In 1742 David Hume published “Of the Middle Station,” an essay intending to show that those in what we might now call the “middle class” had the best place in life, preferable by far to those on the bottom (the poor) or the top (the rich).
Hume cites Agur’s prayer to enlighten us about his first reason:
Two Things have I requir’d of thee, deny me them not before I die, Remove far from me Vanity and Lies; Give me neither Poverty nor Riches, feed me with Food convenient for me: Lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the Name of my GOD in vain.
Hume explicates this:
“Those, who are plac’d among the lower Rank of Men, have little Opportunity of exerting any other Virtue, besides those of Patience, Resignation, Industry and Integrity. Those, who are advanc’d into the higher Stations, have full Employment for their Generosity, Humanity, Affability and Charity. When a Man lyes betwixt these two Extremes, he can exert the former Virtues towards his Superiors, and the latter towards his Inferiors.”
In other words, if you’re in the middle class, you have the possibility of displaying a wide range of virtues because of the fact that you will have people above you in power (superiors) and below you (inferiors). To the superiors you can display patience, integrity, hard work, and agreeableness. To the inferiors you can show generosity, kindness, and respect for humanity.
Hume also observes that the virtue of friendship can be more easily and more frequently obtained by those in the middle station. Those who are wealthy and powerful are often the target of great envy and jealousy precisely because of the wealth and power they hold. The wealthy must be wary of those who seek their friendship because some people will seek the favor of a rich man in order to exploit him or gain favors from him. This rings all too true for anyone who has ever seen Hollywood documentaries of the rich and famous or read about the life of the super-wealthy.
Hume comments further on why the rich have trouble with friends:
“It has been very judiciously remark’d, that we attach ourselves more by the Services we perform than by those we receive, and that a Man is in Danger of losing his Friends by obliging them too far.”
In other words, your friends won’t appreciate you if you’re always doing them favors or giving them your wealth. Incidentally, in the book 59 Seconds, psychologist Richard Wiseman discusses how modern scientific research shows that asking someone to do you a single small favor makes them more likely to like you than if you had done them a favor. Hume’s folk wisdom, after all these years, has at last been scientifically confirmed.
You can read the rest of Hume’s short essay here online for free.