Aristides was sitting in court, listening to an accuser prosecuting his cousin. It was a major trial.
His cousin, Callias, was one of the richest men in Athens. But Aristides was famous for being poor.
The prosecutor turned to Aristides, sitting in the audience, and said, “Can anyone doubt Callias is a wicked man, when he lets his cousin and friend Aristides live in a tiny house, and go around in cheap clothes?”
Aristides stood up and explained. Callias offered him money many times, but Aristides always turned him down.
Ancient Potsherd (ostrakon) with Aristides’ name on it.
In his opinion, “Only those who are unable to be anything but poor should be ashamed of poverty.”
Callias was acquitted.
Plutarch brings up this example in his essay On Chance, (or On Fortune or On Luck – Περὶ Τύχης).
Many people think, consciously or not, that the success of impressive people depends on luck, fortune, chance. It’s partly true.
But, Plutarch remarks, “Was it because of Luck that Aristides persevered in his poverty, when he could have made himself master of great wealth?”
Aristides was nicknamed “The Just” for a reason – and it was his character that won him his lasting reputation, both in his lifetime and for posterity.
What ultimately impresses us in others – and why we find stories of successful people useful – is not their luck, but what they do with it.
Plutarch proposes, in his essay, that the opposite of Fortune is a certain kind of intelligence (phronesis):
“That particular sagacity and intelligence which renders people virtuous in the midst of pleasures we call continence and self-control, in perils and labors we call it perseverance and fortitude, in private dealings and in public life we call it equity and justice.”
Acting in accordance wth virtue is a form of intelligence. But it’s not the kind you are born with. It is learnable.
We learn it from observing, and from doing.