A rich banker is remembering a party he hosted fifteen years ago where a debate broke out about whether capital punishment or life imprisonment is the more moral punishment.
The banker argued that life in prison is just a very slow death, so it would be better to get the death penalty and get it over with.
A young lawyer argued the opposite—that any life is better than death, even if it means rotting in prison for decades.
Uh oh. It's a stalemate. So the two made a bet—if the lawyer can stand to be in voluntary solitary confinement for fifteen years, the banker will pay him two million smackers. Now that's a lot of dough.
The banker set him up in a guesthouse—the lawyer could get food, books, music, whatever he wanted except human communication of any sort.
At first, the lawyer seemed depressed, but soon began studying vigorously, because you know, no Netflix in 19th-century Russia.
First, he tackles languages and a bunch of things written in them. Then, the Bible. Then, a crazy mix of science, literature, and other seemingly random things. Soon, the fifteen years is almost up, because there's no better way to pass the time than reading a bunch of obscure books, right, PhDs?
In the present, the banker realizes that if the lawyer wins, he won't be able to pay up the two million. He's lost his banking fortune, and if he has to shell out, he'll be totally bankrupt forever. The only thing to do? Kill the lawyer before the fifteen years ends.
On the last night of the prison term, the banker sneaks into the guesthouse. The guards aren't there so he has no trouble slipping in.
The lawyer is sleeping, and just as the banker is about to finish him off, he sees that there is a note on the desk.
The note says that the lawyer has spent his fifteen years experiencing all that life has to offer through books.
His conclusion? The material world is stupid and worthless because we're all bound to croak in the end anyways.
To prove how much he rejects it, he puts his money where his mouth is. By which we mean the lawyer rejects the money altogether. He promises to leave the cell five hours early to forfeit any claim to the coin.
The banker kisses the lawyer's head and leaves. Phew, he doesn't have to murder the guy.
The next day, the guesthouse guard reports that the lawyer sneaked out five hours early.
The banker takes the note forfeiting the money and locks it in a safe.