Here are the exact words of this teaching story, known as “the argument of the growing heap,” as described in the footnote in my college-era edition of Erasmus’s classic work, The Praise of Folly :
“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”
This story is one of my favorites, because it so perfectly captures a paradox that I grapple with in my own life, and which is very significant to happiness: Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior.