On the Happy Life
(First Century A.D.)
To live happily, my brother Gallio, is the desire of all men, but their minds are blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes life happy; and so far from its being easy to attain the happy life, the more eagerly a man strives to reach it, the farther he recedes from it if he has made a mistake in the road; for when it leads in the opposite direction, his very speed will increase the distance that separates him.
First, therefore, we must seek what it is that we are aiming at; then we must look about for the road by which we can reach it most quickly, and on the journey itself, if only we are on the right path, we shall discover how much of the distance we overcome each day, and how much nearer we are to the goal toward which we are urged by a natural desire. But so long as we wander aimlessly, having no guide, and following only the noise and discordant cries of those who call us in different directions, life will be consumed in making mistakes — life that is brief even if we should strive day and night for sound wisdom. Let us, therefore, decide both upon the goal and upon the way, and not fail to find some experienced guide who has explored the region towards which we are advancing; for the conditions of this journey are different from those of most travel. On most journeys some well-recognized road and inquiries made of the inhabitants of the region prevent you from going astray; but on this one all the best beaten and the most frequented paths are the most deceptive. Nothing, therefore, needs to be more emphasized than the warning that we should not, like sheep, follow the lead of the throng in front of us, travelling, thus, the way that all go and not the way that we ought to go. Yet nothing involves us in greater trouble than the fact that we adapt ourselves to common report in the belief that the best things are those that have met with great approval,— the fact that, having so many to follow, we live after the rule, not of reason, but of imitation. The result of this is that people are piled high, one above another, as they rush to destruction. And just as it happens that in a great crush of humanity, when the people push against each other, no one can fall down without drawing along another, and those that are in front cause destruction to those behind — this same thing, you may see happening everywhere in life.
No man can go wrong to his own hurt only, but he will be both the cause and the sponsor of another's wrongdoing. For it is dangerous to attach one's self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgment in the matter of living, but always a blind trust, and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction. It is the example of other people that is our undoing; let us merely separate ourselves from the crowd, and we shall be made whole. But as it is, the populace, defending its own iniquity, pits itself against reason. And so we see the same thing happening that happens at the elections, where, when the fickle breeze of popular favor has shifted, the very same persons who chose the praetors wonder that those praetors were chosen. The same thing has one moment our favor, the next our disfavor; this is the outcome of every decision that follows the choice of the majority.
When the happy life is under debate, there will be no use for you to reply to me, as if it were a matter of votes: "This side seems to be in a majority." For that is just the reason it is the worse side. Human affairs are not so happily ordered that the majority prefer the better things; a proof of the worst choice is the crowd. Therefore let us find out what is best to do, not what is most commonly done — what will establish our claim to lasting happiness, not what finds favor with the rabble, who are the worst possible exponents of the truth. But by the rabble I mean no less the servants of the court than the servants of the kitchen; for I do not regard the color of the garments that clothe the body. In rating a man I do not rely upon eyesight: I have a better and surer light, by which I may distinguish the false from the true. Let the soul discover the good of the soul. If the soul ever has leisure to draw breath and to retire within itself — ah! to what self-torture will it come, and how, if it confesses the truth to itself, it will say: "All that I have done hitherto, I would were undone; when I think of all that I have said, I envy the dumb; of all that I have prayed for, I rate my prayers as the curses of my enemies; of all that I have feared — ye gods! how much lighter it would have been than the load of what I have coveted!
With many I have been at enmity, and, laying aside hatred, have been restored to friendship with them — if only there can be any friendship between the wicked; with myself I have not yet entered into friendship. I have made every effort to remove myself from the multitude and to make myself noteworthy by reason of some endowment. What have I accomplished save to expose myself to the darts of malice and show it where it can sting me? See you those who praise your eloquence, who trail upon your wealth, who court your favor, who exalt your power? All these are either now your enemies, or — it amounts to the same thing — can become such. To know how many are jealous of you, count your admirers. Why do I not rather seek some real good — one which I could feel, not one which I could display? These things that draw the eyes of men, before which they halt, which they show to one another in wonder, outwardly glitter, but are worthless within. Let us seek something that is a good in more than appearance — something that is solid, constant, and more beautiful in its more hidden part; for this let us delve. And it is placed not far off; you will find it — you need only to know where to stretch out your hand. As it is, just as if we groped in darkness, we pass by things near at hand, stumbling over the very objects we desire.
Not to bore you, however, with tortuous details, I shall pass over in silence the opinions of other philosophers, for it would be tedious to enumerate and refute them all. Do you listen to ours. But when I say ours, I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion. Accordingly, I shall follow so-and-so, I shall request so-and-so to divide the question; perhaps, too, when called upon after all the rest, I shall impugn none of my predecessors' opinions, and shall say: "I simply have this much to add." Meantime, I follow the guidance of Nature — a doctrine upon which all Stoics are agreed. Not to stray from Nature and to mold ourselves according to her law and pattern — this is true wisdom.
The happy life, therefore, is a life that is in harmony with its own nature, and it can be attained in only one way. First of all, we must have a sound mind and one that is in constant possession of its sanity; second, it must be courageous and energetic, and, too, capable of the noblest fortitude, ready for every emergency, careful of the body and of all that concerns it, but without anxiety; lastly, it must be attentive to all the advantages that adorn life, but with over-much love for none — the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune. You understand, even if I do not say more, that, when once we have driven away all that excites or affrights us, there ensues unbroken tranquillity and enduring freedom; for when pleasures and fears have been banished, then, in place of all that is trivial and fragile and harmful just because of the evil it works, there comes upon us first a boundless joy that is firm and unalterable, then peace and harmony of the soul and true greatness coupled with kindliness; for all ferocity is born from weakness.
It is possible also to define this good of ours in other terms — that is, the same idea may be expressed in different language. Just as an army remains the same, though at one time it deploys with a longer line, now is massed into a narrow space and either stands with hollowed center and wings curved forward, or extends a straightened front, and, no matter what its formation may be, will keep the selfsame spirit and the same resolve to stand in defense of the selfsame cause, — so the definition of the highest good may at one time be given in prolix and lengthy form, and at another be restrained and concise. So it will come to the same thing if I say: "The highest good is a mind that scorns the happenings of chance, and rejoices only in virtue," or say: "It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable, wise from experience, calm in action, showing the while much courtesy and consideration in intercourse with others." It may also be defined in the statement that the happy man is he who recognizes no good and evil other than a good and an evil mind — one who cherishes honor, is content with virtue, who is neither puffed up, nor crushed, by the happenings of chance, who knows of no greater good than that which he alone is able to bestow upon himself, for whom true pleasure will be the scorn of pleasures. It is possible, too, if one chooses to be discursive, to transfer the same idea to various other forms of expression without injuring or weakening its meaning. For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast — a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it?
A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys. Should not such joys as these be rightly matched against the paltry and trivial and fleeting sensations of the wretched body? The day a man becomes superior to pleasure, he will also be superior to pain; but you see in what wretched and baneful bondage he must linger whom pleasures and pains, those most capricious and tyrannical of masters, shall in turn enslave. Therefore we must make our escape to freedom. But the only means of procuring this is through indifference to Fortune. Then will be born the one inestimable blessing, the peace and exaltation of a mind now safely anchored, and, when all error is banished, the great and stable joy that comes from the discovery of truth, along with kindliness and cheerfulness of mind; and the source of a man's pleasure in all of these will not be that they are good, but that they spring from a good that is his own.
