Stoic Serenity 5.10: Thought Experiment 2

Well hello again. I’m going through a rough patch right now, which motivated me to re-read through the Stoic Serenity lessons here on the blog, which in turn motivated me to continue with the chapters in the book. So a year later, I’m picking up exactly where I left off: Cicero’s second thought experiment:

As you read the scenario, keep in mind that Roman law had a provision that said that advertising claims did not necessarily have to be accurate if it was regarding something the buyer would be able to judge for himself.

Imagine that a good man is selling his house because it has certain faults of which he, but no one else, is aware. For example, say the house is unsanitary but it appears to be of fine health, or that it is not generally known that rats have infested the bedrooms, or that the house is structurally unsafe and is crumbling, but no one except the owner knows this. The question is this: if the seller does not tell the buyer these things about the house, but ends up selling the house at a higher price than that at which he expected to sell it, is he acting unjustly or dishonestly?

“He is indeed acting unjustly and dishonestly,” Antipater claims. “Give me an instance of ‘failing to show the path to someone who is lost’ (something which is prohibited in Athens on pain of a public curse) if it is not this: allowing a buyer to rush into a deal and succumb through his error to being thoroughly deceived. Indeed it is more than failing to show the path; rather it is knowingly to lead someone into error.”

And Diogenes again: “If someone has not even encouraged you to buy the house, surely he hasn’t forced you. He advertised something that he did not want, and you bought something you did want. If those who advertise a house as “good and well built” are not thought to have deceived you, even though it is neither good nor methodically built, then it’s much less the case for those who haven’t praised their house. Where it is up to the buyer to judge, how can there be deceit on the part of the seller? Indeed, if one need not accept responsibility for everything that was actually stated, do you really think that one need to do so for something that was not disclosed? What is more foolish than for a seller to recount the faults of the very thing he is selling? What could be more absurd than for the auctioneer to say, ‘I am selling an unsanitary house’?”

(Cicero, On Duties 3.54-55)

To recap, Diogenes is referring back to the Roman law when he says, “If those who advertise a house as ‘good and well built’ are not thought to have deceived you, even though it is neither good nor methodically built, then it’s much less the case for those who haven’t praised their house.”

Imagine yourself as the vendor in this scenario. You’re attempting to sell a house which is a detriment to public health. Our options include:
Rats on Riverdale

— Warning every prospective buyer, “Oh, and by the way, this house is infested with rats and has a higher risk of spreading disease and death to your family.” Results in selling the house for whatever price the informed buyer is willing to pay.

realtor Remaining silent and smiling to prospective buyers, skipping over the part about the rats, disease, and death, and only pointing out the highlights of the house: “Don’t forget to check out the infinity pool out back!” Results in selling the house for a much higher price than its true value.

What would you do?

My Take

The question is whether Vendor #2 has acted justly and honestly. I say he has not. Once again, I side with Antipater. I see Vendor #2 as taking advantage of a naive buyer. He skips out on important details of the house in effort to sell as soon as possible and to collect as much money as possible from the sale. What will he think of himself once the sale is completed, the new owner moves in, and discovers that the house is their worse nightmare? “Too bad, you should’ve taken a better look at it before you bought it?” Vendor #2 is ok with that?

By selling the house for a higher price than even the vendor thinks is fair, I believe Vendor #2 is acting unjustly. By omitting the details of the rat infestation, and thus presenting the house to appear to be in a different state than it truly is, I believe Vendor #2 is acting dishonestly. Let’s not forget to also include the important Stoic principle that part of living according to Nature includes living in such a way to help other humans and to benefit humankind. Has Vendor #2 acted with the best interest of his fellow humans in mind? Let’s not kid ourselves. Three strikes and you’re out.

Some might question, “Well how is the vendor supposed to sell the house? No one’s going to buy a rat-infested house.”

Maybe you’re right, but there are options:

  • Maybe the house will be on the market for a long time and you end up selling it for next to nothing.
  • Maybe you have to invest some and spend time and money getting rid of the health hazards to make it safe before you can sell it to the next family.
  • Maybe the house won’t sell and you’ll be stuck with it forever.

At least you still have your Virtue…


souls“You know yourself what you are worth in your own eyes; and at what price you will sell yourself. For men sell themselves at various prices.”

(Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus)

Are you willing to sell yourself for the price of a house?

2 responses to “Stoic Serenity 5.10: Thought Experiment 2

  1. Harry Wells June 13, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    A shame that you are going through a rough patch, but very welcome to see you back.

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