An Ancient Fable and Spiritual Capital

Two and a half thousand years ago, Solon, the Athenian wise man and lawgiver, visited the wealthiest king of his time, Croesus of Lydia (now Turkey). 1 This is the same Croesus from whom we get the expression “rich as Croesus.”

Croesus showed off his fantastic wealth to Solon, and then asked him, “Who is the most fortunate man in the world?” He expected Solon to say, “You are, Croesus!” Solon instead named an Athenian who was a humble farmer and family man, and who fell honorably in battle. Croesus pressed him further, expecting at least second best. Solon further disappointed him by naming two brothers who died suddenly in their prime.

In response to a visibly upset Croesus, Solon explained his view: fortune cannot be measured by wealth alone, but by the entirety of a person’s life. He added that the truly fortunate person is the one who ends his or her life well. Solon urged Croesus to consider the unpredictable nature of life, which is a patchwork of good and bad experiences. No one can be perfectly beautiful, wealthy, powerful, loved, famous, good, and healthy all at the same time. In the same way, a single piece of land cannot produce everything a city needs all at once. Thus, only the person who lives a fulfilling life and dies in an agreeable manner is fortunate.

Croesus dismissed Solon’s wisdom, since he placed so much weight on his immediate wealth and prosperity. To him, wealth was a fortress that protected him against the vicissitudes of life and was so vast as to be permanent. The “moral of the story” according to Herodotus is that soon after his conversation with Solon, Croesus lost his kingdom, sons, and at last his life as divine retribution for his hubris.

Let’s bring the story of Croesus into the context of UHNW families and the pursuit of human flourishing. Imagine Croesus as a modern-day billionaire. What does this story have to tell us? To use a concept from wealth expert James Hughes, Croesus was lacking in his spiritual capital.

What is Spiritual Capital?

The idea of spiritual capital as a component of family wealth originated in the book Complete Family Wealth. The author James Hughes, a long-time thought leader in the Family Wealth Industry, poses the idea that a family has four forms of qualitative capital (spiritual, social, intellectual, and human) and one type in quantitative capital (financial). The truly flourishing family employs the quantitative to build the qualitative (rather than the other way around, which is most common).

Spiritual capital is the vision, the “why”, behind everything the individual or family does. It encompasses the individuation of the self, as well as the collective understanding of where the family is headed. Without spiritual capital at the reins, the other forms of capital, especially financial capital, may be directed not towards flourishing, but towards unhappiness. Or they may dissipate entirely through consumption and distrust among heirs.

Although the principles are broadly applicable to any family or individual, Hughes wrote Complete Family Wealth specifically in the context of advising ultra-high-net-worth families to succeed as happy and flourishing dynasties of at least five generations. Hughes lists spiritual capital first because he believes it is the most important for a family’s multi-generational success.

James Hughes defines spiritual capital as follows:2

Spiritual capital is the family’s ability to share and sustain an intention that transcends each member’s individual interest. Sometimes that shared intention is described as a shared dream.

This capital is not necessarily equivalent to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions, though such a tradition may express and nurture spiritual capital.

No family begins the journey of family wealth without some sort of shared intention, that is, without some form of spiritual capital. Spiritual capital also includes humility—the recognition that this journey is fraught with challenges and exceeds the strength of any one of us alone—and gratitude—towards those with whom we share the journey, those who came before, and those who will come after us.

A Closer Look

To unpack James Hughes definition, we can separate three different angles to spiritual capital. 

First, spiritual capital is the sum of the family’s shared values, the synergy of which both make the family unique and drive their actions and goals. Often families will identify strong positive traits (for example, loyalty, humility, or perseverance) that will be passed on from one generation to another. These enduring qualities are a kind of “spiritual capital” of the family.

The second definition, one that mirrors Hughes’ definition more closely, is that spiritual capital consists in the family’s shared dream for the future. Sustaining this type of spiritual capital on a family level is difficult in our individualistic society. It takes a strong vision to allow family members to share the same dream for the future. It is better understood in the context of a family dynasty, in which a common business interest or family enterprise acts as an additional gravitational force. Though it should not be the gravitational force of the family, a tangible reason to work together forms a powerful incentive for the family to dream together.

The third way of framing spiritual capital examines the family’s relationship to their other capitals, especially the financial capital. The family can search for answers together for the questions, “What is wealth, what does it mean to our family, and what is our responsibility with it?” The goal for the family is to find their purpose for their financial wealth and its role in supporting, but not being, its source of happiness. It is in this context especially that our king Croesus was lacking. His wealth ruled his spirit, exerting a strong pull on him. While he imagined he was a powerful king, he was the servant of his own success.

Building Spiritual Capital

In Wealth 3.0, Grubman, Keffeler, and Jaffe critique fear-based messaging to ultra-high-net-worth families. They wisely point out the flaws in a “do this or else” approach to inspiring action. And in the spirit of this, we do not want to suggest that a family will suffer Croesus’ fate without a family governance and education plan!

However, it is vital for families to discuss (perhaps with advisors facilitating) how to define and build a family’s spiritual capital. The qualitative capitals are, in the end, what make us happy and flourishing as individuals and families. Richard Orlando writes in Legacy: The Hidden Keys to Optimizing Your Family Wealth Decisions, “All families need to invest in their spiritual capital, wealthy families especially, since wealth accentuates everything and pulls us magnetically toward a greater focus on temporal issues, like gravity pulls material objects toward the center of the Earth.”3 In light of this, below are some activities and discussion questions that may help initiate this process.

Values Discovery

Spiritual capital is more than family values, but identifying family values is a good place to start in discovering the family’s shared vision that transcends the individual members. There are many ways to begin a conversation around family values. Ideally, the discussion takes place in a tension-free environment. 

Although the desired deliverable of the activity is a family values statement, start instead with a personal reflection on values. Give each family member space to reflect on what particular values mean to them. The conversation moderator can listen, take notes, and then bring up discussion around the common themes threaded through each family member’s individual values. 

There are a number of available purpose-built tools to facilitate these conversations. Alternatively, the advisor could base an activity using a list of values similar to the ones listed here.

Follow up Conversation

After this exercise, consider a reflection and discussion the following questions:

  • What is the center of gravity in the family, spiritual capital, or financial capital?
  • What practices of the family does spiritual capital impact?
  • How resilient is the family against misfortune, the inevitable ups and downs of life? 
  • Does the family have all five forms of capital in store for a rainy day?
  • What activities of the family currently support the family’s values? Are there activities that hinder or contradict these values?
  • How can we develop these shared values into a vision statement for the family?


Cultivating the family’s spiritual capital gives the family resilience and cohesion over the long term. By building a shared understanding of values and vision, that family will have a guide directing its actions and how it uses its financial capital.

1 Summarized from Herodotus’ Histories 1.30-33

2 James E. Hughes, Susan E. Massenzio and Keith Whitaker, Complete Family Wealth (Hoboken, New 

Jersey: 2018), 11-12.

3 Richard Orlando, Legacy: The Hidden Keys to Optimizing Your Family Wealth Decisions (2013), 30.