Seeing that I am employing some freedom in treating my subject, I may say that the happy man is one who is freed from both fear and desire because of the gift of reason; since even rocks are free from fear and sorrow, and no less are the beasts of the field, yet for all that no one could say that these things are "blissful," when they have no comprehension of bliss. Put in the same class those people whose dullness of nature and ignorance of themselves have reduced them to the level of beasts of the field and of inanimate things. There is no difference between the one and the other, since in one case they are things without reason, and in the other their reason is warped, and works their own hurt, being active in the wrong direction; for no man can be said to be happy if he has been thrust outside the pale of truth. Therefore the life that is happy has been founded on correct and trustworthy judgment, and is unalterable. Then, truly, is the mind unclouded and freed from every ill, since it knows how to escape not only deep wounds, but even scratches, and, resolved to hold to the end whatever stand it has taken, it will defend its position even against the assaults of an angry Fortune. For so far as sensual pleasure is concerned, though it flows about us on every side, steals in through every opening, softens the mind with its blandishments, and employs one resource after another in order to seduce us in whole or in part, yet who of mortals, if he has left in him one trace of a human being, would choose to have his senses tickled night and day, and, forsaking the mind, devote his attention wholly to the body? "But the mind also," it will be said, "has its own pleasures." Let it have them, in sooth, and let it pose as a judge of luxury and pleasures; let it gorge itself with the things that are wont to delight the senses, then let it look back upon the past, and, recalling faded pleasures, let it intoxicate itself with former experiences and be eager now for those to come, and let it lay its plans, and, while the body lies helpless from present cramming, let it direct its thoughts to that to come — yet from all this, it seems to me, the mind will be more wretched than ever, since it is madness to choose evils instead of goods. But no man can be happy unless he is sane, and no man can be sane who searches for what will injure him in place of what is best.
The happy man, therefore, is one who has right judgment; the happy man is content with his present lot, no matter what it is, and is reconciled to his circumstances; the happy man is he who allows reason to fix the value of every condition of existence. Even those who declare that the highest good is in the belly see in what a dishonorable position they have placed it. And so they say that it is not possible to separate pleasure from virtue, and they aver that no one can live virtuously without also living pleasantly, nor pleasantly without also living virtuously. But I do not see how things so different can be cast in the same mold. What reason is there, I beg of you, why pleasure cannot be separated from virtue? Do you mean, since all goods have their origin in virtue, even the things that you love and desire must spring from its roots? But if the two were inseparable, we should not see certain things pleasant, but not honorable, and certain things truly most honorable, but painful and capable of being accomplished only through suffering.
Then, too, we see that pleasure enters into even the basest life, but, on the other hand, virtue does not permit life to be evil, and there are people who are unhappy not without pleasure — nay, are so on account of pleasure itself — and this could not happen if pleasure were indissolubly joined to virtue; virtue often lacks pleasure, and never needs it. Why do you couple things that are unlike, nay, even opposites? Virtue is something lofty, exalted and regal, unconquerable, and unwearied; pleasure is something lowly, servile, weak, and perishable, whose haunt and abode are the brothel and the tavern. Virtue you will find in the temple, in the forum, in the senate-house — you will find her standing in front of the city walls, dusty and stained, and with calloused hands; pleasure you will more often find lurking out of sight, and in search of darkness, around the public baths and the sweating-rooms and the places that fear the police — soft, enervated, reeking with wine and perfume, and pallid, or else painted and made up with cosmetics like a corpse. The highest good is immortal, it knows no ending, it permits neither surfeit nor regret; for the right-thinking mind never alters, it neither is filled with self-loathing nor suffers any change in its life, that is ever the best. But pleasure is extinguished just when it is most enjoyed; it has but small space, and thus quickly fills it — it grows weary and is soon spent after its first assault. Nor is anything certain whose nature consists in movement. So it is not even possible that there should be any substance in that which comes and goes most swiftly and will perish in the very exercise of its power; for it struggles to reach a point at which it may cease, and it looks to the end while it is beginning.
What, further, is to be said of the fact that pleasure belongs alike to the good and the evil, and that the base delight no less in their disgrace than do the honorable in fair repute? And therefore the ancients have enjoined us to follow, not the most pleasant, but the best life, in order that pleasure should be, not the leader, but the companion of a right and proper desire. For we must use Nature as our guide; she it is that Reason heeds, it is of her that it takes counsel. Therefore to live happily is the same thing as to live according to Nature. What this is, I shall proceed to make clear. If we shall guard the endowments of the body and the needs of Nature with care and fearlessness, in the thought that they have been given but for a day and are fleeting, if we shall not be their slaves, nor allow these alien things to become our masters, if we shall count that the gratifications of the body, unessential as they are, have a place like to that of the auxiliaries and light-armed troops in camp — if we let them serve, not command — thus and thus only will these things be profitable to the mind. Let a man not be corrupted by external things, let him be unconquerable and admire only himself, courageous in spirit and ready for any fate, let him be the molder of his own life; let not his confidence be without knowledge, nor his knowledge without firmness; let his decisions once made abide, and let not his decrees be altered by any erasure. It will be understood, even without my adding it, that such a man will be poised and well ordered, and will show majesty mingled with courtesy in all his actions. Let reason search into external things at the instigation of the senses, and, while it derives from them its first knowledge — for it has no other base from which it may operate, or begin its assault upon truth — yet let it fall back upon itself.
For God also, the all-embracing world and the ruler of the universe, reaches forth into outward things, yet, withdrawing from all sides, returns into himself. And our mind should do the same; when, having followed the senses that serve it, it has through them reached to things without, let it be the master both of them and of itself. In this way will be born an energy that is united, a power that is at harmony with itself, and that dependable reason which is not divided against itself, nor uncertain either in its opinions, or its perceptions, or in its convictions; and this reason, when it has regulated itself, and established harmony between all its parts, and, so to speak, is in tune, has attained the highest good. For no crookedness, no slipperiness is left to it, nothing that will cause it to stumble or fall. It will do everything under its own authority and nothing unexpected will befall it, but whatever it does will turn out a good, and that, too, easily and readily and without subterfuge on the part of the doer; for reluctance and hesitation are an indication of conflict and instability. Wherefore you may boldly declare that the highest good is harmony of the soul; for where concord and unity are, there must the virtues be. Discord accompanies the vices.
"But even you," it is retorted, "cultivate virtue for no other reason than because you hope for some pleasure from it." But, in the first place, even though virtue is sure to bestow pleasure, it is not for this reason that virtue is sought; for it is not this, but something more than this that she bestows, nor does she labor for this, but her labor, while directed toward something else, achieves this also. As in a plowed field, which has been broken up for corn, some flowers will spring up here and there, yet it was not for these poor little plants, although they may please the eye, that so much toil was expended — the sower had a different purpose, these were superadded — just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us. The highest good lies in the very choice of it, and the very attitude of a mind made perfect, and when the mind has completed its course and fortified itself within its own bounds, the highest good has now been perfected, and nothing further is desired; for there can no more be anything outside of the whole than there can be some point beyond the end. Therefore you blunder when you ask what it is that makes me seek virtue; you are looking for something beyond the supreme. Do you ask what it is that I seek in virtue? Only herself. For she offers nothing better — she herself is her own reward. Or does this seem to you too small a thing? When I say to you, "The highest good is the inflexibility of an unyielding mind, its foresight, its sublimity, its soundness, its freedom, its harmony, its beauty, do you require of me something still greater to which these blessings may be ascribed?
Why do you mention to me pleasure? It is the good of man that I am searching for, not that of his belly — the belly of cattle and wild beasts is more roomy!
"You are misrepresenting what I say," you retort; "for I admit that no man can live pleasantly without at the same time living virtuously as well, and this is patently impossible for dumb beasts and for those who measure their good by mere food. Distinctly, I say, and openly I testify that the life that I denominate pleasant is impossible without the addition of virtue." Yet who does not know that those who are most apt to be filled with your sort of pleasure are all the greatest fools, and that wickedness abounds in enjoyments, and that the mind itself supplies many kinds of pleasure that are vicious? Foremost are haughtiness, a too high opinion of one's self and a puffed-up superiority to others, a blind and unthinking devotion to one's own interests, dissolute luxury, extravagant joy springing from very small and childish causes, and, besides a biting tongue and the arrogance that takes pleasure in insults, sloth, and the degeneracy of a sluggish mind that falls asleep over itself. All these things Virtue tosses aside, and she plucks the ear, and appraises pleasures before she permits them, and those that she approves she sets no great store by or even just permits them, and it is not her use of them, but her temperance that gives her joy. Since, however, temperance reduces our pleasures, injury results to your highest good. You embrace pleasure, I enchain her; you enjoy pleasure, I use it; you think it the highest good, I do not think it even a good; you do everything for the sake of pleasure, I, nothing.
