left at the end of the day to indulge into some kind of activity that does not involve either earning nor spending. Unfortunately consumerism nowadays, with its increasing demands, strict code of conduct and rules of behavior, forces us to work much harder than we really need. It would be sufficient to eliminate useless consumption to free ourselves, once and for all, from the plague of work-holism”.
Now Carmine is pissed. “Hey, wait a minute, Mr. Capone, with all due respect, what ‘useless consumption’ are you talking about ? The issue here, is one of basic needs … And look, not to be rude or anything, Mr. Capone, you are a single guy, what the hell do you know about ‘needs’ or ‘consumption’, anyway ? I have a wife and three kids. You charge twenty thousand lire [2] to replace a headlight, in order to make six hundred thousand lire I have to work like a dog for a month, still hoping to collect some extra money in tips ! Don’t go talking to me about ‘consumerism’, please…”.
“Do you own a car ?” asks, somewhat abruptly, Tonino. “Er… what do you mean, Mr. Capone ? Yeah, sure, I do, I have an old FIAT 127, a piece of junk…”. Carmine is no longer shouting, as if all of a sudden he felt guilty… “Ah-ha !” says Tonino, “now you tell me if a car is not something that you could easily do without. Your dad never owned one, and yet his life was not measurably less happy than yours. Be honest, you bought a car mainly because others have one, not because you really need it.” “Bullshit”, says Carmine, “you cannot rely on public transportation alone, these days, to get yourself around in a place like Napoli…”.
“Let me ask you this, Carmine” says Tonino, “what makes a rich man such, in your opinion ?”.
“It’s easy, Mr. Capone: money.”
“How much money ?”
“Hmm… I don’t know… maybe… three million lire a month ?”
“Why three million ? Where does this number come from, anyway ? There is nothing magical about it, nor about any other number. Calling someone ‘rich’ who makes some fixed amount, and ‘poor’ anyone who makes less than that, is meaningless. Rich and poor are relative concepts. If you spend less than what you earn, you are rich, otherwise you are poor. End of the story.”
The owner of the pizzeria is done with his accounting; intrigued by the conversation, he has decided to join us. “So, what is it that you are telling us, Mr. Capone ? That we don’t need any money ? ”
“What I am saying is that richness is a state of mind; the key is to spend less than what one makes, not wishing to acquire what one cannot afford.”
“But that is nonsense !” shouts Carmine. “Life is all about going places and getting stuff… isn’t it ? For example, I really would like to own a color TV, but we are talking almost a million lire…”.
“Oh, yeah”, says Tonino, sarcastically, “I mean, how can anyone possibly get by without a color TV, these days…”.
Carmine is now serious: “Look, Mr. Capone, I am not an idiot, I know perfectly well that I can do without one but, you see, I have been somewhat unlucky. The Cultural Association ‘Benedetto Croce’, in Materdei, close to where I live, used to own a 23-inch color TV. Every Sunday I could go and watch TV there for free. Unfortunately they have gone bankrupt and closed doors. And now, even though I could definitely go back to watching my own black and white TV, I just … can’t. I need a color TV.”
“You know what you should do, Carmine”, says O’ Maresciallo, trying hard not to burst into laughter, “you should sue those Benedetto Croce bastards; they acted like drug dealers. First, they give it to you for free, and then, once you become hooked, they start charging for it.”
“Marescia’, you are being too hard on poor Carmine”, says Tonino. “He absolutely has a point. The Cultural Association ‘Benedetto Croce’, by allowing him to watch TV for free, has de facto increased his standards of living, thereby creating a need for him that did not exist before. Let me give you the following example: Suppose you were to lay off Carmine…”, “Hey, how do you know that I am actually thinking of doing that ? Is it because he spends more time bullshitting with patrons than doing actual work ?” asks O’ Maresciallo. Tonino ignores him and continues on: “and let’s say that I am looking for help in my shop, and for old friendship sake I decide to hire Carmine, even though he knows nothing of cars and electricity. The pay will be one and a half million lire a month…”.
“Whoa !”, says Carmine, “Mr. Capone, can we make this real ? I can start tomorrow…”.
“Ah, but, see, there is a catch”, says Tonino. “That is your salary for the first year only. Thereafter, it will revert to just one million lire a month.”
“What ?” Carmine is befuddled. “You are offering me to lower my pay after one year ? Mr. Capone, salary is supposed to go up, not down…”. But Tonino insists, “Sorry Carmine, this is the deal; take it or leave it. It is a difficult choice. If you are not careful, during your first year you will get used to living on a one and a half million lire monthly salary; but then, once your paycheck shrinks, you will feel unhappy and frustrated, unable to afford many of the things that you had come to take for granted. But, hear me now, there is a way out. What you need to do is give away every month the extra half million lire to the panhandler sitting by the corner of the church. That way, you will experience no hardship after one year; of course, the beggar will be the one who gets the shaft. At some point, he’ll be left with no income, wondering what happened to that nice man who gave him half million lire each month”. “Poor sap… what will he tell his mistress…” says O’ Maresciallo.
Tonino goes on explaining it once again: rich, poor, there is nothing absolute about any of that; they are nothing but states of mind. A person with no needs is rich by definition. Happiness, in the end, boils down to freedom. Unhappy is anyone forced to work harder than (s)he would like to, only to increase his/her own consumption even further. “I have reduced my own standards of living to the point where I can afford to work half a day and spend the rest of the time with my friends, and studying. That is why I am happy”.

