The Rich Are Not Different

Even if they think they are


Last fall, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, titled “Rich People Just Care Less,” which argued that the rich lack empathy for the poor because they are rarely forced to interact with them. He writes: “While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations—with those of the same strata, and the more powerful—than the rich are, because they have to be.”

After this article appeared online, my daughter sent me the link, and accompanied it with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Shakespeare’s sonnet is not simple—nor are the benefits and the costs of being rich. To be privileged, as Goleman argues—and Shakespeare, if we read the sonnet in a certain way (there are admittedly lots of ways to read it)—is to be separated from some of the simple interactions that poorer people take for granted. Shakespeare’s poem starts by noting that privilege can mean refraining from doing harm by holding back from wielding destructive power.

But the first eight lines also contain the suggestion that holding back is a form of subtle inhumanity. Privileged people are used to being served rather than engaging as equals with others. Hence Goleman’s point about why the rich lack empathy. But even those of us who live in relative affluence (not super rich, but comfortable) don’t know what true vulnerability feels like. This, of course, has its benefits. Because we are not vulnerable—and aren’t preoccupied with it—we are free to achieve many things and contribute to society in creative and constructive ways. Like Shakespeare’s “he” in the poem, “we” can “husband nature’s riches from expense” through judicious use of power.

The shift in metaphor in the next two lines of the sonnet (“The summer’s flower …”) applies to those of us with disposable income who can nurture our sensitivities, indulge our tastes, and make our lives, within the short span of our personal summer, a thing of beauty. But see our interests or our lives threatened, and we begin to see how that husbanding of riches can be limiting and even destructive.

The unwillingness to see vulnerability as anything more than a flaw or a weakness—to shun it or keep it at arm’s length—must ultimately have its consequences.  We become so cut off from the day-to-day difficulties of life as to forget that vulnerability is human and that we all are destined to suffer and die. The illusion of imperviousness then renders us pathetic when the context shifts from achievement and control to the inescapable fact of mortality.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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