When I say that "I" do nothing for the sake of pleasure, I am speaking of the ideal wise man, to whom alone you are willing to concede pleasure. But I do not call him a wise man who is dominated by anything, still less by pleasure. And yet if he is engrossed by this, how will he withstand toil and danger and want and all the threatening ills that clamor about the life of man? How will he endure the sight of death, how grief, how the crashes of the universe and all the fierce foes that face him, if he has been subdued by so soft an adversary? You say: "He will do whatever pleasure advises." But come, do you not see how many things it will be able to advise? "It will not be able to advise anything base," you say, "because it is linked with virtue." But once more, do you not see what sort of thing that highest good must be if it needs a guardian in order to become a good? And how shall Virtue guide Pleasure if she follows her, since it is the part of one who obeys to follow, of one who commands to guide? Do you station in the rear the one that commands? Truly a fine office that you assign to Virtue — to be the foretaster of your pleasures! We shall see later whether to those who have treated virtue so contemptuously she still remains virtue; for she cannot keep her name if she yields her place. Meanwhile — for this is the point here — I shall show that there are many who are besieged by pleasures, upon whom Fortune has showered all her gifts, and yet, as you must needs admit, are wicked men. Look at Nomentanus and Apicius, digesting, as they say, the blessings of land and sea, and reviewing the creations of every nation arrayed upon their board! See them, too, upon a heap of roses, gloating over their rich cookery, while their ears are delighted by the sound of music, their eyes by spectacles, their palates by savors; soft and soothing stuffs caress with their warmth the length of their bodies, and, that the nostrils may not meanwhile be idle, the room itself, where sacrifice is being made to Luxury, reeks with varied perfumes. You will recognize that these are living in the midst of pleasures, and yet it will not be well with them, because what they delight in is not a good.
"It will be ill with them," you say, "because many things will intrude that perturb the soul, and opinions, conflicting with one another, will disquiet the mind." That this is so I grant; but none the less these very men, foolish as they are and inconsistent and subject to the pangs of remorse, will have experience of very great pleasures, so that you must admit that, while in that state they lack all pain, they no less lack a sound mind, and, as is the case with very many others, that they make merry in madness and laugh while they rave. But, on the other hand, the pleasures of the wise man are calm, moderate, almost listless and subdued, and scarcely noticeable inasmuch as they come unsummoned, and, although they approach of their own accord, are not held in high esteem and are received without joy on the part of those who experience them; for they only let them mingle now and then with life as we do amusements and jests with serious affairs.
Let them cease, therefore, to join irreconcilable things and to link pleasure with virtue — a vicious procedure which flatters the worst class of men. The man who has plunged into pleasures, in the midst of his constant belching and drunkenness, because he knows that he is living with pleasure, believes that he is living with virtue as well; for he hears first that pleasure cannot be separated from virtue, then dubs his vices wisdom, and parades what ought to be concealed. And so it is not Epicurus who has driven them to debauchery, but they, having surrendered themselves to vice, hide their debauchery in the lap of philosophy and flock to the place where they may hear the praise of pleasure, and they do not consider how sober and abstemious the "pleasure" of Epicurus really is — for so, in all truth, I think it — but they fly to a mere name seeking some justification and screen for their lusts. And thus they lose the sole good that remained to them in their wickedness — shame for wrong-doing. For they now praise the things that used to make them blush, and they glory in vice; and therefore they cannot even recover their youth, when once an honorable name has given warrant to their shameful laxity. The reason why your praise of pleasure is pernicious is that what is honorable in your teaching lies hid within, what corrupts is plainly visible.
Personally I hold the opinion — I shall express it though the members of our school may protest — that the teachings of Epicurus are upright and holy and, if you consider them closely, austere; for his famous doctrine of pleasure is reduced to small and narrow proportions, and the rule that we Stoics lay down for virtue, this same rule he lays down for pleasure — he bids that it obey Nature. But it takes a very little luxury to satisfy Nature! What then is the case? Whoever applies the term "happiness" to slothful idleness and the alternate indulgence in gluttony and lust, looks for a good sponsor for his evil course, and when, led on by an attractive name, he has found this one, the pleasure he pursues is not the form that he is taught, but the form that he has brought, and when he begins to think that his vices accord with the teacher's maxims, he indulges in them no longer timidly, and riots in them, not now covertly, but from this time on in broad daylight. And so I shall not say, as do most of our sect, that the school of Epicurus is an academy of vice, but this is what I say — it has a bad name, is of ill repute, and yet undeservedly. How can anyone know this who has not been admitted to the inner shrine? Its mere outside gives ground for scandal and incites to evil hopes. The case is like that of a strong man dressed up in a woman's garb; you maintain your chastity, your virility is unimpaired, your body is free from base submission — but in your hand is a tambourine! Therefore you should choose some honorable superscription and a motto that in itself appeals to the mind; the one that stands has attracted only the vices.
Whosoever has gone over to the side of virtue, has given proof of a noble nature; he who follows pleasure is seen to be weakly, broken, losing his manhood, and on the sure path to baseness unless someone shall establish for him some distinction between pleasures, so that he may know which of them lie within the bounds of natural desire, which sweep headlong onward and are unbounded and are the more insatiable the more they are satisfied. Come then! let virtue lead the way, and every step will be safe. Then, too, it is the excess of pleasure that harms; but in the case of virtue there need be no fear of any excess, for in virtue itself resides moderation. That cannot be a good that suffers from its own magnitude. Besides, to creatures endowed with a rational nature what better guide can be offered than reason? Even if that combination pleases you, if you are pleased to proceed toward the happy life in such company, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure attend her — let it hover about the body like its shadow. To hand over virtue, the loftiest of mistresses, to be the handmaid of pleasure is the part of a man who has nothing great in his soul.
Let virtue go first, let her bear the standard. We shall none the less have pleasure, but we shall be the master and control her; at times we shall yield to her entreaty, never to her constraint. But those who surrender the leadership to pleasure, lack both; for they lose virtue, and yet do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it, and they are either tortured by the lack of it or strangled by its excess — wretched if it deserts them, more wretched if it overwhelms them — they are like sailors who have been caught in the waters around the Syrtes, and now are left on the dry shore, and again are tossed by the seething waves. But this results from a complete lack of self-control and blind love for an object; for, if one seeks evils instead of goods, success becomes dangerous. As the hunt for wild beasts is fraught with hardship and danger, and even those that are captured are an anxious possession — for many a time they rend their masters — so it is as regards great pleasures; for they turn out to be a great misfortune, and captured pleasures become now the captors. And the more and the greater the pleasures are, the more inferior will that man be whom the crowd calls happy, and the more masters will he have to serve. I wish to dwell still further upon this comparison. Just as the man who tracks wild animals to their lairs, and counts it a great delight
With noose the savage beasts to snare,
Around the spreading woods to fling a line of hounds,
in order that he may follow upon their tracks, leaves things that are more worth while and forsakes many duties, so he who pursues pleasures makes everything else secondary, and first of all gives up liberty, and he pays this price at the command of his belly; nor does he buy pleasures for himself, but he sells himself to pleasures. "Nevertheless," someone asks, "what is there to prevent the blending of virtue and pleasure into one, and constituting the highest good in such a way that the honorable and the agreeable may be the same thing?" The answer is that the honorable can have no part that is not honorable, nor will the highest good preserve its integrity if it sees in itself something that is different from its better part. Even the joy that springs from virtue, although it is a good, is not nevertheless a part of the absolute good, any more than are cheerfulness and tranquillity, although they spring from the noblest origins; for goods they are, yet they only attend on the highest good but do not consummate it. But whoever forms an alliance between virtue and pleasure — and that too, not an equal one — by the frailty of one good dulls whatever power the other may have, and sends beneath the yoke that liberty which remains unconquered only so long as it finds nothing more precious than itself. For it begins to need the help of Fortune, and this is the depth of servitude; there follows a life of anxiety, suspicion, and alarm, a dread of mishap and worry over the changes time brings. You do not give to virtue a foundation solid and immovable, but bid her stand on unstable ground; yet what is so unstable as trust in the hazards of chance and the vicissitudes of the body and the things that affect the body? How is such a man able to obey God and to receive in cheerful spirit whatever happens, and, interpreting his mishaps indulgently, never to complain of Fate, if he is agitated by the petty prickings of pleasure and pain? But he is not even a good guardian or avenger of his country, nor a defender of his friends if he has a leaning toward pleasures.