Tonino Capone never wrote a book. All that can be attributed to him, is what is written on his work notepad. Between a 11:30 appointment reading “Install alarm on Dr. Pittaluga’s Maserati” and a note saying “Place order for Tudor batteries”, it is also possible to read, here and there, something like “I don’t know why everyone is so obsessed with extending its duration; if anything, life should be enlarged, not lengthened”.

Luciano De Crescenzo, “Storia della Filosofia Greca” (1983)

[0] It is often the case in Italy that football pitches, or large fields or areas where football can be played, are owned by churches or religious associations.
[1] A local car race enjoying some national prominence
[2] My guess is that the conversation described by the author might have taken place sometime in the mid to late 70s. That would put the worth of 20000 lire at approximately 50 today’s US dollars.

7 Responses to “On money, life and happiness”

  1. alv1e Says:

    Thanks a lot! That was a great piece!
    Do you plan to extend the translation later?

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Thank you for your comment and for pointing out the broken link.
      Hmm… “Extend” ? As in … to the rest of the book ? I don’t think I’ll have the time (nor do I think it’s legal). But it’s actually a great book. This is all I meant to post off of it anyway.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Interesting perspective. I must say that if someone were to offer me a position in which I would make lots of money for one year, say 150K, and then revert to my current much smaller salary thereafter, I would take the offer in a second! The extra money I made in the first year might allow me to work for fewer total years at the lower salary.

    I think how much one takes the future into account will affect one’s thinking on how much one should try to make now. For example, Tonino chooses to work half a day and spend the other doing things he likes. But he could also choose to work a full day now and, assuming he maintained the low standard or living, be able to retire several years early and spend those years doing only the things he likes.

    The dangers of the first method are that one may unexpectedly lose one’s ability to generate income or incur unanticipated expenses in the future, in which case one would be screwed. The dangers of the second method are that one may not have the discipline to maintain the low standard of living and end up being stuck working full-time for the rest of one’s life, or that one might die before one has a chance to reap the rewards of those years of full-time work.


    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      think how much one takes the future into account will affect one’s thinking on how much one should try to make now.

      Or, how much one should enjoy life now or defer consumption until later… it gets pretty complicated indeed, and each one of us has a different recipe. But in terms of “money needed now” I think the take home message is:
      1) There is no limit to how much you can consume, and therefore there is a risk of a slippery slope to where you will always want more, if nothing else to “keep up with the Joneses”
      2) In order to make more money one has to give up time now. This is also part of the equation and should not be forgotten, as many probably do. Me, I am pretty lucky in that respect, because I do enjoy working…

      • Anonymous Says:

        Fascinating piece. Thanks for translating that for us!

        I agree with MH. If I had the opportunity, I’d definitely take a job where I made double what I make now and revert back to my salary the second year. I’d probably sock away most of the extra money, and let it earn interest so that I would have a bigger cushion later on.

        I think you have to choose a middle road between enjoying yourself now, and saving for the future. I know too many people who are unable to retire because they didn’t save enough, and I certainly don’t want to be in the position when I reach retirement age. On the other hand, I don’t want to be nose to the grindstone while I’m young either! I haven’t figured out the appropriate work-life balance. Unfortunately in certain fields like mine, you can’t really choose your hours.


      • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

        Would you be able to resist the temptation of using at least part of that extra income to indulge into some expense that may not be possible for a long time to come, thereafter ? And even if you are so disciplined, if you really did manage to stash aside all the money, would you not get used at all to the comfort, the tranquillity coming from receiving it regularly ? Remember, we are not talking any kind of “mission” here, for which you derive some bonus, or additional payment, it’s the same identical performance for which later one you get paid less. I think that most people have a very hard time taking a pay cut (in most cases it comes unexpectedly) precisely because lowering one’s standards of living is very difficult.

  3. Amelie Says:

    Thanks for sharing and taking the effort to translate it, this was very interesting!
    I agree with what you say about pay cuts and standards of living. I know many people who follow a scheme of “work hard now and enjoy your money & time later, when you’ve earned it”, but what if later never comes? Then you’d have foregone all that possible freedom and still be left with nothing…

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