The Challenge of Living an Honest Life in a World of Want


Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “It is more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly.”

All those who desire to live an honest life should consider the weight of those words. In fact, read them again if you skipped over them quickly.

In its original context, Franklin was exhorting his readers to work industrially and live frugally. Because as he explained, it is “more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly.”

It is true. Working hard and living frugally does provide a freedom to live a more virtuous life. Of course, one can work hard, live frugally, and still live a selfish, dishonest life—but that is not the point being made.

But I have come to learn there is more wisdom to be found here than in an exhortation to care for our finances. The more we consider this important thought, the more places we see it play out in our lives.

The proverb speaks truth not just about honesty, but about many of the virtues we should desire, and the difficulty of actually living them out when we are never satisfied. When we live in a state of constant want, a virtuous life becomes harder to live.

Think of it this way, our virtues are tested in the arena of desires. And the greater our desire, the more fierce the battle.

A constant need for more, while seemingly innocent, can subtly coax us into compromising our character, integrity, and values. We may win out over the temptation to compromise some days—but more often than we’d like to admit, we lose the fight. And the greater the pull of want, the greater the temptation to compromise virtue.

Think about it, a man or woman who is never satisfied with the amount of money in their bank account, who constantly wants more and more of it, is more tempted to be dishonest in their pursuit of it than the man or woman who is satisfied with what they have.

The man or woman with a constant want for a bigger house, a grander vacation, a bigger wardrobe, or a more luxurious car is more often tempted with greed, selfishness, manipulation, impatience, and jealousy (just to name a few).

When we live in a state of constant want, it is more difficult to live an honest and virtuous life.

Which requires us to ask the question of ourselves, “Am I living in a constant state of wanting more than I have? And how does this desire for more war against the virtues I wish to be true of me?”

This question becomes even more important to internalize in an economy that runs on fanning the flames of desire in our hearts—always pushing and pulling us to want more and more and more. The less we are satisfied with our lives, the more they win. Without intentional effort, our culture slowly reshapes our heart into a desire for more and more.

Now, don’t misinterpret my thinking here. I am not saying that ambition is immoral. I am not saying that it is unwise to work hard and provide for our families. I’m not even saying that there aren’t times in life or circumstances in life when we should diligently pursue something better.

What I am saying is that when we are never satisfied with our lives—especially in terms of money, possessions, power, fame, and pleasure—it becomes more difficult to live an always honest life and we are more tempted to compromise. There is a direct relationship.

And that might explain why the virtues of honesty, patience, contentment, generosity, and humility come under siege in a culture that constantly whispers there is greater happiness to be found in more and there is always something else to acquire.

The challenge, therefore, is not merely in learning to pursue a life well-lived as our chief goal, but in resisting the temptation to want more when we already have enough.

Minimalism, in this broader context, emerges as a helpful philosophy. It invites us to redefine success, to treasure the invisible over the visible, to see the emptiness of pursuing possessions that can never satisfy, and to live a life more focused on purpose, virtue, values, and convictions.

Does minimalism mean that somebody automatically lives a more virtuous life? Of course not. I would never make that argument. Minimalism and living a virtuous life are not synonymous.

But it can remove at least one area of want from a person’s life and as a result, it can make the pathway to honesty a little bit easier to navigate.

Minimalism might not be the best word for what I am speaking of. Contentment is probably better. But minimalism, in many ways, helps pave the way for contentment.

Simplicity challenges us to confront society’s messaging that equates happiness with possessions. It invites us to craft a legacy defined not by what we accumulate, but by the lives that we live.

And when that is the goal, virtue comes a little bit easier.

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