Therefore let the highest good mount to a place from which no force can drag it down, where neither pain nor hope nor fear finds access, nor does any other thing that can lower the authority of the highest good; but Virtue alone is able to mount to that height. We must follow her footsteps to find that ascent easy; bravely will she stand, and she will endure whatever happens, not only patiently, but even gladly; she will know that every hardship that time brings comes by a law of Nature, and like a good soldier she will submit to wounds, she will count her scars, and, pierced by darts, as she dies she will love him for whose sake she falls — her commander; she will keep in mind that old injunction, "Follow God!" But whoever complains and weeps and moans, is compelled by force to obey commands, and, even though he is unwilling is rushed none the less to the bidden tasks. But what madness to prefer to be dragged rather than to follow! As much so, in all faith, as it is great folly and ignorance of one's lot to grieve because of some lack or some rather bitter happening, and in like manner to be surprised or indignant at those ills that befall the good no less than the bad — I mean sickness and death and infirmities and all the other unexpected ills that invade human life. All that the very constitution of the universe obliges us to suffer, must be borne with high courage. This is the sacred obligation by which we are bound — to submit to the human lot, and not to be disquieted by those things which we have no power to avoid. We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom. Therefore true happiness is founded upon virtue. And what is the counsel this virtue will give to you? That you should not consider anything either a good or an evil that will not be the result of either virtue or vice; then, that you should stand unmoved both in the face of evil and by the enjoyment of good, to the end that — as far as is allowed — you may body forth God. And what does virtue promise you for this enterprise? Mighty privileges and equal to the divine. You shall be bound by no constraint, nothing shall you lack, you shall be free, safe, unhurt; nothing shall you essay in vain, from nothing be debarred; all things shall happen according to your desire, nothing adverse shall befall you, nothing contrary to your expectations and wish. "What! does virtue alone suffice for living happily?" Perfect and divine as it is, why should it not suffice — nay, suffice to overflowing? For if a man has been placed beyond the reach of any desire, what can he possibly lack?
If a man has gathered into himself all that is his, what need does he have of any outside thing? But the man who is still on the road to virtue, who, even though he has proceeded far, is still struggling in the toils of human affairs, does have need of some indulgence from Fortune until he has loosed that knot and every mortal bond. Where then lies the difference? In that some are closely bound, others fettered — even hand and foot. He who has advanced toward the higher realm and has lifted himself to higher levels drags a loosened chain; he is not yet free, but still is as good as free.
If, therefore, any of those who bark against philosophy, should ask the usual thing: "Why then do you talk so much more bravely than you live? Why do you speak humbly in the presence of a superior and deem money a necessary equipment, and why are you moved by a loss, and why do you shed tears on hearing of the death of your wife or a friend, and why do you have regard for your reputation and let slander affect you? Why do you till broader acres than your natural need requires? Why do your dinners not conform to your own teaching? Why do you have such elegant furniture? Why is the wine that is drunk at your table older than you are yourself? Why this show of an aviary? Why do you plant trees that will supply nothing but shade? Why does your wife wear in her ears the revenue of a rich house? Why are your young slaves dressed in costly stuffs? Why is it an art to attend at your table and instead of the plate being set out carelessly and as you please why is there expertness of service, and why to carve your meat is there a professional?" Add, too, if you like: "Why do you have domains across the sea? Why more than you have seen? And shame to you! — you are either so careless that you do not know your handful of slaves by sight, or so pampered that you have more than your memory can recall to your knowledge!" Later I shall outdo your reproaches and bestow on myself more blame than you think of; for the moment I shall make this reply: "I am not a wise man, nor — to feed your malevolence — shall I ever be. And so require not from me that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices, and blame my mistakes. I have not attained to perfect health, nor indeed shall I attain it; my gout I contrive to alleviate rather than to cure, content if it comes more rarely and gives less pain; but when I compare your feet, crippled though I am, I am a racer!" What I say is not spoken on my own behalf — for I am sunk deep in vice of every kind, but on behalf of the man who has actually achieved something.
"You talk one way, you live another," you say. The same reproach, O ye creatures most spiteful, most hostile to all the best of men, has been made against Plato, against Epicurus, against Zeno; for all these told, not how they themselves were living, but how they ought to live. It is of virtue, not of myself, that I am speaking, and my quarrel is against all vices, more especially against my own. When I shall be able, I shall live as I ought. And your spitefulness, deep-dyed with venom, shall not deter me from what is best, nor shall even this poison with which you besprinkle others, with which, too, you are killing yourselves, hinder me from continuing to vaunt the life, not that I lead, but that I know ought to be led — from worshipping virtue and from following her, albeit a long way behind and with very halting pace. Am I, in sooth, to expect that spite will spare anything when it held neither Rutilius nor Cato sacred? Should anyone be concerned whether he seems too rich in the eyes of those to whom Demetrius the Cynic seems not poor enough? This boldest of heroes, fighting against all the desires of nature, and poorer than the rest of the Cynics in that, while they banned possessions, he banned even the desire of them — this man they say has not enough poverty! But you see — he has not professed a knowledge of virtue but of poverty.
And they say that Diodorus, the Epicurean philosopher, who within the last few days put an end to his life with his own hand, was not following the teaching of Epicurus when he slashed his own throat. Some would see in his suicide an act of madness, others of recklessness; he, meanwhile, happy and filled with a good conscience bore testimony to himself as he was departing from life; he praised the tranquillity of the years he had passed safe at anchor in a haven, and uttered the words which you never have liked to hear, as though you also must do the same thing:
I've lived; my destined course I now have run.
You argue about the life of the one, about the death of the other, and when you hear the name of men who have become great on account of some distinguished merit, you bark, just as small dogs do when they meet with strangers; for you find it to your interest that no man should appear to be good, as though virtue in another cast reproach upon the shortcomings of all of you. You jealously compare their glorious appearance with your squalor, and fail to understand with what great disadvantage to yourself you dare to do so. For if those who pursue virtue are avaricious, lustful, and ambitious, what are you yourselves, to whom the very name of virtue is hateful? You say that no one of them practices what he preaches, or models his life upon his own words. But what wonder, since their words are heroic, mighty, and survive all the storms of human life? Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses — those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand — yet they, when brought to punishment, hang each upon a single gibbet; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires. Yet they are slanderous and witty in heaping insult on others. I might believe that they were free to do so, did not some of them spit upon spectators from their own cross.
"Philosophers do not practice what they preach," you say. Yet they do practice much that they preach, much that their virtuous minds conceive. For indeed if their actions always matched their words, who would be more happy than they? Meanwhile you have no reason to despise noble words and hearts that are filled with noble thoughts. The pursuit of salutary studies is praiseworthy, even if they have no practical result. What wonder that those who essay the steep path do not mount to the summit? But if you are a man, look up to those who are attempting great things, even though they fall. The man that measures his effort, not by his own strength, but by the strength of his nature, that aims at high things, and conceives in his heart greater undertakings than could possibly be accomplished even by those endowed with gigantic courage, shows the mark of nobility.
The man who has set before himself such ideals as these: "As for me, I shall look upon death or a comedy with the same expression of countenance. As for me, I shall submit to all hardships, no matter how great they be, staying my body by the spirit. As for me, I shall despise riches alike when I have them and when I have them not, being neither cast down if they shall lie elsewhere, nor puffed up if they shall glitter around me. As for me, I shall pay no heed to Fortune, either when she comes or when she goes. As for me, I shall view all lands as my own, my own as belonging to all others. As for me, I shall always live as if I were aware that I had been born for service to others, and on this account I shall render my thanks to Nature; for how could she better have served my interest? She has given me, the individual, to all men and all men to me, the individual. Whatever I may possess, I shall neither hoard as a miser, nor as a spendthrift squander. Nothing shall seem to me so truly my possessions as the gifts I have wisely bestowed. I shall not estimate my benefactions by their number, nor by their size, nor by anything except my estimation of the recipient; never shall what a worthy man receives seem great in my eyes. Nothing shall I ever do for the sake of opinion, everything for the sake of my conscience. Whatever I shall do when I alone am witness I shall count as done beneath the gaze of the Roman people. In eating and drinking my aim shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly. I shall be agreeable to my friends, to my enemies mild and indulgent. I shall give pardon before it is asked , and hasten to grant all honorable requests. I shall know that the whole world is my country, that its rulers are the gods, and that they abide above me and around me, the censors of my words and deeds. And whenever Nature demands back my breath, or my reason releases it, I shall depart, bearing witness that I have loved a good conscience and all good endeavor, that I have been guilty of nothing that impaired the liberty of any man, least of all my own" — the man who shall resolve, shall wish, and shall essay to do these things will be following the path toward the gods — ah! such a man, even if he shall not reach them,
Yet fails in a high emprise.
But as for you, your hatred of virtue and of those who practice it is in no way strange. For sickly lights quail before the sun, and creatures of the night abhor the shining day — they stand aghast at the first signs of dawn, and seek everywhere their lairs, and, finding some hole, hide themselves away from fear of the light. Croak, and ply your wretched tongues in abuse of the good, show your fangs, bite hard; you will break your teeth long before they leave a mark! "Why," you ask, "does that man espouse philosophy and yet live in such opulence? Why does he say that riches ought to be despised and yet have them? Why does he think that life ought to be despised and yet live? That health ought to be despised and yet guard it most carefully, and prefer it to be excellent? And why does he think that exile is an empty name and say: 'What evil is there in a change of country,' and yet, if he is allowed, grow old in his native land?
"Why does he decide that there is no difference between a long and short existence, yet, if nothing prevents him, prolong his life and peacefully flourish in a green old age?" He says these things ought to be despised, not to keep him from having them, but to keep him from being worried about having them; he does not drive them away, but if they leave him, he escorts them to the door without the least concern. Where, indeed, will Fortune deposit riches more securely than with one who will return them without protest when she recalls them? Marcus Cato, when he was vaunting Curius and Coruncanius and that age in which it was a censorial offense to have a few small silver coins, himself possessed four million sesterces, fewer without doubt than Crassus, but more than Cato the Censor. If comparison be made, the distance by which he had outstripped his great-grandfather was greater than that by which Crassus had outstripped him, and, if greater wealth had fallen to his lot, he would not have scorned it. For indeed the wise man does not deem himself undeserving of any of the gifts of Fortune. He does not love riches, but he would rather have them; he does not admit them to his heart, but to his house, and he does not reject the riches he has, but he keeps them and wishes them to supply ampler material for exercising his virtue.
Who, however, can doubt that the wise man finds in riches, rather than in poverty, this ampler material for displaying his powers, since in poverty there is room for only one kind of virtue — not to be bowed down and crushed by it — while in riches moderation and liberality and diligence and orderliness and grandeur all have a wide field? The wise man will not despise himself even if he has the stature of a dwarf, but nevertheless he will wish to be tall. And if he is feeble in body, or deprived of one eye, he will still be strong, but nevertheless he will prefer to have strength of body, and this too, though he knows that there is something else in him that is stronger than body. If his health is bad he will endure it, but he will wish for good health. For certain things, even if they are trifles in comparison with the whole, and can be withdrawn without destroying the essential good, nevertheless contribute something to the perpetual joy that springs from virtue. As a favorable wind, sweeping him on, gladdens the sailor, as a bright day and a sunny spot in the midst of winter and cold give cheer, just so riches have their influence upon the wise man and bring him joy. And besides, who among wise men — I mean those of our school, who count virtue the sole good — denies that even those things which we call "indifferent" do have some inherent value, and that some are more desirable than others? To some of them we accord little honor, to others much. Do not, therefore, make a mistake — riches are among the more desirable things. "Why then," you say, "do you make game of me, since they occupy the same place in your eyes that they do in mine?" Do you want to know what a different place they occupy? In my case, if riches slip away, they will take from me nothing but themselves, while if they leave you, you will be dumbfounded, and you will feel that you have been robbed of your real self; in my eyes riches have a certain place, in yours they have the highest; in fine, I own my riches, yours own you.
Cease, therefore, forbidding to philosophers the possession of money; no one has condemned wisdom to poverty. The philosopher shall own ample wealth, but it will have been wrested from no man, nor will it be stained with another's blood — wealth acquired without harm to any man, without base dealing, and the outlay of it will be not less honorable than was its acquisition; it will make no man groan except the spiteful. Pile up that wealth of his as high as you like; it will be honorable, if, while it includes much that each man would like to call his own, it includes nothing that any man is able to call his own. But he, surely, will not thrust aside the generosity of Fortune, and an inheritance that has been honorably acquired will give him no cause either to blush or to boast. Yet he will even have reason to boast if, throwing open his mansion and admitting the whole city to view his possessions, he shall be able to say. "If any one recognizes anything as his own, let him take it." O! a great man, O! a man excellently rich, if after these words he shall possess just as much! I mean this: if without risk and concern he has allowed the people to make search, if no man shall have found in his possession a single thing to lay his hands upon, then he will be rich boldly and in all openness. Not one penny will a wise man admit within his threshold that makes a dishonest entry; yet he will not repulse or exclude great wealth that is the gift of Fortune and the fruit of virtue. For what reason has he to grudge it good quarters? Let it come, let it be welcomed. But he will not flaunt it, neither will he hide it — the one is the part of a silly mind, the other of a timid and petty mind, that makes him keep a great blessing as it were, in his pocket — nor, as I said before, will he expel it from the house. For what shall he say to it? Will it be —"You are of no use," or "I do not know how to use riches"?
In the same way that, even if he is able to accomplish a journey on foot, he will prefer to mount into a carriage, so, even if he is able to be poor, he will prefer to be rich. And so he will possess wealth, but with the knowledge that it is fickle and likely to fly away, and he will not allow it to be a burden either to himself or to anyone else. He will give of it — why do you prick up your ears? why do you get ready your pocket? — he will give of it either to good men or to those whom he will be able to make good men; choosing the most worthy after the utmost deliberation, he will give of his wealth, as one who rightly remembers that he must render account no less of his expenditures than of his receipts; he will give of it only for a reason that is just and defensible, for wrong giving is no other than a shameful waste; he will have his pocket accessible, but it will have no hole in it — a pocket from which much can appear and nothing can drop.
Whoever believes that giving is an easy matter, makes a mistake; it is a matter of very great difficulty, provided that gifts are made with wisdom, and are not scattered at haphazard and by caprice. To this man I do a service, to that one make return; this one I succor, this one I pity; I supply this other one because he does not deserve to be dragged down by poverty and have it engross him; to some I shall not give although they are in need, because, even if I should give, they would still be in need; to some I shall proffer my help, upon certain ones even thrust it. In this matter I cannot afford to be careless; never am I more careful to register names than when I am giving. "What!" you say, "do you give with the intention of taking back?" No, with the intention of not wasting; the status of giving should be that no return ought to be asked, yet that a return is possible.
A benefit should be stored away like a deep buried treasure, which you would not dig up except from necessity. Why, the very house of a rich man — what an opportunity it offers for conferring benefit! Whose voice invokes liberality only for — the man that wears a toga? Nature bids me do good to all mankind — whether slaves or freemen, freeborn or freed-men, whether the laws gave them freedom or a grant in the presence of friends — what difference does it make? Wherever there is a human being there is the opportunity for a kindness. And so it is possible to be lavish with money even inside the threshold and to find there a field for one's liberality which is so called, not because it is owed to a free man, but because it is born from a free mind. This, in the case of a wise man, is never hurled at base and unworthy men, and never makes the mistake of being so exhausted that it cannot flow from a full hand, as it were, as often as it finds a worthy object.
You have no excuse, therefore, for hearing wrongly the honorable, brave, and heroic utterances of those who pursue wisdom. And pay heed first to this —it is one thing to pursue wisdom, and another to have already attained wisdom. A man of the first type will say to you: "My words are most excellent, but I still wallow in evils, very many of them. You have no right to require me to live up to my own standard. Just now I am still fashioning and molding myself and trying to lift myself to the height of a lofty ideal; when I shall have accomplished all that I have set before me, then require me to make my actions accord with my words."
But he who has already attained the height of human good will plead with you otherwise, and will say: "In the first place, you have no right to permit yourself to pass judgment on your betters. As for me I have already had the good fortune to win the displeasure of the wicked, which is proof enough of my uprightness, but, that I may give you the explanation that I grudge to no mortal man, hear what I maintain and what value I set on each thing. I deny that riches are a good; for if they were, they would make men good. As it is, since that which is found in the hands of the wicked cannot be called a good, I refuse to apply the term to riches. Nevertheless I admit that they are desirable, that they are useful, and that they add great comforts to living.
"Hear, then, since we both agree that they are desirable, what reason I have for not including them in the number of goods, and in what respect my attitude toward them differs from yours. Place me in a house that is most sumptuous, place me where I may have gold and silver plate for common use; I shall not look up to myself on account of these things, which, even though they belong to me, are nevertheless no part of me. Take me to the Sublician Bridge and cast me among the beggars; nevertheless I shall not find reason to look down upon myself because I sit in the company of those who stretch out their hands for alms. For what difference does it make whether a man lacks a piece of bread when he does not lack the possibility of dying? And what is the conclusion? I prefer that gorgeous house to the Bridge! Place me in the midst of sumptuous furnishings and the trappings of luxury; I shall not think myself one whit happier because I have a soft mantle, because my guests recline on purple. Change my mattress; I shall be not a whit more wretched if my wearied neck must rest on a handful of hay, if I shall sleep on a cushion of the Circus with the stuffing spilling out through its patches of old cloth. And what is the conclusion? I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet. Let all my days pass according to my desire, let new felicitations be added to the old; I shall not on this account be puffed up. Change this kindness of time to just the opposite; from this quarter and that let my soul be smitten by loss, by grief, by various adversities, let no hour lack some cause for complaint; I shall not for that reason call myself the most wretched of the wretched; I shall not for that reason curse any one day; for I have seen to it that for me no day shall be black. And what is the conclusion? I prefer to temper my joys, rather than to stifle my sorrows.
This is what a Socrates will say to you: "Make me victor over the nations of the world, let the voluptuous car of Bacchus convey me in triumph from the rising of the sun all the way to Thebes, let the kings of the nations seek laws from me; when from every side I shall be greeted as a god, I shall then most of all remember that I am a man. Then with such a lofty height connect straightway a headlong fall to altered fortune; let me be placed upon a foreign barrow, to grace the procession of a proud and brutal victor; no whit more humble shall I be when I am driven in front of the chariot of another than when l stood erect upon my own." And what is the conclusion? After all, I prefer to conquer rather than to be captured. The whole domain of Fortune I shall despise, but, if the choice be offered, I shall choose the better part of it. Whatever befalls me will turn into a good, but I prefer that what befalls me should be the more pleasant and agreeable things and those that will be less troublesome to manage. For while you are not to suppose that any virtue is acquired without effort, yet certain virtues need the spur, certain ones the bridle. Just as the body must be held back upon a downward path, and be urged up a steep ascent, so certain virtues follow the downward path, and certain others struggle up the hill. Would anyone doubt that patience, fortitude, and perseverance, and every virtue that pits itself against hardships and subdues Fortune must mount and strive and struggle? And tell me, is it not just as evident that liberality, moderation, and kindness take the downward path? In the case of these we must put a check, upon the soul for fear that it may slip, in the case of the others, with all our power we urge and spur it on. Therefore for poverty we shall make use of those more hardy virtues that know how to fight, for riches those more cautious virtues that advance on tiptoe and yet keep their balance. Since there exists this distinction between them, I prefer to appropriate for myself the virtues that can be practiced with comparative tranquillity, rather than those whose exercise draws blood and sweat. "Consequently," says the wise man, "I do not live one way and talk another, but I talk one way and you hear another — only the sound of my words reaches your ears, what they mean you do not inquire."
"What then," you say, "is the difference between you, the wise man, and me, the fool, if we both wish to have riches?" The very greatest; for in the eyes of a wise man riches are a slave, in the eyes of fools a master; the wise man grants no importance to riches, to you riches are everything. You accustom yourself to them and cling to them just as if someone had assured you that they would be a lasting possession; the wise man never reflects so much upon poverty as when he abides in the midst of riches. No general ever trusts so wholly to peace as to fail to make ready for a war that has been declared, even if it is not yet being waged. As for you, a beautiful house makes you arrogant, just as if it could never be burned or tumble down; you are stupefied by your wealth, just as if it had escaped every risk and had become so great that Fortune had lost all power to destroy it. Idly you play with your riches, and do not descry the danger they are in — you are like the barbarians who, usually, when they are blockaded, having no knowledge of the engines of war, watch with indifference the effort of the besiegers, and do not surmise the purpose of the constructions that are being erected afar. So it is with you; you loll in the midst of your possessions, and give no heed to the many disasters that threaten from every side and all too soon will carry off the costly spoils. But the wise man —whoever steals away his riches will still leave to him all that is his own; for he ever lives happy in the present and unconcerned about the future.
"Upon nothing," says a Socrates, or any other who has like authority and like ability to cope with human affairs, "am I more strongly resolved than not to change my course of life to suit your opinion. Heap upon me from every side the usual taunts; I shall not consider that you are railing at me, but that you are wailing like poor little babies." These will be the words of him who has found wisdom, whose soul, free from all vices, bids him chide others, not because he hates them, but in order to cure them. And, too, he will add others: "Your opinion of me moves me, not on my own account, but on yours; for to hate and to assail virtue with your outcry, is to disavow the hope of being good. You do me no harm, but neither do men harm the gods when they overturn their altars. But evil intention and an evil purpose are apparent even where there has been no power to harm. I put up with your babblings even as Jupiter Greatest and Best puts up with the silly fancies of the poets, one of whom gives to him wings, another horns, another pictures him as the great adulterer staying out all night, another as cruel toward the gods, another as unjust toward men, another as the ravisher of freeborn youths and even of his kinsmen, another as a parricide and usurper of another's throne — his own father's too."
All that they have accomplished is that men are relieved of shame at doing wrong if they believe that the gods are such. But although your words do me no harm, nevertheless for your own sake I proffer advice. Have respect for virtue, give credence to those who, having long pursued her, proclaim that they themselves are pursuing something that is great and that every day seems greater, and do you reverence her as you do the gods, and her exponents as the priests of the gods, and whenever any mention is made of sacred writings, "be favorable with your tongues." This expression is not derived, as very many imagine, from "favor" in the sense of "applause," but enjoins silence in order that sacrifice may be performed according to ritual without the interruption of an ill-omened word. But it is far more necessary that you lay this command upon yourself, in order that, whenever utterance is delivered from that oracle, you may listen with attentive ear and hushed voice. Whenever someone, shaking the rattle, pretends to speak with authority, whenever someone dexterous in slashing his muscles makes bloody his arms and his shoulders with light hand, whenever some woman howls as she creeps along the street on her knees, and an old man, clad in linen and carrying a lamp in broad daylight and a branch of laurel, cries out that some one of the gods is angry, you gather in a crowd and give ear and, fostering each other's dumb amazement, affirm that he is divine!
Lo! from that prison, which he purified by entering it and made more honorable than any senate-house, Socrates cries out: "What madness is this, what instinct is this at war with gods and men that leads you to calumniate the virtues and by your wicked talk to profane holy things? If you are able, praise the good, if not, ignore them; but if you take pleasure in indulging in your foul abuse, assail you one another. For when you rage against heaven I do not say, 'You are committing sacrilege,' but 'You are wasting your time.' I once afforded Aristophanes subject matter for his jokes, the whole company of comic poets has poured upon me their envenomed wit. Yet their very efforts to assail my virtue added to its lustre; for it profits from being exposed and tested, and none understand better how great it is than those who have perceived its strength by attacking it. None know better the hardness of flint than those who strike it. I show myself like some lonely rock in the sea, which the waves never cease to beat upon from whatever quarter they have come, yet for all that they cannot move it from its base nor wear it away by their ceaseless attack through countless ages. Leap upon me, make your assault; I shall conquer you by enduring. Whatever strikes against that which is firm and unconquerable expends its power to its own hurt. Accordingly, seek some soft and yielding object in which to stick your darts."
But as for you, have you the leisure to search out others' evils and to pass judgment upon anybody? "Why does this philosopher have such a spacious house?" "Why does this one dine so sumptuously?" you say. You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores. This is just as if someone who was devoured by a foul itch should mock at the moles and the warts on bodies that are most beautiful. Taunt Plato because he sought for money, Aristotle because he accepted it, Democritus because he disregarded it, Epicurus because he spent it; fling Alcibiades and Phaedrus in my own teeth — though it will prove your happiest time when you are so fortunate as to copy my vices! Why do you not rather look about you at your own sins that rend you on every side, some assailing you from without, others raging in your very vitals. Human affairs — even if you have insufficient knowledge of your own position — have not yet reached the situation in which you may have such superfluity of spare time as to find leisure to wag your tongue in abusing your betters.
This you do not understand, and you wear an air that ill accords with your condition — you are like the many who lounge in the Circus or in a theatre while their home is already wrapped in mourning and they have not yet heard the evil news. But I, looking from the heights, see the storms that threaten and a little later will burst upon you in a flood, or, already near, have drawn still closer to sweep away both you and yours. Why say more? Are not your minds even now — though you little know it — whirled and spun about as if some hurricane had seized them, while they flee and pursue the self-same things, and now are lifted to the skies, and now are dashed to the lowest depths? . . .
[The rest of the essay is lost.]
Sometime in the spring of the year 59, the emperor Nero decided to murder his mother. As you can imagine, the two were not on good terms. In a gesture designed to appear conciliatory, Nero invited his mother, Agrippina, to join him at a festival in Baiae, a resort town near present-day Naples. During the festivities, he treated her with great affection. Then, when it was time for her to leave, he presented her with a gift—a beautifully appointed boat to ferry her up the coast.
The gift was supposed to be a death trap. But just about everything that should have gone wrong didn’t. The deck of the ship fell in, yet, rather than killing Agrippina, it crushed one of her attendants. The hull, too, had been crafted to break apart; in all the confusion, though, it failed to do so. The rowers tried to overturn the ship. Once again, the effort fell short. Agrippina and a second attendant, Acerronia, swam free. Acerronia—“rather unwisely,” as Tacitus puts it—kept screaming that she was Agrippina and needed help. The rowers rushed over and bashed her on the head with their oars. The real Agrippina slipped away. She was picked up by a fishing boat and deposited safely onshore. When Nero learned that his mother had survived, he sent his minions to stab her.
This series of unfortunate events put the emperor in a pickle. The whole point of the affectionate display and the gift of the boat had been to make Agrippina’s death look like an accident. (Even in imperial Rome, matricide was, apparently, bad P.R.) Now this was impossible. And so Nero turned to the man he had always relied on, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger, or just plain Seneca.
If poets and philosophers dream of influencing those in power, Seneca was uniquely positioned to do so. He was a celebrated rhetorician, a satirist, the author of several books of natural history, and a playwright. He was also what today might be called an ethicist. Among his many works of moral philosophy are “De Ira” (“On Anger”), “De Providentia” (“On Providence”), and “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”). Seneca had been Nero’s tutor since the younger man was twelve or thirteen, and he remained one of his closest advisers.
After the botched boating accident, Seneca set to work. Writing in the voice of the emperor, he composed a letter to the Senate explaining what had happened. Hungry for power, Agrippina had been planning a coup. Once the plot was revealed, she’d taken her own life. As for the shipwreck, that was a sign that the gods themselves had tried to intervene on the emperor’s behalf.
At least in public, the response of Rome’s élite to the letter was jubilation. Tacitus reports that there was “a marvelous rivalry” among the senators in celebrating Nero’s narrow escape; they held games, made offerings at shrines, and proposed that “Agrippina’s birthday should be classed among the inauspicious days.”
Most of the letter comes down to us in paraphrase, but one line has survived verbatim. It is considered an example of Latin rhetoric at its finest, though clearly it loses something in translation. “That I am safe, neither, as yet, do I believe, nor do I rejoice,” Seneca had the newly orphaned Nero declare.
All writers’ reputations have their ups and downs. In the case of Seneca, the highs have been very high and the lows pretty low. Early Christians so revered him that they faked an exchange of edifying letters between him and St. Paul. During the Reformation, both Calvin and Zwingli turned to his writings for inspiration. Montaigne wrote a “defense” of Seneca, Diderot an essay on his life.
Then Seneca fell out of favor. Among the Romantics, he was regarded as a poor philosopher and a worse playwright. Even his brilliant epigrammatic style was ridiculed; the British historian Thomas Macaulay once observed—epigrammatically—that reading Seneca was “like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.”
These days, Seneca is again on the upswing. In the past year, two new biographies have appeared: “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” (Knopf), by James Romm, a classicist at Bard College, and “The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca” (Oxford), by Emily Wilson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The two volumes are admiring of Seneca’s talents and, to varying degrees, sympathetic to his pedagogical predicament. Romm and Wilson, both teachers themselves, suggest that Nero was, from the start, a lost cause. But they also acknowledge that this leaves a tricky question unresolved. The letter “explaining” Agrippina’s murder is just one of the ways Seneca propped up Nero’s regime—a regime that the average Julius, let alone the author of “De Ira,” surely realized was thoroughly corrupt. How to explain the philosopher-tutor’s sticking by his monstrous pupil?
Seneca was born around 4 B.C. in the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior, now the city of Córdoba. He was, it appears, a sickly child and a pampered one. When he was still quite young, he, his father, and his two brothers moved to Rome for the sake of the boys’ education. Presumably, Seneca studied rhetoric, which was the one “R” of Roman education, but in all his extant writings he never mentions this. By contrast, he makes much of his training in philosophy, from a Greek named Attalus.
Attalus was a Stoic, and Seneca became one, too. In his many works of moral philosophy, Seneca consistently maintains that the key to a virtuous life is freedom from passion. Virtue, in turn, is necessary for happiness and also sufficient to produce it. Very little survives of the Greek Stoics, whom Seneca must have read, but the tradition placed great emphasis on austerity and self-mastery. Seneca praises poverty and argues that the wise man will allow neither joy nor grief to affect him, for both are mere distractions. Such a man, Seneca writes in an essay titled “Of Peace of Mind,” will
go directly in the teeth of Fortune, and never will give way to her. Nor indeed has he any reason for fearing her, for he counts not only chattels, property, and high office, but even his body, his eyes, his hands, and everything whose use makes life dearer to us, nay, even his very self, to be things whose possession is uncertain; he lives as though he had borrowed them, and is ready to return them cheerfully whenever they are claimed.
When Seneca was in his thirties, his writing against “chattels, property, and high office” began to attract admiring notice from those with lots of chattels, property, and high office. Among his rich and powerful friends was Julia Livilla, a sister of the emperor Caligula.
In 41 A.D., Caligula was assassinated and replaced by his uncle Claudius. The new emperor accused Julia Livilla of adultery with Seneca. Whether the two were actually lovers or whether they were just unlucky is not known. (Claudius was, all evidence suggests, less benign than Robert Graves makes him out to be.) Julia Livilla was exiled to an island—probably Ventotene, off Naples—where she died within a few years. Seneca was sent to Corsica.
Most of Seneca’s works can’t be dated; two essays that must have been composed during his years of exile are the “Consolation to Helvia” and the “Consolation to Polybius.” In the first, Seneca addresses his mother, who is heart-stricken over his banishment. Exile, he tells her, is no big deal—basically just a change of address. Wherever we go, he writes, “two most excellent things will accompany us, namely, a common Nature and our own especial virtue.” In the second, he addresses one of Claudius’ top aides, who has recently lost a brother. Polybius should stop grieving, Seneca says, because his brother, like everyone else, was destined to die: “The seven wonders of the world, and any even greater wonders which the ambition of later ages has constructed, will be seen some day leveled with the ground. So it is: nothing lasts forever.”
The two “consolations” are exemplary Stoic works. Both advise indifference toward what might seem, to the untrained mind, terrible misfortunes. But they also betray a certain lack of stoicism. Already in Seneca’s day, Corsica was a spot renowned for its beauty and was home to a community of sophisticated Romans. (A contemporary analogue would be, say, banishment to Martha’s Vineyard.) And yet, Seneca laments to his mother, “What other rock is so barren or so precipitous on every side? . . . Who is more uncultured than the island’s inhabitants?” Even as he consoles Polybius, Seneca makes a point of buttering up Polybius’ boss. As long as Claudius “is safe all your friends are alive, you have lost nothing,” he writes to the grief-stricken brother. “Your eyes ought not only to be dry, but glad. In him is your all, he stands in the place of all else to you: you are not grateful enough for your present happy state . . . if you permit yourself to weep at all.”
Romm and Wilson read Seneca’s posturing as a failed effort to get himself recalled to Rome. Seneca ended up spending the better part of a decade in exile, and he would have spent even longer were it not for one of those episodic mate swaps which make the imperial family tree such a thicket. In 48 A.D., Claudius had his third wife killed and took as his fourth bride Agrippina—Caligula and Julia Livilla’s sister, and Claudius’ niece. It was she who persuaded Claudius to bring Seneca home.
The scheming wife is a fixture of Roman history. As bad as the men are, the women are worse—ruthless, cunning, and often sex-crazed. Many of the stories that come down to us are difficult to credit; for example, before Claudius had his third wife, Messalina, whacked, she was reported to have held a twenty-four-hour sex competition with a hooker. (According to Pliny, she won.)
Agrippina, a classic of the type, was married off at thirteen to Domitius, a notorious creep in his own right. (Domitius, who was three decades older, became Nero’s father.) After Domitius’ death, Agrippina found a new husband, a very rich man, whom, it was rumored, she then poisoned for his estate. She was thirty-three when she wed Uncle Claudius. He already had a son, Britannicus, as well as two daughters. Though a few years younger than Nero, Britannicus seemed well positioned to succeed his father. Agrippina set about promoting Nero ahead of him. She pushed aside (or had executed) anyone loyal to Britannicus and spread the rumor that he was an epileptic.
Agrippina had Seneca recalled nominally so that he could educate the adolescent Nero. (At the back of her mind may have been the model of Aristotle and Alexander the Great.) But she also found other uses for his talents. In 53 A.D., Agrippina arranged for Nero to marry one of Claudius’ daughters. A year after that, the story goes, she had Claudius murdered, using a poisoned mushroom. (Tacitus reports that Claudius recovered from the initial poisoning after his bowels “were relieved.” The quick-thinking Agrippina then had him poisoned again, using a feather that was stuck down his throat, ostensibly as an emetic.) Within hours of Claudius’ death, Nero claimed power in a speech to the Praetorian Guard. The speech, which promised the loyal soldiers a huge bonus, was written for him by Seneca.
Claudius’ murder set off a round of bloody housekeeping. Anyone whom the new regime perceived as a threat was polished off. Britannicus met his end within six months of his father. This time, the poison was delivered in a pitcher of water. When the boy dropped dead at the dinner table, Nero told the other guests that he was having a fit and they should just keep eating. According to Tacitus, most did.
Britannicus’ murder prompted one of Seneca’s most famous moral treatises, “On Mercy.” The work is addressed to Nero, who is also its subject. Seneca’s conceit is that the philosopher has nothing to teach the emperor about clemency; the essay is merely a “mirror” to show the young ruler his own virtues. He is beneficent and kindhearted, and can honestly say that he has “spilt not a drop of human blood in the whole world.”
Romm and Wilson acknowledge that the juxtaposition of the adulation and the murder looks pretty bad. “On Mercy,” Wilson observes, can be read as a sign that Seneca was “willing to praise this violent, dangerous, and terrifyingly powerful young ruler even to the extent of absolutely denying the reality of his behavior.”
And what looks even worse is that Seneca grew rich from Nero’s crimes. Following Britannicus’ murder, the boy’s wealth was divvied up, and Seneca, it seems, got a piece. By the end of the decade, the philosopher owned property not just in Rome but also in Egypt, Spain, and southern Italy. And he had so much cash on hand that he loaned forty million sesterces to Rome’s newest subjects, the British. (The annual salary of a Roman soldier at that time was around nine hundred sesterces.) The recall of the loans purportedly prompted the British to revolt.
Seneca’s fortune made possible a life style that was lavish by Roman or, for that matter, Hollywood standards. According to Dio, at one point the Stoic ordered “five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them.” In an essay entitled “On the Happy Life,” composed around 59 A.D., Seneca addresses the strains between his philosophical commitments and his conspicuous consumption.
“Why do you drink wine that is older than you are?” he demands of himself. “Why does your wife wear in her ears the price of a rich man’s house?” Seneca’s answer, if it can be counted as such, is metaphorical: “The wise man would not despise himself, even if he were a midget; but he would rather be tall.” Around the time that Seneca composed “On the Happy Life,” a former consul named Publius Suillius had the temerity to accuse him in public of hypocrisy and of sucking the provinces dry. Shortly thereafter, Suillius found himself exiled.
One way to sort out the contradictions of Seneca’s life is not even to try. The art critic Robert Hughes labelled Seneca “a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world,” and left it at that. Romm and Wilson—and the new wave of Seneca scholars more generally—resist such reductive judgments. It is possible, in their view, to see Seneca as a hypocrite and as a force of moral restraint. In the most generous account, Seneca might even be regarded as a kind of Stoic martyr: to prevent worse from happening to Rome, he stayed on with Nero and, by doing so, sacrificed his good name.
Notwithstanding the murder of Britannicus, the first five years of Nero’s reign were an era of relative stability. This period—which the Roman emperor Trajan labelled the quinquennium Neronis—matches up almost exactly with the time of Seneca’s greatest influence over Nero. After the emperor sidelined his old tutor came, tellingly, what might be called the novennium Neronis horribilis—the nine terrible years. During this time, Rome drifted toward chaos as Nero devoted himself to building ever more opulent palaces and competing in the classical version of the Eurovision contest. (Though Nero did not “fiddle while Rome burned,” it’s entirely possible that he strummed the lyre and recited poetry as the city was consumed by flames in 64 A.D.)
Seneca’s tragedies support a sympathetic reading of his life or, alternatively, just complicate things still further. (We don’t know how many plays he wrote; eight of them survive. This is, in itself, remarkable, as only ten Roman tragedies come down to us.) Like the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, Seneca’s dramas are based on myths. But acts that the Greeks discreetly place offstage Seneca brings into full view—Jocasta’s suicide, Medea’s murder of her children, Atreus’ triumphant presentation of the heads of Thyestes’ sons. (In Seneca’s version of “Oedipus,” Jocasta stabs herself in the womb, which is also, according to Tacitus, where Agrippina asked to be stabbed by Nero’s assassins. Whether this is a case of life imitating art or art masquerading as history is impossible to say.) Seneca’s plays are so gory that for a long time it was assumed they couldn’t have been intended for the stage—the theory was that they were meant to be read or recited like poetry—and even today many scholars consider them unperformable.
The plays are also distinguished—strangely, for a Stoic playwright—by the violence of their passions. The strongest characters in Seneca are, as a rule, the most out of control. “Even if I destroy two sons, still the number is too limited for my anguish,” Medea informs Jason before killing their second child. They operate in a world where redemption is unimaginable and punishment unlikely. As Medea flies off on her serpent-drawn chariot, Jason calls up after her, “Bear witness that wherever you go there are no gods.”
Romm and Wilson interpret the plays similarly. In the tragedies, they argue, myth becomes an instrument for voicing thoughts and feelings it would have been too dangerous for Seneca to express directly. His disgust at Nero’s excesses, his guilt over his own collaboration, his ambivalence about power and ambition—all are projected onto the House of Atreus. (Romm calls “Thyestes” such a “self-referential” work that he doubts it could have been published while Seneca was alive. )
This reading of the plays makes sense but, as Wilson acknowledges, runs the risk of “circularity”: Seneca’s dramas must reflect a hidden moral anguish, because nowhere else in his writings is this moral anguish expressed. Another way to approach the plays is as genre pieces trafficking in the outré—the Roman equivalent of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Django Unchained.” In this reading, what the tragedies reveal is how lightly Seneca took his writings. Plays, treatises, speeches—all were to him just clever phrases strung together, so many “words, words, words.”
Seneca’s own tragic end came in 65 A.D., when he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero and install in his place a good-looking nobleman named Gaius Piso. (By some accounts, there was within this conspiracy a sub-conspiracy to kill Piso, too, and make Seneca emperor.) The plotters bungled things, and Nero cut them down one after another. To the end, Seneca maintained his innocence, and he may even have been telling the truth. But, as no one knew better than he, truth was not the issue. He was ordered to commit suicide. He cut his wrists, and when that didn’t work he tried the veins behind his knees. Supposedly, as he died, he called in his secretary, so he could dictate one last speech. ♦