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82. But whatever the case may be about those separate minds, the experience of us mortals is that our predicament arises from that struggle between τὸ λογικὸν καὶ τὸ ἄλογον, I mean between our intelligent and brute parts, and we can have no doubt that the depravity of our will results from the infection of reason by the body, since we never feel appetite for anything which is not adjudged to be worth of being sought, and hence good. Pray observe how greatly we are wont to spread our sails and manufacture excuses whenever we crave to indulge ourselves, and, gods willing, be base and honorable at the same time. Here I am not speaking of those truly damned men who make a game out scorning the beings of heaven, but rather of those to whom a goodly helping of honesty, as it appears, is meted out. For this is theier reasoning: “The thing that is now calling out to me is advantageous and sweet, and many men seek it industriously but do not gain it. Indeed, leading men and those of high rank both sacred and secular court it with great effort. If there is any baseness in it, this is not so great. The beings of heaven are friendly and gladly grant their forgiveness, my age and this quickly-passing opportunity urge me to do this, nor will I be the only guilty person. Who isn’t doing thus? Amidst all my labors it is necessary for me to receive some reward in the present. It’s too hard to fix my attention only on the consolations of future life. Someday I shall cease it, and clear myself of whatever guilt I have incurred by repentance, and compensate for the damage I have done in many ways. I’ll leave some bequest to monks or the poor. I shall build an altar for some saint, I shall buy back my faith with money, I mean by purchasing a papal indulgence, and this will allow me to choose a priest from whom I may hope not only for forgiveness of my sin, but also of the punishment I have deserved (I mean after I’ve decided to change my way of life and take refuge in repentance). By these means I shall live an easy life and by exchanging a few hours’ care at the end of my life I’ll arrange to be whisked from one set delights to another, something those fools and blockheads who aren’t clever enough to cheat Nemesis can’t manage).” See how in our self-deception (and this is the most unworthy part of it) we cover over that ancient whore, I mean base action, with so many cosmetics, so much borrowed finery, so that she might look like a fair virgin in the flower of her youth. And so, as often as we must make a choice, we must (as they say) stand on both our feet and strive might and main lest there be some error in our judgment, and not just in cases where there is more bad than good, but also when there is any bad at all (by which I mean turpitude), we must wholly decide against it and reject it. For in this way nothing will seem to be pleasant or beautiful that is not such in fact. Once we can ascend this far, we shall accomplish everything according to our heart’s desire. Our love will always be upright and honorable, and upon this one thing, as we have previously decided, the goodness and peace of all the other affections depends.
83. FRANC. As you hasten forward, I wouldn’t hold you back so frequently if (as it seems to me) this part of our dispute did not pertain to the very root of the duties. Hence, so this thing may be dealt with in its entirety, I would like to mention some difficulties that appear to remain.
FLOR. For a well-ordered mind nothing is more delightful than the investigation of these things which pertain to living well and happily, nor can any discourse be too verbose from which derives a kind of perpetual advantage. So please tell me what your scruple is.
FRANC. Although reason may grasp precisely which things are genuinely good and make no slip or mistake in judgment, it does not automatically follow that the will will necessarily apply itself to that good. Because of the force of your earlier argument, I have conceded to you that the will does not embrace evildoing for its own sake, nor acquire that inclination unless some false judgment of reason previously occurs. But still, so that there might be no mistake in deliberation, the will can suspend and restrain its enthusiasm, for otherwise it would seem to be drawn so something naturally rather than of its own volition. If it can do that, then the integrity of judgment seems not to be as important as you claim. Then, you should recall how a few days ago, when we were at the dinner-table and asking the reason for such a great variety of judgments, you produced Aristotle, who taught that judgment is not only employed in determining the summum bonum, but also is exercised in nearly everything we employ in life (for different things delight different people), concluding that for every man the goal appears to be such as consistent with the nature he has already acquired. You cited the example of healthy men, who delight in nothing but wholesome things, whereas even noxious ones are to the liking of the morbid, and you said that morally earnest men make proper judgments because of the habitual virtues they have already acquired, while on the other hand bad men, tainted by criminal custom, are delusional in their choice of things. If these things are true, it seems that the guidance and security of the will does not depend on reason, but rather that those of reason depend on the will, or on the habit will contains within itself. Finally, imagine that all habit and perturbation do not exist in the presence of honest deliberations and integrity of judgment and, again, that these things derive either from training or from a certain inborn felicity of character, and again that character is owed to nature. It is probable that we are made upright or depraved, not by our own effort, but by the kindness or cruelty of nature, which denies keenness of mind to this man but bestows it on that. Thus the causes of wills will be natural, and nothing will be within our power. For, just as a man who has naturally excellent eyesight can make much better pronouncements about colors or distant objects than a one-eyed man or one who has bleary eyes, thus excellence or dullness of wit will bring it about that we do or not make right decisions about what we should seek and what we should avoid.
84. FLOR. With your comparison concerning intellect you walk in the footsteps of very sage men, and at the moment are showing us a field for disputation: if we were to range over it as it deserves, this conversation would need to be extended for many days, a conversation which would hold us back from our intended purpose, although not without some pleasure. I must attempt as brief an explanation as possible of the difficulties you have raised. And, just as you have launched a series of attacks on my opinions, so they will be warded off in the same order that you made them. In the first place you argued that the mind’s judgment is not of such great importance, on the grounds that, even when the will’s zeal is not at variance with it, the will nevertheless does not pursue that thing because it is approved by reason, since it has the power to abstain from the appetition of anything at all. Although pleasure very often dissociates itself from that general cognition which constantly resides in the mind (as can be seen in men suffering from perturbation), it never departs by so much as a fingernail’s breadth, as they say, from what is being judged at present and in particular, and yet judgment’s necessity, which is said to be a compulsion, plays no part in election because, even if a summum bonum is manifestly being offered, the will is attracted to it with a very pleasurable motion, as to a thing highly agreeable to itself. For violence is understood to exist when there is some conflict, because of discordant and opposing natures. And this is what the poet was writing about: “and Corydon pursues you, oh Alexis. Each man is attracted by his own delight.” But this motion is stronger or weaker in proportion to the excellence and convenience of the thing being shown. Regarding things other than the summum bonum, the will transports itself from anything to anything, as long as the thing is not of a kind that, without i,t the summum bonum cannot exist or be acquired, since under those conditions there is a kind of necessity involved in its seeking, just as if the will is determined to go to Britain, and, after it has learned that is in island, the consequence is that it is obliged to decide upon sailing. Just as in the natural sciences we necessarily give our assent to those principles called axioms, here we do the same regarding the syllogisms that ensue.
85. To give you some familiar examples, a few days ago, Franceso, with my help you learned the rudiments of astronomy and geography, not without some pleasure. He who has granted that all quadrants of the same circle are equal, and that the rest must remain equal if equal parts are subtracted from equal, is obliged to admit that the angle between the apex of heaven and a surveyor’s circumference is equal to that between the equator and a point in the sky over our head. Likewise, he who knows that one line intersecting another creates two right angles, or two angles the degrees of which are the same as two right angles, and that the external angle is of the same number of degrees as those thus produced, will readily admit that all triangles must contain three angles which contain the same number of degrees as the two created by the straight lines. Now, since Aristotle teaches, “since a sign obtains the same position in life and morals as do axioms in the sciences,” I mean for those who are engaged only in the contemplation of truth, and since it is is necessary that every man aims for some goal, he cannot help displaying an appetite for those things without the guidance of which he sees he cannot achieve his end. Hence the shifting of our appetites has no limit, but rather we transfer our affection from these things to those in accordance with changing circumstances. And although the will seeks nothing out of necessity (for it can rest from all appetition), yet when it is awake and performs its function, it seeks nothing which is not somehow approved by reason, nor, when many things are offered to it, does it abandon one thing and shift its love to another unless there is a certain reason for this shifting, regarding a thing that has been examined by reason. And so this infinity of shifting, which involves no violence or compulsion, suffices to preserve our freedom of will.
86. I am not now disputing about free will in the manner of a theologian: whether Man by his own powers can comply with divine laws and convert himself from a sinful way of life to a pious and wholesome one. These questions do not pertain to this context, for thus far I have wished to keep myself enclosed, as it were, within the fence of philosophy, which I will not go out of without begging your pardon. I shall now address myself to your second objection, which is indeed acute and proper to moral philosophy, Such is the association of reason with will both in doing one’s duty and in violating it, and as Horace says, “each thing seeks the other’s aid, and conspires with it in a friendly way,” so that the integrity of reason without will can barely exist, and the integrity of will without reason can never do so. But inasmuch as the duty of the will is to follow, and that of reason to take the lead regarding the choice of things, it is thus arranged by nature that the origin of our direction and safety should exist in reason. And so, although we must grant that the vice of a now-depraved will derives and spills over from reason, as is undoubtedly the case, there was nevertheless a time when those habits had not yet been created, the will’s freedom was not at all diminished, and the purity of its powers had not yet been corrupted by any external habit. For according to Aristotle the soul and its powers is originally a tabula rasa upon which nothing has yet been written. It is by our fault that the habits of a vicious mind arise, which make for depravity of judgment and are difficult to dismiss. For this reason the musician Timotheus did not refuse to admit into his school those who had already been badly instructed by others, but he charged them a double fee in comparison with those he had taught from the beginning. I do grant you this, that the integrity of judgment can to no small degree be helped or harmed by the habit of the will; yet you will not therefore get me to concede that the will differs from reason’s present judgment or depends on its soundness to any great degree.
87. The difficulty you alleged in the third place, phrased in the manner of a sorites or paradox, is dealt with by Aristotle in Book III of the Nicomachaean Ethics. But since it is not explained by him in a way that is of any great use to us at present, I have decided to take a rather different tack in setting it forth. I said that not all the importance, but a large part of it, resides in the integrity of judgment, but that this integrity is not entirely derived from nature. I admit that intellect is a natural gift, as the derivation of its name implies: for intellect or ingenium is, as it were, ingenitum or inborn, and consists of docility and memory, as if they were its parts. But training, which is the cultivation of the intellect, partly comes from will. For it is acquired by constant attention and industry, which ought to be governed by the will. For this reason Isocrates, when asked by somebody who had decided to send to his school for his education what the boy needed, responded, “he needs a good writing style and intelligence.” To these must be added perpetual mental alertness less something escape our attention when making choices, and this does not happen save by the command and injunction of the will, and for this reason the will has a share in that praise which belongs to right judgment. And again, by the same token all the blame in bad things is not to be assigned to nature or dullness of wit, because nature has never played the stepmother to anyone (unless you care to mention the mentally defective, to whose actions attaches no praise or blame) so that he does not have any general ideas of morality impressed on his mind, by the examination of which all truth about living this life in a civil manner is elicited. Who does not know that each and every part of himself ought to be regarded as dear to the degree that it is excellent, and should most especially be cared for and cultivated? Nor this any less clear, that our dignity is located in that part thanks to which we surpass the beasts and come closest to resembling the beings of heaven.
88. These things being established, we immediately see that it is a consistent consequence that the mind should exercise itself in assiduously investing and pursuing its goods, by which it can be adorned and perfected. If it does so, immediately it will take on that piety which makes us grateful with respect to God and our parents. It will take on temperance, which it will recognize is moderation in those actions which pertain to life’s sweetness. It will likewise take on humanity, which will teach us justice, that reverend mother of a tranquil existence and peaceful society. So, since nature has imprinted these notions in our minds, if we are failing in our duties because of an error of opinion, we will not accuse nature but rather our own sloth for not exercising that which lies within the powers of our nature, by occupying our intellect in searching for the light and truth in this. Here I am sometimes wont to wake up during the night to read. When I get out of bed, since I have flint to strike a spark, steel with which to strike it, and sulphur-soaked tinder to catch fire, what do I have to blame other than my own idleness if I have no light? And perhaps in no other thing does the will display its freedom as in the exercise of reason, when it directs itself to whatever it wants for contemplation and study, and this, I think, is the reason for Epictetus’ dictum, “nothing is within our power so much as the employment of our thoughts.”
FRANC. Your answers strike me as particularly acute, certainly not lacking in acumen and reason. But some doubt remains. If to such a degree that presence of intellect makes for purity of judgment from which arise honest desires, why is that men of the keenest sense, and sometimes men who are learned, lapse into base and shameful ways of life?
89. FLOR. I suppose that such man have never legitimately exercised their intellect in studying the appearance of virtue. It is scarcely absurd for some great expert at astronomy or medicine to lack that which holds right opinions about morals and the summum bonum. Now (as men are wont to say), “where you direct your intellect, there it thrives.” Show me a man who is conspicuously base, but whose speech and teaching appear full of sanctity, I’ll give you the same answer that Aristotle said about men who are perturbed, “he does not genuinely and sincerely think this way, it is a form of delusion.” On occasion it is likewise possible for a mind, no matter how keen, to be hindered and overwhelmed by errors before it has a chance to review those seeds of virtue it keeps stored within itself, and I have disputed about these things above.
FRANC. Let us imagine a man so generously endowed by nature that he sees the form of honesty, and who from his earliest years has always seen that those goods which greatly perfect him must be pursued, all others being rejected. If he is therefore steadfast in doing is duty over and above the degree he is helped by moral teaching, this appears (as I have said already) to be a natural endowment, but if he abandons his duty, then the very integrity of his judgment, even if it proceeds from the excellence of his intellect, nonetheless appears weak
90. FLOR. You press me so hard that I am all but obliged to take refuge in the teachings of religion about so-called original sin, and to claim that this is the cause of human errors. But since I still refuse to abandon the defense of philosophy, I shall tell you that, if you can produce some such man for me, I will worship him as a demigod, for he is never deluded and is never mistaken in his judgment. For it is human to be mistaken and to err. And yet it is within their ability, having consulted the rules of philosophy which they keep stored up in their minds, to amend their ways and at least to return to some liberal appearance of honesty (for genuine honesty is impossible outside of religion). But this last argument of yours has the result that I have come to the point where I may explain the benefit of this dispute (perhaps too loquacious a one) about judgment and the purity of opinions, in which I shall so frankly philosophize that everything will be in close agreement with religion. Nature has created us so as to be desirous of honesty and beauty, but this beauty needs to be set before our eyes. For when it comes to love, the eyes are our guides. If, when beauty’s glory is shown to you, even if it has some flaw in itself, if it is always growing, the nearer you stand the more it captivates you, and the closer you inspect it the more vehement your ardor. And nobody who professes himself to be a man can doubt that the beauty of mind is more excellent than that of the body to the degree that the mind is nobler than the body. And no sane person will deny that the mind’s beauty consists of remaining in that same condition which reason, emanating from the divine will, prescribes. From these things you can gather that wisdom, piety, moderation, humanity, and the other virtues conjoined to these to to make up beauty of mind, and we must most vigilantly devote ourselves to gain the power of beholding their appearance, not glancingly and through a grille, but close-up and near to ourselves. For it possess a certain immensity of dignity, one that not only does not grow stale, but is always of a sort that, the better you consider it the more you will see it advantageously revealing itself and drawing us to itself with the some power of some very powerful incantation.
91. We must therefore assemble arguments from all sides which will increase our persuasion about the appearance and presence of virtue, and likewise about the foulness of vices and lusts, a persuasion that indeed will be deeply fixed in our minds as if with strong nails, and (to use an expression of Plautus) enter into our marrow. May this glory of minds always thrust itself at us, even rudely, may it always stand before our eyes, may it never allow us to rest! From this persuasion which follows upon the clear, persistent vision of true beauty, I mean of honesty, at the same time, virtually by necessity, there flows a most temperate and pleasant way of life. For just as to the degree tat truth is clearer and more illuminated, it creates stronger assent in the mind, so the more the appearance of honesty is more familiar, the more effectively it incites the mind’s enthusiasm for performing its duties. As Cicero says, “We are very eager for honesty by nature, and if we have seen its light there is nothing we are not prepared to suffer and endure so that we may gain it.” Likewise Plato says, “wisdom and the virtues are bound to engender a love of themselves, if they can be seen clearly with the eyes.” And just as catapults and other siege-engines of the kind throw their stone the farther to the degree that they are more tightly wound up, so the will’s ardor and striving will be greater in proportion to the persuasion about the honest which exists in reason. Therefore a feeble assent and wavering opinion concerning virtue’s dignity and excellence engenders frigid motions of the will when something must be done piously and with humanity. And, on the other hand, what is so difficult that a strong and undoubting faith in things will not easily conquer it and trample it underfoot? What created a contempt for pain and death in Socrates, Leonidas, the Decii, Mucius, Regulus, and the others memorialized in Greek and Roman literature, if not the splendor of virtue and the appearance of the threat things which constantly struck the mind’s eye with their beams, and called their minds away from every other thought and striving? If a veneered and lightly-adumbrated image of virtue had so great influence over these men, it is not strange of those heroes who subscribed to the truth of our religion with their blood always displayed the keenness of their minds amidst the most exquisite tortures, being men to whom, not the shadow of virtue, but rather virtue itself had been revealed, and for whom certain divine apparitions have always been visible, with the Holy Spirit bearing a torch before them. For, as I have shown above, base things have never obtained anything from us save when they encounter us in disguise, “for vice deceives under the guise and semblance of virtue.”
92. Thus when we posses a vehement and undoubting conviction of the dignity of virtue, and we accustom our minds to beholding the greatness of its manifestation which is present in the preservation of our decorum and the safeguarding of our nobility, when these deceptive appearances of things and enticements to lust by which the common run of men, being off their guard or even blind, are captivated, we will immediately turn to the genuine appearance of honesty stored up in our mind, and then we will easily see how far removed these humdrum appearances, indeed these shadows of appearances, are from this one of ours, and how great a folly it is to prefer darkness to light or shadows to things. So that this may serve as an epilogue to my wide-ranging discursus, and pay you back with a heap for your heap of arguments, understand it thus. After beauty has been glimpsed by reason, the appearance of virtue which moves the will, if seen close at hand, will wonderfully inflame it. And reason, once inflamed, by a certain natural connection (as in the spheres of the heavens, where a higher one carries along a lower even when it resists), it will stir the heart and the animal appetite. And, thus inflamed and seized upon, the animal appetite will be drawn take reason’s side before it can pour some mist over reason (as is its wont) and manufacture its opposing syllogisms. And if it does pour anything of a mist because of the vehemence which exists in will, this will be most easy to dispel, just as as we sometimes see how the brightness of the sun, when it is all-consuming, is accustomed to disperse and scatter clouds in a moment, or a suddenly arisen fire suddenly to banish all murk. But since common notions of truth are undoubtedly ineffectual unless they applied to individual actions, as often as lust or base self-advantage invites us to go astray, thus we should reason to ourselves and decide: namely that not only constant honesty of life, but also this single given action derived from honesty, this present victory over lust, this little bit of duty that now needs doing in restraining desire, contains within itself more decorum and dignity, and so possesses more genuine pleasure, than all the wealth and honors of this entire world, and indeed also the pleasures, that would accrue to us from its desertion.
93. What man can doubt this is most true who is aware that the honest is immeasurably superior to the useful? And if this is true when something simply useful is proposed, how truer it is when usefulness is conjoined to turpitude, which brings it about that the good name of usefulness is now wholly lost and ruined! Now, since it is clearer than daylight that this is the case, why should we not unhesitatingly and vehemently convince ourselves that it is so? If we are persuaded, there is no great fear that we would disdain such great beauty and excellence of things and embrace foul things and turpitude. If we were accustomed to relying on such syllogisms in leading our lives, we would perceive ourselves to be gaining the fairest victories, and frequent ones at that, which would not only furnish us with genuine pleasures necessarily arising from our awareness of doing our duty, but would also make us admirable and worthy of veneration to the very beings of heaven (for it is of no importance that men be aware of us). And I imagine this employment of the mind is that science which Socrates equated with all the virtues. Now, I think, I have opened an entranceway to the other things and shown that the cardinal point of taming all desires, indeed the foundation of all tranquility and salvation, and of all wholesomeness, lies in an unhesitating and vehement conviction about the appearance and incomparable excellence of the honest.
94. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I have spent so much time on these issues of ignorance and knowledge. But, since I fancy we will gain more profit from our disputation if this general conclusion is distributed into a series of specific precepts, I shall tell you of a certain dream I have had which embraces nearly the entirely thing in all its details. In the present context I have decided not to prescribe a medicine for each of the perturbations, which would be a task involving immense effort and would, perhaps, be unnecessary, since the logic of the precepts I am about to give is such as, if they are fitly accepted, we shall readily be able to put each and ever perturbation to rout and flourish continually in the honor of honesty. But since dream-visions do not easily gain the credit of listeners, I would have you understand that this nocturnal experience struck me as such that I would value it higher than the wakeful spaces of many a day, and I have no fear that you will think otherwise when you have learned by listening that I am tell you truths and not falsehoods.
FRANC. We both beg you not to begrudge us the profit of this information, nor conceal from us anything you hope would add anything to our probity by the hearing. For we are already convinced that that dream of yours, since you don’t deem it unworthy of the relating, is of no common sort, but rather that it conveys some singular usefulness. For I have always observes that, just as you are very far removed from impiety, so (at least as you seem to me) you are no less removed from superstition.
95. FLOR. A few years ago, before I crossed over from my native land into France, while I and John Ogilvie, who now presides over the church of Cruden in Scotland and is a man both distinguished of birth and very well endowed with learning and morals, were walking along the bank of the river Lossie, as we frequently did together, that beginning of Horace’s Satires (for we had a copy of Horace to hand), “How comes it to pass, Maecenas, that no one lives content with his condition, whether reason gave it him, or chance threw it in his way, but praises those who follow different pursuits?” gave us the opportunity to remark on this lamentable circumstance of human life. Then, turning to me, he said, “What does it mean, Florence, that we can’t satisfy our desires or have the strength to keep them from growing boundlessly? What means this constant torment of discomfort which consumes and destroys our mind? You have studied philosophy for a full four years, and philosophers are accustomed to deal with this sort of thing. I am most devoted to you, and if you love me in return, since the sun is now about to set, return to this place after tomorrow’s breakfast, I’ll await you on this hillock. Meanwhile consult the philosophers, so that you can explain whether it is by our fault or that of circumstances that this uneasiness of life befalls us. Certainly that first heat of your intellect will greatly delight me. For there’s no more honest or useful way we could while away our time.” That very night before daybreak, before I was released from my slumber, I seemed to be walking through a very lovely meadow decorated by various kinds of flower. For these nocturnal visions are wont to reflect the pursuits and concerns of the daytime, particularly if they are striking, and indeed that far corner of Britain was very delightful for its aspect and fruitfulness because of the nearby wooded hills and the lake inhabited by swans, not far from the town of Elgin, where there is a magnificent church. Hard by the meadow was a hill of moderate height, not steep. On this hill stood a fine house, built in the form of a temple, as it seemed to me. Around the base of the hill ran a bright stream dappled with shadows, in which you could see various kinds of fish sporting. Beyond its bank, before you came to the hillside, trees were growing on the flat land, and also on the hill: besides the common ones there were myrtles, laurels, cypresses, terebinths, and not far away apple trees and nut trees, and fruit trees of various sorts wholly unknown to me. On the shrubbery and trees songbirds were perching everywhere, there were some fountains on the hillside, and the air whistled gently as it blew through the foliage.
96. Here I strolled about all the more willing because that grove nourished no snake or any kind of noxious creature. As nearly as I couldt ell, the house itself was made out of Parian marble, built with consummate art and science, and it was enclosed by a large and capacious circuit of walls. At its door was sitting an old man, dressed plainly like a philosopher, and he seemed to me to be Democritus or a member of his school, as I subsequently learned from his discourse. For Democritus (as is said in Diogenes Laertius), defined the purpose of supremely good things as “not to be the same as of that of pleasure,” but rather that by which the mind might exist in an orderly condition, free of perturbation. When I had drawn closer, I greeted him with a gesture meant to express veneration. He only responded with a nod, but a friendly and peaceable one. Then I said, “If it is not haughty or uncivil ask, oh venerable old man, I crave to know what this very handsome house is, for it looks to me like the dwelling-place of a divinity.” “Not a bad guess,” said he in Latin, although his tones sounded Greek, and he bade me look at the inscription above the door. It was of this kind:
THE HOUSE OF TRANQUILITY
97. And when I asked him again if it was permissible to enter, he replied, “You are aiming at a difficult thing, since the men who have been admitted here can live free of woes and in a certain sense rival the beings of heaven in happiness. And yet, since I perceive you are to no small degree ardent for the pursuit of honest things, I am not reluctant to oblige you concerning this thing for which you ask.” Then he took me by the hand and led me within the wall, and stood me before a portico admirably built before the house door, which reposed on eight columns, and a little below the epistyle of each was an inscription. He soon turned to me and began a speech in this fashion: “For you to enter into this household, you must first understand the inscriptions of these columns and greatly cherish what you have learned throughout your life. For familiarity with them will procure you an easy entrance into tranquility.” When I told him I was most prepared to do all these things, and asked him what these precepts meant, he moved me closer to the columns. At this point there came to my mind that golden bough with its leaves and supple osier which the Sibylline priestess had told Aeneas he must pluck from a dark grove as he was descending to the underworldly kingdom of the shadows. And, as I fancy, this bough signifies nothing other than wisdom, under the auspices and guidance of which we may be safe and sound among the beings of the Underworld (i.e., while we live in this life), even if fortune hurls all its violence and assault against us, and can mitigate the fury of perturbations. Plutarch has an excellent comparison in which he says that the frantic movements of minds are to be tamed and restrained by hearing and, so to speak, ruminating about the precepts and teachings of wisdom (which we ought always to have ready at our fingertips), just as are fierce dogs who cease their furious barking at the sound of a familiar voice.
98. Well then, beginning on the left the first column’s inscription was this:
AN ARDENT ZEAL TO DO WELL FOR ONESELF AND PERFECT ONESELF
The old man added brief explanations of this and afterwards the other inscriptions, which I shall reprodce as well as my memory permits. At first sight this precept appears superfluous, since there’s nobody who would not be moved by a natural instinct both to want to do as well for himself as he can, and to set prime importance on the procurement of self-perfection. But this has a hidden meaning and its usefulness for the course of our entire life that reaches farther than you would imagine. For this precept includes the pursuit of tranquility: nobody is to be at peace before he has gained that perfection due to him by nature’s decree any more than a stone falling from the sky can be at rest before it arrives at the earth, that common home of heavy things. And, just as a man who does not know his harbor never finds a fair wind, so ever man who does not devote any thought to the most important things of life, but is carried hither and thither as the desire of the moment happens to move him, never lives at rest, nor displays that orderliness in his actions that he should. You will find many men whose goal is power, honors, wealth, or the pursuit of pleasures, but this is not striving to be an excellent or perfected man, but rather to think on the least and worst parts of life. If anyone thinks otherwise, he certainly deserves ill of himself for not from the outset earnestly inquiring in what things reside Man’s highest dignity. For, as Cicero says, “In other matters, if something is omitted or ignored, the neglect costs you no greater loss than the value of the thing neglected.” But if the goal of human life and the nature of supreme perfection are ignored, you are of necessity ignorant of how to live your life, and such error follows from this that we have no idea in what harbor we should seek refuge.
99. But since we cannot make a suitable decision about perfecting ourselves unless we are first agreed on what what kind of thing we are, the first cure of our reason ought to be this, that we gain a thorough understanding of our nature. And the man who explores himself will discover that within himself there is a divine something, and, as Cicero says, “he will regard his character as being like some consecrated statue, and he will always do and feel something worthy of such a gift of the gods.” And when he has examined and thoroughly tested himself, he will understand how he was gifted by nature when he came into this life, he will understand how he differs from the beasts, and that all of Man’s excellence lies in his reason. And by this very easy mental effort that very noble sentiment will be discovered that a care larger by infinite degrees must devoted to seeking out the perfections of intellect and reason than to those advantages which merely pertain to the body and the needs of this present life. Only the sense are granted to beasts, and with these they seek that which pertains to the preservation of their animal life. We too are given senses, both for the selfsame purpose and also that they may serve reason in gaining experience of excellent things. But we with our singular folly do not abuse only reason, but also our very intellect, when we devote all of the power and effort of our mind to gaining control of those things which are common to ourselves and the beasts. Very deservedly can nature, our excellent mother, expostulate with us that we have wasted her very fine gift on foul things. If we are not moved by the dignity of these things to devote our intellect to the investigation of loftier matters, let us at least do so inspired by our own advantage, since it is no clearer that the heaven and stars are in motion than that our honor and perfection pertain to the mind. With this source of the duties revealed, the consequence is that we should constantly be caught up in those thoughts which most readily convey us to our excellence and perfection.
100. To clarify this matter, we should consider that we are endowed with two persons by nature, as Cicero attests. One of these is common, based on the fact that we all have a share of reason and its excellence, thanks to which we are superior to beasts. The other is that peculiar to each individual, arising from our variety of characters and temperaments, and the result of this is that not everything suits everybody equally well. No matter how much Demeas wants to be affable and kindly, he cannot quite match and equal Mitio. Two further persons are adjoined, the first of which is imposed on us by happenstance and situation, and the latter we assume for ourselves in accordance with our judgment. Kingdoms, empires, ennoblements, honors, wealth and riches, as well as their opposites, are matters of chance, and are governed by the times. How does it happen that some men devote themselves to philosophy and others to the military life? Others embrace mercantile trade, legal consultations and courtroom cases, apply themselves to agriculture or some profitable craft, or devote themselves to religion. “Before you begin to split an unknown surface with your plow, you must first to learn of the winds the varied character of the weather, and the traditional cultivation and character of places, what crops each region bears and what it refuses: thanks to these considerations crops and grapes are more happily produced.” We should be no less diligent in cultivating our minds and directing our lives than farmers are in tending to their fields.
101. I have mentioned these distinctions of persons so it may be understood that the first person, that of honesty, is natural and common to all men. And so every counsel suggested by our individual nature or fortune, and every enthusiasm supplied by our will, must be referred to it and thus moderated that it never departs from the common standard of virtue. In the management of this person there is no exception for sex, rank, or condition. It is the responsibility of all men most stoutly to safeguard at least that dignity we have received from nature, by cultivating virtue and wisdom. So they are all the more foolish and silly who are of the opinion that piety and moderation of life does not apply to them because they have not been elected into the College of the Flamens, do not have shaven heads or expensive linen robes and hoods. Many men are of the opinion that everything is permitted them because they have wealthy or noble ancestors. Others, whose station of dignity ought to inspire to excellence in virtue, such as no few of the prelates of our religion, relying on the wealth they have from Christ, are not embarrassed to do many disgraceful things openly. Others, being military gentleman, believe there is nothing so criminal that it is not part of their duty. Oh the blindness of our times! Oh the sloth of our teachers of religion, I mean our prelates, and their cruel minds, untouched by any pity for their flocks, who are perishing out of ignorance! But let us dismiss them, since they refuse to take advice. Do you think they keep this common person in mind, when they imagine that something disgraceful is permissible for themselves because of some self-indulgence of their will or of fortune? To they have any regard for the promises they made at their consecrations? But why am I mentioning Christianity? For that creed gathers us into a more divine religion than the mind can imagine. I am only speaking of those things which we are commanded to perform by nature’s decree and of the things we ought to do, not insofar as we are Christians, but insofar as we are men, and what is required by the common obligation we assumed when we received this gift of life.
102. And since the remaining course of our lives is to a large extent derived from this cardinal point we embraced at the very threshold of our flourishing years, as I have remarked above, both parents and magistrates must most vigilantly strive that, as soon as the power of intellect and understanding shines forth in a boy, it be instilled in his mind what a valuable living being he is, in what way he surpasses the beasts, why he has received his life, what duty has been assigned the human race by God, and what is the end of both good and bad things. It cannot be expressed how important it is for the remainder of his life that, at this dawning of his new-born intellect and confronted by that Pythagorean fork in the road, he has imbibed right opinions about the nobility of humankind and the value of things. By why is this not imprinted on their minds from early adolescence? “Oh, my fellow citizens, we must first hunt for money — virtue comes after cash.” “Nobody asks where you acquired it, but you need to have it.” “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and let us judge all the rumors of the old men to be worth just a skingle penny. The suns are able to fall and rise: when that brief light has fallen for us, we must sleep a never-ending night.” All schoolgirls learn this stuff before they learn their ABC’s. Some theologians, and acute ones at that, have no hesitation in condemning a man of a capital and deadly offence if at the first moment his reason reveals itself he fails to grasp the end of his life and honest action, and they say this pertains to a certain natural obligation. What makes me refuse to give my wholehearted approval to this extreme law is our fragile condition, as well as negligent education and defective teaching, which allow that tender age to slip into vicious ways of living. In nothing else, reverend magistrates supervising pious living, furnished by the people for this purpose, should go around the city, even go door to door, investigating whether youth are receiving a legitimate education. For in this way, as if they had been trained in the same school of probity, all men will be offended by base things and take pleasure in honorable ones, nor will any anger or bitter discord break out when all men agree in their very excellent desire. Thus parents will find their sons more obedient, magistrates will find the same thing about the populace and its citizens, and nothing else can be expected from those noble beginnings than ready obedience, as long as honest things are being commanded, and from this comes the stability of social classes and of all human society. Nor indeed can it be denied that all men are thus bound by a certain love of self-perfection. “Those who seek to hang themselves and die,” (as Cicero writes), “and, as the character in Terence’s Self-Tormentor meant when he said ‘he would do less injury to his son if he himself were unhappy,’ and those who wittingly expose themselves to evil, do so out of a certain self-love because they think acting thus serves their advantage.” But that kind of love is often blind, because when we are excited by our constant desires we think it makes no difference whether the good we are seeking is an honest one. And if we care to look more carefully at what decision each of us has made, we will discover that he is notably delinquent in his program of self-perfection, and that we pursue things which make us honest in words alone, but in point of fact make us base. There is no one of who, if asked, would not answer that his greatest prayer was to be a good, perfect, and complete man, but after the veils of dissimulation have been torn away, we shall discover that, as Christ our Savior’s parable has it, one is actually coveting a manor, another a yoke of five oxen, and a third someone’s wife.
103. But not even this will suffice to free of you of that desire for things which debase you, unless you put your hand to this zeal for self-perfection with a serious and, as they say, gladiator-like determination. For most of those feeble intentions are fruitless, and it is the constancy of ardor that bears fruit. For a great part of goodness consists of wholeheartedly desiring to become good, and likewise a great part of excellence consists of wholeheartedly desiring to be excellent. Thus there is need for zeal and ardent love, without which it is granted no man to attain anything outstanding in this life. Socrates was wont to say that he needed to be perfect if he were to move anybody by his exhortation to the pursuit of understanding and perceiving virtue. And if they were so persuaded that they preferred nothing to being good men, he was of the opinion that the remainder of their education would be easy. Before I break off this part, it will be worthwhile to take note of some men’s singular silliness. There are some who make up their minds to devote themselves wholly to pleasure until the flower of their youth passes, and, when they come to their final old age, to pay attention to virtue and render themselves honest by studies of excellent things. But here they are guilty of a double error. First, what contractual guarantee can we produce that with the gods’ agreements we are destined to live even a single day longer? What god has promised us these longer expanses of life? Who save for a complete fool can promise himself tomorrow? Martial says, “Trust me, it is not the mark of a wise man to say ‘I shall live.’ Tomorrow’s life is too late, live today.”
104. Now consider the unfairness of that distribution, to give that which is not ours, and which perhaps will never be, to the honest, and give this instant, which is ours, to turpitude. For such fine gratitude Honesty should summon us and lovingly pat our heads as we have done excellently by her! Then this too should occur to you, how basely a day is conceded to that thing, and an adjournment granted it: because of this single thing all courtroom activity must be suspended, the single thing which must be embraced immediately, and for its sake everything else is to be abandoned without delay. Quite the contrary, here there is need for urgency, that we should suffer ourselves to be deprived of life at the first possible moment rather than to lead a moment of our life without the companionship of honesty. And so, when our present desires urge us to devote ourselves to them wholeheartedly and defer the ways of honest living for times to come, we will carefully weigh how much unworthiness that idea contains, and what marks of shame we shall be burning into ourselves if we do so, and how ill we should deserve of ourselves, for having preferred base and perishable things to the most beautiful and immortal ones. For this reason, we must put wings on our ankles, and in this race for praise neither oars nor winds should satisfy us. We must constantly admonish ourselves, “Alas, flee this cruel land, flee this greedy coastline. Alas, you have forgotten your realm and your affairs, you aren’t fleeing headlong while you have the power to hasten. Come now, abandon your delays.” As the well-worn proverb has it, it’s too late to be frugal when you’ve come to the bottom of your purse. And, as Hesiod says, “One must be sparing when halfway through, it’s hard to be stingy at the end.” For it’s not only what’s the last, but also what’s the worst that wont to exist at the conclusion. And so let us make no delay when it comes to the establishment of an honest life. “For thus (as says Seneca) life will be a boon; otherwise it is a delay, and a base thing for those wallowing in foulness.” Let us do this, so that all the time which will exist after we have gained mastery over ourselves will be ours, and we have prevailed on our affections as we wish.
105. Now I have dwelt long enough in dealing with this column and, as I think, I have explained the whole thing in a way so that he who has gained mastery over this point alone in general should not seem to be master of anything difficult or refractory, so we should wholeheartedly wish that things go well for us in true fact, and desire that we be endowed with those ornaments which perfect and illuminate us, not falsely, but in truth. Then we came to the second column, which had this inscription:
WE SHOULD BE WELL-VERSED IN THE RECOGNITION OF TRUE GOODS
That first instruction pertains to the serious wish for self-perfection, but this perfection does not exist save by the acquisition of true goods and profit, and the rejection of bad things, and, when it comes to the search for the good, it is rightly given a place next to the first. For a zeal to arrive somewhere is pointless unless you understand what will take you there. When a painter has decided what he wants to depict, he must find suitable colors. Nor is this concern a light one, because it is difficult to adhere to the mean in seeking out what you believe to be a good. And indeed, without a sure and noble understanding of the things to be sought and the things to be shunned (for this is a goodly part of reason), so that leading this life is, as they say, entering the Labyrinth without a thread. Thus, since what is to be sought is said to be a good, there is a twofold division of goods, just as there is of things to be sought. For there are some things which are not sought for their own sake, but for that of something, and these are called useful because by their use one attains to greater things, such as money and nutrition, by which we preserve our life and well-being. Others are things sought for their own sake, and these too appear to be twofold. For some are of such great dignity that they are always deservedly to be sought, to which category belong that which is honest and that which by its own nature establishes Man in some degree of excellence, such as the workings of wisdom and the virtues. Others are not things originally sought for their own sake by right appetite (i. e., by appetite governed by reason), but are wont to be closely conjoined to things sought for themselves, such as pleasures. These sometimes are linked to the useful, but they come closer to fulfilling their end to the extent that the good we are capable of attaining is more excellent, and this affects us more pleasantly because of its nature (unless there is something in us that prevents this). But each man who seeks pleasure in a proper and orderly manner does not seek it so much as he seeks some associated thing by the acquisition of which there follows an agreeable sensation thanks to some natural association, which is called both happiness and pleasure.
106. There is a another division of the good acquired from things acquired by men, and this one is threefold. Some are called the goods of fortune, such as are external things: wealth, noble birth, power, glory, and their opposites poverty, low birth, helplessness, and contempt. Others pertain to the body, and in this category are health, strength, beauty, to which may be added pleasure. Contrary to these are unwellness or disease, weakness, deformity or unloveliness of body, and the agony of pain. The third and supreme kind of good things is made of these things by which Man’s nobler part, the mind, is perfected, and these are the ones which, as I have said, are to be sought in their own right, and their opposites are everything that debases the mind, and these are ignorance of excellent things, all vice, and all lack of moderation. The Stoics account nothing a good except the honest: they call the other kinds (i. e., physical endowments and external things τὰ ἠγμένα, i. e. preferable things, and bad things other than turpitude ἀποπροηγμένα, i. e., undesirable or rejected things. Hence Seneca writes that we abuse and falsely extend the word ‘good’ when we apply it to porridge, bread, and other things useful for daily life.
107. But this is a disagreement about words rather than things, inasmuch as also among the Peripatetics that thing we call decorum or the honest so excels and is sometimes discussed under the name of virtue, that all other goods that are held to belong to the body or to fortune are regarded as small and trifling, and unworthy of any esteem. The Peripatetics are supported by Scripture which, starting at its very beginning, calls good whatever is created by God, with the result that this finickiness of the Stoics about expanding the definition of the word “good” is ridiculous. But at this point we must observe that there is another rationale for goodness in the things that result from our actions. Individual things can be called good simply because they exist, or certainly because there is nothing in the entire working of things which lacks its own usefulness, even if imperceptible to us. But this rationale of goodness is exceedingly general and has a very wide latitude. Our actions are called good when they maintain that order which the laws of honesty enjoin. And this is that great good called honesty. But there are some honest actions which pertain to our civic life, and the suppression of desires, and the source of all of these is the mind’s prudent thought. Others are located in the pursuits of wisdom, while the mind is occupied in the consideration of divine things, from which arise a certain admiration and love of eternity. Now, although both kinds are honest, first place is given to the pursuits of wisdom, since it is from these that we gain a life close to that of our everlasting God.
108. And what I say about these actions I wish to be extended to embrace the habits that arise from them. For all virtues are habits of the mind or will. So these proper goods and ornaments of minds are just as much more excellent than those pertaining to the body as incorporeal things and the intelligent mind are to the body, which is gross and brutish by its very nature. But so that it might be more clearly understood that there is either none or at most a very small measure of goodness in bodies and the goods of fortune, in comparison with those of the minds, I shall advance some very brief arguments taken from the writings of the philosophers, but moderated so as to address the popular understanding, and of these the first is this. Among those who have devoted their life and their thoughts to philosophical studies, it is not doubted that nothing can be identified as good that is not good, and the more perfected it is, the better it is. Now this is to be taken for granted, that all the endowments of fortune and the body itself with all its boastful furniture are of a kind that they can scarcely endure for a moment, and they evaporate even as they are being possessed, with the result that they are to be regarded as nothing. Indeed the entire passage of time, even the lengthiest, is like a brief minute if you compare it with eternity, and even if you surpass the years of a Tithon, a Nestor, or a Methusaleh, you shall be thought no more long-lived than one of those little animals born along the river Hypanis, which die at sunset. Their life is, so to speak, the matter of day, so that those seem to live the longest who die after the sun has set, particularly on the day of a solstice, in comparison with those who die after six or eight hours. For those of us who fix our eyes, not on the eternal line of centuries, but on the narrow confines of our life, a few circuits of the sun appear to embrace a great expanse of living. But, as was most sagely said by Cicero (who, relying on the authority of Aristotle, was also responsible for that simile of the little animals I have just alleged), “Why is that so long which has an ending, and, when that has come, all pleasure counts for nothing and henceforth will have no future?”
109. Thus these bodily or external goods, which we pursue as if they were most excellent, are to be considered nonexistent rather than real. As Juvenal says, “This brief-living flower hastens to run its course, this very short allotment of our short and wretched life. While we are calling for garlands, unguents and girls, old age is invisibly stealing over us.” And when St. Gregory Nazianzenus speaks of the swift disappearance of our life, I think he can be translated thus: “The breath of our life is as quick as a swift-running river.” Homer says that the race of men are like leaves, with which thought Job, that most noble example of tolerance, was in agreement when he wrote “Wilt thou break a leaf driven to and fro?” David, King of Jerusalem and Isaiah described even by far the noblest of men as a “flower of the field” and all his glory, being of the flesh, is destined suddenly to wither like grass. To the poet Pindar Man was “the shadow of a dream,” and Job said “he flleth also as a shadow, and continueth not..” To put it in a nutshell, when they could not find a word sufficient to express the vanity of the things of this life, they took refuge in expressions which came closest to describing the most pointless of things. But what need is their to draw out our time in citing witnesses to the truth of this thing, when daily we see with our own eyes how quickly this appearance of things perishes? But, being blind and foolish, we never steadily and seriously weigh the pointlessness of our pursuits, until there that comes that final moment of life in which we must breathe forth our wretched breath; and, when we have abandoned this flow of time, we arrive at the gate of eternity, then (but now it is too late) we begin to appreciate the vanity of our affairs. They alone are prudent who have induced their minds to believe that which is most true before this peril, “all is vanity,” and nothing under the sun endures.
110. Another argument for placing a low value on goods of this kind is taken from this, that they to do not confer the title of good on those who possess them. For it is not customary to call somebody good because of those goods of fortune, in the way that we call somebody beautiful because of his beauty or wealthy because of his wealth. And since we are on the subject of wealth, to the degree that a man is possessed of the worst character, I mean unprincipled and devoted to fraud, you may observe that to that same degree he is most flourishing in money, whereas, on the other hand, every good man is suffering from reduced circumstances. For, as that Greek verse has it, “Fortune rarely gives good men a share in these things.” I do not deny that wealth and abundance possess nothing of vice per se, and you can find grave men of singular integrity amidst great wealth, who bestow money (either inherited or earned by honest means) to support the poor, their friends, and their nation in time of need. Some philosophers, including Crates, either abandoned or gave away their fortune or patrimony so that being unencumbered and freed of cares they might more comfortably devote themselves to philosophy. At one place Cicero, by far the most famous writer of the Latin language, demands the prudence of his ancestors, who regarded these feeble and changeable allotments of money as goods in word only, although in fact and indeed they thought very much otherwise.
111. And, to treat the remaining goods of the same kind in a cursory manner, let us first evaluate kingship, the supreme kind of power among men. This is a singular, nay divine good, if it retains the moderation it should, but that goodness proceeds from the wisdom of a splendid and lofty mind, which scarcely falls in the category of goods of fortune, seeing as kings are born, and not created by the votes of their people or of wise men. But what, pray, is this kingship other than a perpetual labor undertaken for the public welfare? As Homer says, legitimate kings are “shepherds of the people,” to whom the people has granted the power, and, as it were, the bridle of moderating and ruling itself, not of trampling upon it. Thus they should handle themselves no differently than reliable tutors, indeed than good parents are supposed to, whose greatest concern is that things go well for their sons, and who should regard themselves as blessed when, presiding over their governments with industry and wakeful nights, they see their people flourishing amidst laws and peace, and not to be lacking in the necessary helps of life. Nowadays how many kings are there who would not prefer to lose their kingdoms than to act just as the requirements of that position demand? If they squander their subjects’ sweat and their provinces’ taxes on luxury and tyranny, regarding everything as not being entrusted to their faith ,but rather handed to them for their advantage, from shepherds they are transformed into devourers of the people, indeed into public plagues, all the more pernicious because of their great power. But they have no reason greatly to preen themselves on the magnitude or indulgence of their fortune. For, if they escape the clutches of mankind, they soon will incur a brand of infamy from posterity and pay the forfeit for having acted their role poorly to Him Who is the everlasting King of all this world and the most righteous Judge. Likewise, as Juvenal says, “These are thought to be greater than human goods. Each Roman, Greek and barbarian general strains after them, and has a reason for undergoing danger and effort.” But if a man is atracted to such things, not by his virtue, but by a foolish admiration of wealth or fear, what else are these but sheer flattery and lies hiding behind a mask of praise? As the tragic poet says, “But he who seeks the glory of true favor will desire to be praised with the mind, not the tongue.”
112. When it comes to dealing out praise and blame, Agesilaus thought we should not consider the morals and character of the man being praised, but of those doing the praising, since he did not believe that which the common man is wont to confer on wealth is either genuine praise or honor. And what is that common man’s idea of nobility but a certain opinion of excellence born out of ignorance of greater ones? As says Seneca, “there is no king whose pedigree does not consist of an alternation of splendid men and sordid ones?” If ancestral wealth procures this, how can something be deemed noble which has such a low-down origin, and is for the most part associated with baseness, fraud, injury, and every manner of unworthiness? If a man’s ancestors procured this, just as those virtues are not mine (for virtue is procured by personal effort, not one’s blood-line), neither is the nobility of my ancestors. It is necessary for my virtue to be mine thanks to my own virtue, and not to be a thing belonging to someone else. Physical health, no matter how sound, strength, pleasures and all beauty are destroyed by old age, even a trifling disease, or injury: something which always hang over us will in a brief moment ruin all the glory of a proud corpse. Imagine some ancient or modern Narcissus, Adonis, Ganymede, Helen, or Venus herself — surely you don’t imagine that after their death they look any different than those flesh-stripped skeletons of malefactors that hand from gallows, unless, perhaps, you think that corpses hidden underground far from our eyes, now nests and food for worms, decay any differently than those left hanging in the breeze? And yet, if it please the gods, it is for these things that we like to go so pleasantly insane: “It was not wrong for the Trojans and greave-wearing Achaeans to suffer pains a long time at Troy.”
113. And what is our very life, which is wont to be the dearest thing of all? Is it anything else than a constant footrace towards the grave? And yet we are surprised and indignant when we reach the end of this course we have been constantly running. For just like a water clock, drained not only by its final drop but by all the ones which have gone before, so we perish not only on our dying day, but during the entire intervening time. But since by an error of opinion we have persuaded ourselves that the finish-line of this race, I mean our final day, is still far away from us, or because we shrink from thinking about it, with futile pleasures we bewitch our deceived mind, incredibly consternated when we discover our race is unexpectedly ended. But a sure sentence has already been pronounced, the executioner is escorting us all, all hope of escape has been taken away, “sooner or later we all hasten to the same home.” The only difference in this is that you are perhaps due do die tomorrow, but I today. My right learned friend Stephen of Winchester is wont to say that we are all dealt with as if one of us is sentenced to be strangled at the first milestone, another at the second, and so forth, with fixed ends decreed. So what folly is it to value something so fragile, and from the protraction of which we derive so much calamity, and to love it so desperately? Shall we, little living beings with a precarious breath of life, grow puffed-up in our minds and assume long hopes, promising to do great things, although all this pompousness and pride in our affairs hangs from such a slender thread?
114. And so, since the goodness in those things which pertain to the body and fortune is so poor, let us turn our mind and our eyes from them to heavenly, sublime things, and understand that the σῶμα or body is the mind’s σῆμα or tomb, and thanks to this benefit of wisdom we are able to lift up our heads and become accustomed to supernal things of any aspect, not otherwise (as says Seneca) than craftsmen are wont to who, when they have wearied their eyes by working on something difficult to see in bad light, go outdoors to refresh their eyes by looking at brighter ones. Unless we assiduously exercise ourselves in this way, we shall always languish enchained in Plato’s cave, admiring the shadows of things. Plato, by far the most religious of the philosophers, taught that bodies are only the shadows of incorporeal things, and the body and its affections to be like a dark cave with its chains, with the result that we cannot tolerate the sight of true things. And, just as dreams deceive sleepers, so we are deceived in our wakefulness by this appearance of bodies ranged around us. We laugh at Aesop’s dog who let go of the scrap of meat he was carrying in his mouth and leapt in the water, snatching at the reflection which looked a little larger. We also laugh at those birds swooping down on the grapes in Zeuxis’ painting, while not appreciating that we are being much more disgracefully deceived by these shadows of true things that surround us, and that each thing is more valuable in proportion to the degree it is separated from the body. Socrates in Xenophon showed this quite clearly by this argument, that all Man’s dignity is in his mind, and as soon as it has abandoned the body we cannot tolerate the site of even those who are most dear to us, but immediately hide their bodies in the tomb.
115. DEM. Please let me hear once more those verses in which you advised a young friend of yours falling in love to restrain himself. For they seemed to me to contain something like what you just said.
FLOR. I should stray too far from my path if I were to do so, but, lest your request be entirely frustrated, I shall recite a few verses.
What do you love, if you love a body, but a rotten corpse which sweet beauty keeps concealed for a few days? Unhappy lad, you are neglecting your mind, although all the honor of our nobility resides in it. It is wise, it can understand the causes of things; although set on this earth, it carries itself above the stars. The praise conferred by wisdom is not slight, if you sagely weigh the nature of things. Although God, Who directs the stars of heaven, possesses everything, He possesses nothing greater than this.
FRANC. Lest I seem to defer to our friend Demetrio in adoring your pursuits, I shall quote the relevant portion of a poem which you recently composed. I was so pleased by it that I have committed it to memory. For you write:
Whatever lovely thing you see with your eyes and touch with your hands, all this is dust and shadow, and sheer dreams of this short night.
116. FLOR. I’m very grateful to both of your, but especially to you, Francesco, because you have valued my pursuits, humble as they are, so highly that you are unembarrassed even to learn a part of my writing by heart and recite it from memory. But let me return to my exposition. We have now seen how deceptive and trifling these goods are. Now I shall briefly review for our benefit the ones which are true and great. These are the goods of the mind, common to us all so that may render Man good and perfect him by their excellence. Some of these pertain to the intellect, such as the pursuits of wisdom; others pertain to the will, which, equipped with certain very noble abilities, has no appetites other than honest once. And since, as Cicero says, “shrewd judges set a high value on meadows and fields, as if this kind of possession can do no harm,” we are justly to set a high value only on those things which are placed above time and fortune, such as I have said those things to be which pertain to the mind. And, so as to keep on our same old path, as at were, we should believe that wisdom is the mind’s true gold, which one can learn both from Scripture and from Plato, as in his Phaedrus Socrates prays thus: “Oh Pan and you other friendly gods who haunt this place, grant me to be made handsome within, and let whatever I possess within be friendly to my intimates. Let me regard wisdom as the only wealth, but let me only have so much of that gold as a temperate man can manage.” I think this last was said because God’s wisdom is boundless, and it is sinful to hope for that, and it is the mark of intemperate men to ask for nothing, or at least for very little, from God, but of the temperate to pray for much, and as much as is suitable. Let us regard true power and true government as holding one’s affections in one’s power and subjecting the barbaric nations of desires to the empire of reason, and thus to safeguard the mind with the protection of the virtues that they can be assaulted by no missiles of fortune. Let us consider there to be no shameful or injurious servitude save when our divine parts obeys our affections. For it is not this external hubbub and brightness of fortune, but the mind’s indomitable virtue which procures genuine excellence. “None of the purple-clad men you see,” says Seneca, “is happier than those are distinguished by a scepter and royal gown on the stage of the theater. If you appraise men after stripping off their borrowed ornaments and false appearances of fortune, only he is great who can gaze on gleaming swords with an unblinking gaze and understands that it makes no difference whether his soul leaves his body by his mouth or by a wound; who, advised that bodily torment awaits him and those terrors that a tyrant’s harmfulness will inflict, is carefree and recites this to himself, ‘oh girl, no strange or unexpected aspect of evils rises up for me.’” Hence the like-named Seneca wrote in a tragedy, “A good mind possesses a kingdom, in this way every man bestows a kingdom on himself.”
117. And what Plutarch writes is most apposite, that when fools imagine that wealthy men are blessed, “it is the same as when little boys imagine wretched clowns to be happy, when they dance on stage in golden costumes.” True glory is to rely on a thing itself, not to depend on the opinions of the vulgar, ignorant multitude. “We shall head towards it by a straight and short route,” if we desire to be such as we want to be regarded. But inasmuch as anything wrought by man, even when meritorious, is limited by the confines of time and space, and is doomed to disappear, we must bend our efforts to gain the favor of the beings of heaven by cultivating virtue, for genuine and permanent renown comes only from this. And why nobody should have great enthusiasm for gaining honor for his name will be explained in its due place below. True nobility is not to be born in high station among mankind, nor is he distinguished who possesses nothing beyond what he brought from his mother’s womb. But if a man strives wholeheartedly to defend the mind’s dignity and carefully guards against blackening the nobility of his birthright, by which I mean the celestial origin of minds, by a degenerate love of the sordid things of this life, he will be truly and seriously ennobled. And inasmuch as virtue is the foundation of all true nobility, whoever is endowed with is particularly noble. And so Marius was right to complain in Sallust of the impudence of some men who, while being low-down and base, nonetheless demanded to be considered noblemen because of their ancestors’ virtues, and yet did not concede this same thing to Marius for the sake of actually possessing that which they had borrowed from someone else. “It is a common error,” said Seneca, “and words such as ‘knight,’ ‘slave,’and ‘freedman’ would not have been invented, if not out of ambition or a desire to inflict insults.” True strength is the largeness of a mind that fears nothing but turpitude, and is indignant that it must be confined any longer within the narrow confines of this body, in which there is nothing worth contemplating except the genius of its Maker. And indeed, a lofty and brave mind would attempt to break free, were this not forbidden by the laws of nature. To struggle vigorously against fortune without succumbing, to expose oneself to dangers without timidity, and even with eagerness when the situation requires, to shun no difficulties conjoined with honesty out of fear of death, these are notable signs of great strength and a noble mind. And contrariwise, as the poet says, “fear is the mark of degenerate minds.”
118. Genuine health exists when that wholesome constitution of the mind is not undermined, which is understood to occur when the senses and appetites are not at variance with reason, when the mind obeys God, when the mind’s disposition is such that there is no expectation in its affections which reason’s judgment has not anticipated, and when there is no slowness or delay when the mind’s commands must be performed. This obedience is what creates that harmony of various elements which we call health. Seneca observes that, in the absence of that, whatever powers the body might possess are no different than the strength of a raging man or a lunatic. And just as an ailing body, while rejecting what it is own, produces an appetite for many absurd things, so you can identify an ailing mind from this, that it is always rendered unquiet by the novelty of its wishes, and is distracted by various cares. Likewise, Socrates adjudged a man’s beauty from the light and comeliness of his mind: after for a long time he had a gazed at a handsome lad, he said, “speak, young man, so that I can see you,” just as if the body were some offscouring of a man, or a shape at which one could point, but the mind were each man’s actual self. And so we are comely when no depravity of morals damages the agreement of the soul’s parts, no darkness of ignorance or pallor of corrupt affection damages the power of that mixture of colors which derives from the virtues. Pleasure itself, when it arises from the acquisition and perception of the good, is appropriate, so that it is greatest when that which is best is joined to that part which is the source of all sensation and power of cognition. Nobody denies that God is most happy, and for Him there are no pleasures but those of the mind, which the philosophers are in agreement comes from His living His eternal existence in self-contemplation. Our mind reproduces His image when it feeds and delights itself in pondering upon sublime things and searching after the truth. Because of the nature of its domicile, the mind’s intellect is sometimes obliged to rest or become engaged in humbler matters. But just as the rays of the sun remain attached to their source, albeit they touch the earth, so we must regard earthly things in such a way that we are constantly mindful of our celestial origin and do not allow ourselves to be wrenched away from our embrace of excellent things. Thus that sentiment is wrong and unworthy of Man, “the happiest life consists of thinking of nothing,” as if wisdom, the mother of genuine happiness, stands in the way of true pleasures. Nobody is so mentally defective that, even if this were allowed him, he would chose to live all of his life devoted to all the pleasures without interruption, with the stipulation that all this time he would have no more sense than exists in beasts or children, and this clearly shows that the excellence of delightful things has its origin in reason. But, since our use of the mind (of whatever quality it may be) is constant, we value it far less than we should.
119. Now, I think, I have established the credit of these genuine goods, and it has been shown how much vanity exists in those toys of fortune which are wont to do no more than dazzle the eyes with their novel and external glitter, deceiving those devoid of wisdom who never devote themselves wholeheartedly to the contemplation and examination of things. It is likewise agreed that the heart is to be filled with those true and genuine goods. Now, if I may add a few words by way of a postscript, I shall finish my description of this column. These things which are truly goods, I mean wisdom, moderation, and greatest mind, even if some of them are superior to others, nevertheless they are all good and excellent for this single reason, that by their possession and use we most resemble God, that single and supreme Good, and that they bestow such a dignity on our mind that it will never vary from that which is within God, indeed which is God, the Form of the good, the so-called Idea. To the extent that every thing comes closer to Him, it approaches the prototype of the beautiful and the good, and by this is rendered more beautiful and lovely. And from this notion which now occurs to me, it immediately follows that those things which are great, nay immense goods, are not wholly and absolutely to be sought for their own sakes, but are to be referred to God Himself, unless, perchance, we are so mad as to imagine that here we are to embrace the image more than the thing itself, a thing which cannot be done without great sinfulness. Indubitably to a great, nay to an incomparable degree, those philosophers have reasoned more nobly and more piously who have placed the summum bonum in knowledge and virtue than those trifling and base-born ones who have rested content with external goods.
120. And yet it would have behooved them to have continued until they had arrived at the very source of all goodness, God, from Whom everything else which either exists or is good possesses the ability to exist or be good. Is not the delight we gain from beholding the light to be referred to only to the light itself, if the light is of a kind that it itself bestows eyes on us and can as it chooses bestow or withdraw itself? Wherefore the very dignity all of that vision which is called beatitude comes from this thing objected to us, I mean from God. Therefore our mind, which is gripped by a constant and incredible ardor for greatness and excellence, should thus conclude. For I am only a minute particle of Mind, and so, great God, all my good, indeed all my good, is placed in acknowledging, worshipping and living You, Who are complete, nay boundless Mind, and the very fact that I acknowledge You are my good is good, since this which is owed You is purely granted You; indeed the very fact that this is right is such because You are all right and justice. Beyond all doubt, this reasoning is necessary for those who seriously desire to be perfected, while that sin is supremely to be avoided whereby our mind’s corruption and our arrogance attempts to claim a share of God’s glory, as we desire no part of that vainglory to cling to ourselves. To this perhaps pertains that mystical girl in love in the Song of Songs, who, after searching throughout the city and finding the man “whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.” For after we have seen that God Himself is the Source of all goodness, and indeed that He is the only Good, why should we not ascribe all praise of goodness to Him, nor ever come to a halt until we have arrived at the beginning-point and Author of all excellence? Nor am I afraid that at this point I have gone beyond the bounds of philosophy, since here I have said nothing that the philosophers themselves would not admit, if they wished to be true to their principles and teachings. But I see that our Demetrio is readying himself to propose some difficulty. Why are you hesitating, Demetrio? Speak freely.
DEM. Although I readily agree with you about the goods of the mind, they can still be lost. For you won’t deny that morally earnest men have been transformed into depraved ones. But even if striving for probity endures throughout your life, death seems to put an end to this all. The reason I say this is that you seemed to be exaggerating the excellence of the goods of the mind, because they endure permanently, unlike the pleasant things of the body.
121. FLOR. Be sure to remember what I have said above about the wealth of the mind, how it is superior to the rule of fortune. Indeed we can abandon our duty of our own free will, but it ought to be sufficient for its endurance that we do nothing against our duty unwillingly. And I don’t know if anybody who from the beginning had had the right idea about virtue has ever entirely abandoned its pursuit. Some lapses occur even in the most excellent characters, but wilfulness is hardly present. And scarcely any man has grown obdurate once he has grasped the nature of honesty. Nor do Nero’s proverbial first five praiseworthy years escape my attention, during the whole of which he showed himself to be a prince of matchless self-control; afterwards nature never saw anything more cruel or monstrous. But sometimes the opportunities for evildoing are not present, as when (as Terence writes), “youth, fear, and his teacher prevent; it.” Characters make themselves manifest, but not for some time, as certain trees which are slow in bearing fruit. Therefore I imagine somebody like Nero was never a truly good man even in the beginning, or possessed any genuine judgment about virtue. Rather, Man is an animal most clever at dissimulation, with which it is easy to deceive people who fail to see the inner heart and the mind. But let us concede that virtue can be wholly lost. Let us likewise concede that which is most false, that it perishes together with life. Yet assuredly that statement is frequently approved by the wisest of men, “virtue is its own fairest reward.” “For (as Cicero says) virtue should attract us to true glory by its own enticements.” And although (as some men mistakenly think) after our deaths nothing concerns us about what men say about us, it behooves us (as the same orator said in the Senate in Caesar’s presence, speaking with divine inspiration) “to be such men that no oblivion will ever obscure our praises.” But this question pertains to the enduring nature of minds, about which I have no little so say below. To conclude, if every great-minded man’s struggle should be for freedom, we should gladly place our trust in those things that have been explained about the superiority of the goods of the mind since, as soon as a person judges something other than the honest to be a great good, he falls under the sway of fortune and is governed by the dictates of something outside of himself. So this conviction contains no difficulty and is supported by the soundest of argument, and it begets unbelievable advantages.
122. I was next led to the third column, the inscription was one by which I was admonished:
WE SHOULD NOT REGARD THAT WHICH BELONGS TO ANOTHER AS OUR OWN PROPERTY
It was established in the preceding explanation that the goods of the body and of fortune either are not goods, or certainly not great ones. But let us now concede that they are goods, of whatever sort they be: yet how can this help u, s since they are not ours, nor granted us as property or by a personal tie, but rather wander hither and thither of their own will, in accordance with a decision that is not our own? Our goods are our thoughts and honest appetites. These are free and admit no external impediment. Wealth, health, glory, and the other goods of that kind are said to belong to fortune because they both come and go without our having any say in the matter. As Epictetus teaches, “If you regard only that which is as your own as truly yours, and consider that which belongs to another as belonging to another, nobody can frustrate your wishes” and this is no small thing — you will have no cause to reproach anybody, the entire course of your life will be filled with an incredible freedom. “If by some faulty thinking you have persuaded yourself that what belongs to another is yours, you have plunged yourself into constant difficulties.” You will look forward to things, as if they were guaranteed, which will not come, you will promise yourself much which will not occur as you desire, and from this will immediately come anguish of mind, the due reward of your folly. Then you will complain about God and men for being unfair or incompetent, because they do not manage things as you would like, although it is you who are being both foolish and unfair for imagining or wishing what is not yours to be yours, contrary to the demands of reason. Your lands are taken from you by violence, you are cheated out of your money, your coffer is looted: having experienced these losses you groan. And why so, pray, unless that you wrongly fancied that to be yours which in truth belonged to fortune, not to you? Fortune demanded the return of what it had bestowed, you returned that which a little earlier you had received as a loan.
123. But you will say, “Even if I possessed this as a loan, it was not right for the loan to be called in so quickly or to be stolen by fraud or violence,” and this is all the more galling if the man who cheated you was a bosom friend. You fool, does it escape you that no time was appointed, no day fixed for your repayment, but rather that the loan was entrusted to you on the condition that its repayment could be demanded at any desired hour, and by whoever and in whatever way the lender saw fit? “What concern is it of yours,” says Epictetus, “what sort of man the creditor employs to recall the loan, I mean whether it is a rascal or an upright man who is sent as a messenger demanding repayment?” For these things are irrelevant, they are the choice of fortune, which served as your creditor. Perhaps another man will rail at you and mock your reputation, although you did nothing to deserve this, and another man will furiously seek to encompass your ruin, scorning the laws of humanity. Here you immediately grow angry because you have persuaded yourself that honors are due you from all men, and that honors are your personal property. And so you regard as an enemy and a slanderer the man who is not deferential to you, or who works against your reputation or impugns your nobility, not considering that what you demanded belonged to the category of things outside yourself and are the property of another, and it was therefore unwisely and rashly done by you when you took for granted something belonging to another, possessed of an uncertain outcome. This man mocks you as stupid or deformed: what about it? That one scorns you as poor or ignoble: what about it? Another slanders you and denounces you in public: what about it? Surely you are not so destitute of counsel that you allow yourself to blaze up in wrath over this, rather than enjoying another man’s rascality and madness? Perhaps you strike him thus, and he’s speaking what he feels. Indeed, you are ridiculous if you get mad because he doesn’t have the opinion of your that you would like, nor values you as highly as you seem to yourself or how you demand yourself to be regarded. Surely it is not in your power to shape the images of things pent up in his brain and arrange another man’s thoughts into that form of syllogism from which would arise (if it please the gods) some necessary assent to your praises? Not even God Himself assumes such power over thoughts. I admit that injuries are engendered by folly.
124. And surely it is not up to you to make fools wise? You barely have that power over yourself, so see what you can do concerning someone else. And what do you expect from fools save foolish and unreasonable things? Sometimes fear of the law and harsh punishment represses injuries that otherwise break forth, i. e., the fruit of folly. But they cannot do away with the tree and the root, I mean the folly. Socrates in Xenophon displayed a certain means of calming his mind in the face of insults. When he saw some friend in a state of indignation, he asked the reason. The friend effusively complained to Socrates about a man to whom he has just offered a polite greeting. The man saw him but deliberately did not do his duty and condescend to return the greeting, but rather scorned at is if otherwise he would have been obliged to be friendly. Socrates said, “So you are upset about something that ought to make you happy, that you are found to be more polite and kind than someone else?” By this same yardstick we ought to turn other men’s misdeeds and insults to our own advantage. Cato the Censor was wont to say “fools are more profitable for the wise than wise men are for fools,” because the wise man can observe how disgraceful their errors are and take particular care never to resemble them. But fools haven’t the sense to derive any profit from the words and examples of the wise.
125. But, so that my pen, which is beginning to go astray, may be recalled to its path, I shall draw examples from familiar and everyday experience. You are invited to dinner or a banquet, where you are not given a seat befitting your dignity, I mean the kind of seat that your breeding, wealth, intellect, virtue, good deserts, or whatever other excellence you posses,s and upon which you preen yourself, requires. Another, who strikes you as not worthy of comparison, gets a more honorable seat and is preferred to you. Likewise, you knock on the door of your prince or some other leading citizen and are not let in, you are ignored, and meanwhile there comes along some three-penny man and the dining room is immediately thrown open for him. Do you become indignant at the fellow? You don’t know how much he paid to purchase this easy access to his host’s conversation and household, or that better chair at the dinner-table. One such enjoyed a kinship with the master of the house or the host of the banquet. Another was induced by a trifling reward to be his agent in a crime. Others mount up to that kind of grace and favor by flattery, perjury, or the performance of some secret and shameful service, whereas you, who have not done well by Mine Host by any such means or obsequiousness, nor have ever undertaken to do any wrongdoing for his sake, do you expect to earn or receive equal treatment with those who have earned it from him by fair means or foul? When you go into the market where they sell dainties or to the butcher’s, if you don’t bring home some fowl, vegetables or sweetmeats, as did those who paid for them, you who have not paid anything are nothing but a lunatic if you take it amiss. Why are you annoyed if in any matter you, who have not paid, are not given precedence over a man who has? But perhaps you are meanwhile grumbling to yourself about your virtues or some other merits which seems great to you, because of which you imagine there’s nothing that’s not owed to you. I would have you consider this as you are betaking yourself to the market, bent on buying lobster or thrushes for your dinner, wouldn’t it better to do without that well-wrought sword you have at home, or horse-bosses, or a sweet-sounding lute, rather than money for food? In the same way, the man whom you complained about for cutting you dead bestows his honors in exchange for certain flatteries rather than for virtues. But you’ll again tell me this as a vice and accuse him improbity for not according first place to virtue. In the first place, virtue does not care for rewards of that kind, and in the second, you perhaps value your merits higher than they in fact deserve. In the third, you didn’t go to his house at present so as to chastise his vices, but that you might have a meal or meet some man with whom have dealings. And you need to appreciate this too, that this is his shortcoming, not yours, and so you ought not to be bothered by concern over a matter beyond your control. And surely, if you carefully consider what bothers you, it’s his contempt of yourself.
126. DEM. Certainly these considerations have a great application in all our life. I’ve often seen magistrates both sacred and profane, and also prelates, who have much more readily conferred a benefice, a holy responsibility, or stipends for education on a pimp or kinsman of some whore than on the best of men and those must suitable for undertaking responsibilities both private and public.
FLOR. And you, Demetrio, who recently, relying on your dignity of appearance and sweetness of character, seemed to be paying a lot of attention to your amorous adventures, have you come across some woman who preferred Thersites to yourself, and who was willing to follow some worthless buffoon through rocky places and burning fires?
DEM. For a long time now I’ve deserted that kind of campaigning, I have given myself the wooden sword. But I have indeed seen no few women of that disposition, both comely and born of good enough pedigree, who have disdained suitors worthy of a Helen, who could not be swayed by presents or entreaties, or (to use Horace’s phrase) “the violet-tinged pallor of lovers,” but who nevertheless were all but mad for some poor deformed dwarf, either a victim of what they call the French Disease or the gout, taking no heed for their reputation.
127. FLOR. What do you fancy the cause could be, unless perhaps the man has some surpassing hidden merits, or because there is some similarity in their unfortunate personalities because of their temperaments, or caused by the stars which diverts their minds and affections in a different direction than one would hope for, so that Nisa is bestowed on Mopsus. Therefore the man who is troubled by absurdities of this kind is being silly, as does the man he promises himself that he will attract another person’s affection to himself, a wandering affection by nature and one wont to gad about rashly. There is more wisdom in that kind of thought which, while experiencing appetite, evaluates what belongs to ourselves and what belongs to another. Here blind self-love is wonderfully wont to deceive us. For if there is anything in us (and nobody does not imagine he has something great within), be it an endowment of the body or of character, we value it as highly as the affection with which we embrace ourselves, we always keep it before our eyes, and, not content with this, we think we are as highly esteemed by others, or at least that we ought be, nor do we reflect that in the meanwhile other men are harboring thoughts about their excellence not dissimilar to our own, and are preoccupied with themselves no less than we are. For other men are no less dear or pleasing to themselves than we are dear and pleasing to ourselves. “Are the Atreids the only ones among mortals who love their wives?” asks Achilles.
128. From this recognition of those goods that are not our own, that common pride which typically arises because of beauty, strength, wealth or breeding is repressed. This line is well known, “There is pride in the fair, and haughtiness attends upon beauty.” Another man thinks to himself, “But I am of the race of Cecrops,” like the man in the same poet, who was “Puffed up and full of Nero, his kinsman.” The Greeks likewise have a proverb, “Satiety begets hubris, and ignorance combined with license creates folly.” Epictetus says, “If a horse waxes proud over its comeliness, strength, and swiftness at running, it appears to have some reason. But if the horse’s master preens himself and thinks highly of himself on that score, he will be absurd, since those endowments which make him supercilious reside in the horse, not himself.” In no different wise, the goods of the body and fortune are not ours, but the mind’s wisdom and the virtues are. Thus the proper virtue of the vine is its abundance, not being tied to golden poles; that of a horse strength and agility, not a saddle or bosses; that of a sword, the keenness and strength of its edge, not a golden baldric or gem-encrusted scabbard; of a ship, its speed and its strong and handy design, not a silver prow or ivory-ceilinged deck-house. And so, were it permitted us to grow proud and puff up our minds, this could be done when we were aware of some excellent thing that concerns our mind, such as the constant acknowledgment and reverence of Almighty God’s majesty, placing no value on the pleasant things of this life, having no great fear of death, cheerfully doing well for another man when the occasion presents itself, remaining unmoved by insults — and not being made haughty of mind because of any excellence.
129. But, since the principle of wisdom and modesty pervades every kind of duty, that foolish and intemperate inflation of the mind finds no place there where true virtue dwells. From the same source that candor of mind whose course ought to be constant throughout our lives, receives support. You will others possessing many things which you cannot bestow on yourself nor expect from anybody. This man possesses excellence of intellect and learning, that one high birth and an abundance of power, another wealth and a beautiful wife, and a fourth praise for his accomplishments at home or in the field. Here there is no reason to envy anybody, both for many other reasons and for this one, that you understand that these have been bestowed on them, and are not the personal property of those who possess them, and so they cannot think themselves better than you for these reason. If they do so, they make themselves so low-down, pitiful, and altogether unworthy of being envied because great folly now has them in is grip and they are puffed up because of trifling goods which are not their own. You, on the other hand, persist in being loftier in your greatness, because you possess this good of the mind (I mean a wise contempt for trifling things), and nothing finer can befall a man, for this is something over which fortune has no control. Therefore this teaching of the third column ought to gain belief, deservedly and easily, since it inculcates nothing which is not approved by the common consent of all men who possess any measure of common sense.
130. Afterwards the fourth column confronted us, and over it was this statement:
BASELY AND IN VAIN DO YOU SEEK REPOSE FROM EXTERNAL THINGS
It has already been shown that se should have an ardent desire for self-perfection. It has likewise been shown what are the true goods which allow us to accomplish what we want, and what things, no matter how much goodness they possess, are not ours. Now, by rights, there next follows an admonition that (contrary to what is done everywhere) we should not devote so much effort to seeking for those external goods that belong to another, and from which there will never come any fulfillment or satisfaction of our mind. And it must be clearly understood that that which can render it more tranquil is to be sought within the mind, for that thing from which we can hope for absolute repose resides in the mind’s inner recesses. And I have at my fingertips a fourfold argument why the mind should cease from those wandering, beggarly excursions and seek true goods by remaining at home, where they are to be sought. First, because our wishes are usually so foolish that we sometimes beg the gods for things bound to hurt either our body or our mind.
131. It would be difficult to explain this better than did Juvenal, who wrote: “Led on by our mind’s impulse and blind, headstrong passions, we pray for wedlock and issue by our wives; but the gods only know what kind of children and wife these will be.” He also cites examples of the downfalls of the greatest princes, whom fortune elected to raise higher so their subsequent fall would be all the greater: “What overthrew men like Crassus, like Pompey, and he who brought the conquered Romans beneath his lash? Surely it was the post of highest advancement, reached by every possible device and granted by unfriendly gods.” He also cites two orators, one by the far the prince of Greek eloquence and the other of Roman, and “their copious and overflowing fountain of talent brought them both to destruction.” Poets recount stories about Theseus, one of which was how he prayed his grandfather Neptune to destroy his son Hippolytus, accused of debauchery by his stepmother. And after he had obtained this and the falsehood of the stepmother’s slander stood revealed, he fell into the greatest grief. Rightly, therefore, as Horace has it, “Let scorched Phaethon terrify you in your greedy hopes and let winged Pegasus provide you with a grave example, when he refused to carry Bellerophon.” It is such a familiar a thing that fortune obstructs our wishes than it does not need many words of explanation. No man is so happily born that he doesn’t have a good helping of folly inbred. Superadded to this, the kindness of fortune turns fools into madmen. How prudently the poet wrote of “men’s minds, ignorant of coming fortune and fate, and seduced by prosperity into not observing the mean in thing!” And how fitly Horace spoke of a man being “intoxicated with sweet fortune.”
132. So it is frequently better to enjoy a slender and obscure fortune than a lavish and illustrious one, unless we are gripped by such madness that we imagine it does not matter whether we be rascals or upright men. If this befalls good men, how they can be broken by the enticements of fortune! And he who gives wealth and glory to bad men, he is administering wine to the feverish, honey to the bilious, rich foods to the dyspeptic. Here the history-books provide an infinite number of examples. But what need have we of history-books, when every day with our own eyes we can see in every quarter the degree of insolence to which good fortune of pleasures and life is wont to bring those whom it catches in its friendly embrace? So when she smiles on you sweetly, you must be ready to take to your heels. You should “fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts.” Indeed, as is said to fugitive Moschus about love, “If she tries to kiss you, flee. Her kiss is evil, she has poison on her lips. If she says, ‘take these things, I’ll grant you all my weapons,’ don’t you touch them, for they are all infected with fire.” This too is troublesome, that we often hope for things that are mutually contradictory and can in no way be united, as when a man wants to devote a great part of his life to banquets, pleasures, and the the music of the lute, and nevertheless be thought excellent in philosophy or the martial art. We are not unfitly admonished about this thing by that fable of the crow, who when it was perched on a tree was enticed by a fox sitting down by the roots to challenge a swan in a singing-contest. When it began to sing, the food it had been holding in its beak fell out and the fox, quickly snatching it up, jeered at the crow’s boastful attempts. A related opinion is contained in some verses which I read in my boyhood but have not remembered with full fidelity. They were like this, or not very different: “A farmer was plucking sweet apples from a tree, which he was wont to give to his master in the city. The master, enticed by the sweetness of the fruit, transplanted the into a field hard by his house. But because it was an elderly tree, it quickly shriveled up after being translated, and the children died along with their parent. Then the sad master, railed too late at his evil choice, when there was no further hope for fruit, saying, ‘What has befallen me was just and done by the decree of the gods, it wasn’t enough just to pluck the fruit.’”
133. Just as in the academic disciplines many things sound plausible of you propose them separately, but if you combine them you immediately assault our ears with your absurdity: if you were to say that air is full of light and darkness, the thing would admit of no doubt, but if you were to say that it is full of light and darkness at the same time, all the gentlemen in your audience would jeer at you. So in moral philosophy many things can stand as separate propositions which you would strive in vain to conjoin. This is why it is said in the sacred Gospel that “no man can serve two masters,” meaning God and Mammon (a word taken from the Hebrew language), i. e., that no man can please both Christ and mankind. This is why we crave to gain praise effortlessly, to live a carefree existence in this troubled world, to be men and yet live here forever, to be at once wise men and lovers, to be both Christians and villains. We should always consider why decorum demands that we greatly shun this desire for contradictory things. There exist many things that are not repugnant by nature, and yet which cannot be brought into a combination, either because this life is short or because the human frailty is so great that it does not suffice for the variety of arts that need to be learned, or duties to be performed. Great and intimate understanding of philosophy does not rule out knowledge of many languages, indeed it is greatly helped by that. Medicine and poetry are not contradictory, nor, perhaps, possessing a papacy and possessing a scepter. But you won’t easily find these things in the same individual because for Man the difficulty of mastering noble arts and performing noble works is so difficult that each claims your full attention. The poet enthusiastically retires to glades and caves, spending his time with the Muses. The physician determines the faults of our bodies and mixes his remedies. The pontiff is wholly devoted to the care of souls, to which he applies himself by occasionally coming out of his harbor of tranquil contemplation. The secular magistrate hears civil cases and is concerned with the business of this present life. The result is that, since none can fully perform the work of another, it is superfluous for any one to make the attempt. And hence we must reduce the immensity of our ambitions and confine them within reasonable limits.
134. We must furthermore consider this, that we are very often frustrated in those hopes we pursue so ardently and so ambitiously. Which of us is such a dunce as not to know that what Homer says is most true, “Zeus does not fulfill every human intention?” But even if the result is as we would wish (as sometimes happens) and we gain a part of our wishes, our frequent experience is that it is taken away with unexpected swiftness, or indeed that it turns out much differently than we had anticipated and our brief happiness is turned into never-ending grief. Solon’s answer to Croesus in Herodotus, and also in Plutarch, is very well known. For he, who always kept the inconstancy of fortune before his eyes (as is the mark of a wise man), pronounced that “no man can be called happy before his life is ended.” And the stupid king, conquered by Cyrus in battle and taken captive, found this to be true. Juvenal says, “I pass over the king of Pontus and Croesus, who was warned by the eloquent statement of wise Croesus to consider the ending of his life.” But this is no legitimate reason to expostulate with fortune since, as the proverb has it, he who suffers a shipwreck cannot justly blame Neptune. Which of us is not taught by his own sad experience how fickle, how elusive, and how treacherous it is? Whom has it never cheated by snatching that morsel of food from his mouth? Should we expect anything surer from it? Fortune is traditionally painted in the guise of a blind woman, because if the very unfair disposition of its gifts. But assuredly it is not fortune that is blind, but rather us for knowing its nature and yet trusting it. We act just like a blind man colliding with a sighted one and accusing him of blindness. Therefore it was sagely written by Seneca, “Picture now to yourself that Fortune is holding a festival, and is showering down honors, riches, and influence upon this throng of mortals; some of these gifts have already been torn to pieces in the hands of those who try to snatch them, others have been divided up by treacherous partnerships, and still others have been seized to the great detriment of those into whose possession they have come. Certain of these favors have fallen to men while they were absent-minded; others have been lost to their seekers because they were snatching too eagerly for them, and, precisely because they are greedily seized upon, have been knocked from their hands. There is not a man among them all, however, even he who has been lucky in the booty which has fallen to him, whose joy in his spoil has lasted until the morrow. The most sensible man, therefore, as soon as he sees the dole being brought in, runs from the theatre; for he knows that one pays a high price for small favours. No one will grapple with him on the way out, or strike him as he departs; the quarrelling takes place where the prizes are, let us yield place to the competitors.”
135. There yet remains the most compelling argument for this teaching. Imagine you have the wealth of a Tantalus and or the treasures of the Arabs, imagine you govern the globe of this world, imagine that you possess a golden wand which can supply whatever you wish. Yet they cannot fill the maw of your desires or fill the empty place of your need, they cannot quench the ardors of your yearnings. Rather you will increase them, and whatever gain you have will be, as they say, “trying to put out a fire with olive oil.” You see what Cicero says, men abounding in these things most greatly lack what they possess. Just as a scabrous limb always needs scratching, so greed is never satisfied. If you ask the reason for this thing, reflect to yourself that the mind is incorporeal and supported by true and real goods, so you cannot satisfy it further with the other goods (which, as I showed above, are shadows of real things) any more than you can fill an empty and hungry belly with one of those paintings in which all manner of foodstuffs are are represented. If you have so much gold and jewelry that you can trample it underfoot, from this very luxury you will learn to crave more. And, like Narcissus gawking at his reflection in a fountain, “He gazed at the false form with his insatiable eye, and while he craved to quench his thirst, the thirst increased.” Therefore whoever is enamored with an insubstantial hope is destined to be captivated by renewed desires and a kind of moral dropsy whereby his thirst is always renewed. It is said that the famous Alexander, great in name more accurately than in truth, broke out in tears when he heard Anaxagoras lecturing on a multitude of worlds. Asked by his friends why he did so, he replied “Don’t I seem to you to be weeping with justice, when there are a number of worlds and I have not yet gained the mastery of one of them?” “The unhappy lad seethed at the narrow limits of his world, as if he were pent in between the reefs of Gyara and tiny Seriphus.”
136. You can also see them monarchs of our age confusing divine and human things out of their lust for rule, I mean for the sake of satisfying their ambition. They do not see that now a burden is imposed on their shoulders heavier than they can carry, and they rather ought to be seeking for a means to have other men share a part of the load than expand their power in such unjust and cruel ways. Magistrates should not fail their people in the face of some external threat; rather they should beware lest under color of law their desires or private interests are served. Therefore, as Seneca teaches, “Our hope and our mind, never content with present goods or those which are its own, but always looking to future things, should be, as it were, kept in chains, and we should act so that we seek riches, pleasures, honors, and whatever men are wont to crave, from ourselves rather than from fortune.” Let the mind trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire those things which are its own, and remove itself as much as it can from the goods of other sources, so that it might concentrate on itself, being most convinced of that said in Plutarch, that the trouble of minds can no more be relieved by an abundance of accidental things than arthritis can be by a nugget of gold, a hangnail by a ring, or a headache by a crown. But since nature has decreed that we must protect this life of ours, and this protection cannot exist without reliance on external things, this at least is taught as a precept, that we should not be attracted immoderately or with excessive eagerness to external things, as if any satisfaction or peace of mind will accrue to us from that source. We should only hope for that which is reasonable, setting ourselves in opposition to things which are very unreasonable. This, assuredly, is the mark of a great mind, to scorn those great things and prefer the moderate to the excessive. Let us follow nature as our guide, for it is content with a few things easily procured.
137. Let us establish certain frugal limits for ourselves, not begrudging other men their abundance or what is commonly held to be their excellences. For the gods do not grant all things to any one man, as is said about Achilles by Homer, “Father Zeus has granted a man one thing, but refused him another.” And not without reason did Plato like that quotation of Hesiod, “The fools do not realize that the half is better from the whole, and how much use there is in mallow and asphodel!” “Oh safe means of life,” says Lucan, “and a poor and lowly home, oh gifts of the gods not yet experienced!” For if we are not troubled to learn the lesson of frugality from external things, I mean from those to which true religion is foreign, let us heed the same poet describing the morals of Cato, a man of great spirit and character: it was his inflexible rule to keep the middle path marked out and bounded, to observe the laws of nature, and to risk his life for his country’s sake, as not for brought into being for himself, but for all the world, such was his creed. To him a sumptuous feast was hunger conquered, and a lowly hut which scarce kept out the winter, was a home equal to palaces; equal to a robe of price such hairy garments as were worn in the old Roman way; and greatest purpose of marriage was offspring. To the city he was both a father and a husband. He cultivated justice and was a champion of severe honesty. No thought of selfish pleasure crept into Cato’s acts, claiming a part for itself.”
138. Horace very aptly spoke of “the golden mean,” which, however, ought to be interpreted so that inclines more towards poverty than towards wealth. And so that our affairs might entirely be in safe shallow waters, even as we chase after those few easily-procurable things, it will not be without use for us never to promise ourselves anything for the future without adding that Homeric condition, “as long as such is the will of the gods who possess the wide heaven.” Just as those who are about to arrive at harbor enjoy confidence as long as the winds permit, so you too, if your are wise, will fear fortune’s inconstancy, and, if I may use Ovid’s words, “ you should think that the things that strike you as happy when you speak of them are capable of turning out to be sad ones.” For sudden unexpected turns of events have given rise to that proverb, “there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.” And so, as Seneca says, “a wise man promises himself nothing concerning fortune, but rather says, ‘I shall sail, if nothing prevents me. I shall be made a praetor or a consul, unless something stands in the way.” This is the mark of the wise man, to be freed, not from mischances, but from human miscalculations, because he will be of a much calmer mind after being deprived of something he did not promise himself. The consequence, therefore is that restrained hopes, when it comes to the possibilities of this life of ours, afford us much protection against fears, pains, and other mental disturbances of that kind. There are some horses which have such a keen and high-spirited temperament that if you relax the reins while you are riding them they kill themselves by their excessive swiftness, and in the same way there’s nothing which brings us to troubles of mind swifter than an excess of wanting, while, never content with what we have to hand, at a mad gallop we madly rush to the newer and the greater. Do you want to put our finger on our iniquity towards God and our ungrateful minds? What benefits and rewards do you think a man deserves who, when he has received much that was freely given, insults God by being able to receive more, always gaping for things to get more and forgetful of that which he has? We cannot deny that we are such, men who constantly take more pleasure in that which is in the future and not own than what is at hand and ours.
139. But why am I lingering on this discourse when such a multiplicity of examples offers itself everywhere that I discover that it in practice it is a business requiring no less wit and care to epitomize large and widespreads things succinctly than to enlarge upon and amplify upon things which are barren and restricted with a copious and flourishing oration? Indeed I should be concluding my explanation of this inscription, except that while my pen was skimming along a new argument of no mean value, as I think, came to mind why we should never keep our minds in suspense by wanting or hoping.
FRANC. We liked your previous discourse, albeit it was a trifle subtle. But you would scarcely believe how delighted were by this one, which consisted of precepts and dealt more properly with the cure of minds. So you shouldn’t hesitate to produce this new argument, for we expect nothing from you which is not useful.
140. By our nature’s guidance we are brought to this pass that, if there is any deformity of either mind or body in us, we carefully conceal it lest, if it were revealed, our esteem or the favor we have previously incurred might be diminished. This is the reason why, even if we are not in fact wealthy, we nevertheless adore to go about in that costume which suggests wealth rather than poverty. Unhandsome and discolored women who desire to attract a lover very carefully comb and preen themselves, and resort to cosmetics. And those who are unlearned but desire to appear so in public dispute at the top of their lungs. In sum, we display ourselves when we might gain praise and are pleased to conceal ourselves when criticism or obscurity of reputation might ensue. And yet we are unaware and ignorant about preserving our reputation for excellence of mind, something of which we should feel much more bashful and take much more trouble to conceal, I mean the unhappiness pent up in our hearts, and our lack of all good things, and by openly and impudently flaunting our desires we bring these things to light and, as shrews are wont to do, by our own evidence we show what we are. It is not the mark of a truly wealthy man to chase after small advantages and meager profits. Nor does the man who keeps a well-stocked cellar at home seek cheap and nasty wine elsewhere. He who consorts with great beauties whenever he wants is not captivated by any ordinary pretty face. He who is consummately trained in music scorns the unlearned street-song. I have heard by rumor that when the Venetians recently offered to make him a patrician, if he wished, Charles Caesar replied, “up to now I have thought my Austrian house was sufficient for a noble pedigree, so that I do not particularly care about this enlargement of yours.” It is manifest, and a matter of common sense, that no man greatly admires or chases after things he already possesses in abundance, but rather admires and seeks what he lacks So whenever we seek for pleasure, wealth, or external honors, are we not showing clear signs of a greedy, needy mind? We are showing men that our affairs cannot stand without external support, and by affecting greatness in the wrong way we display our smallness. What clearer evidence of a poverty-stricken, beggarly, dissipated and isolated mind can there be than to be carried hither and thither at mad gallops, demanding now this, now that, always trying to escape oneself, unable to bear one’s own company? Do these things not sufficiently proclaim that at home we are suffering from a lack of many things, and that within the chamber of our mind there are certain fumes of depraved desires which are constantly forcing us to go outdoors?
141. And assuredly, as when a diseased body refuses what is proper to it and develops an appetite for absurd things, so the mind, not captivated by its own goods, is distracted by various mad concerns. And so we should be possessed by a noble sense of shame over this abject beggarliness and by a spirited contempt for beauty, honors, pleasures, and vulgar works we should demonstrate that we have a certain kind of domestic opulence which we can confidently display when we wish. What need have I of your honors, fortune, when the very virtue of my mind makes me honorable even in the eyes of the beings of heaven? To what purpose is your beauty or your pleasure, girl? Do I not possess something of beauty in the splendor of my wisdom and the balance of all my affections? Does not loveliness belong to that divinity, which is loveliness itself, which I carry around contained in my mind? Does the native handsomeness of my mind have no value? Is there no pleasure beyond than that which we share in common with swine and donkeys? Is self-possession not wealth? Or to possess God, that boundless Ocean? But what am I doing? The more I contemplate the mind’s distraction, the more vanity I find therein. Surely I should not be a beggar and seek to have my poverty relieved by another beggar, or foolishly seek water from pumice? They from whom I seek satiation are needy themselves. Even the kings who enrich you are not without their lacks, nor are the beauties who falsely promise you pleasure and whom you hope to make you happy if you can possess them withut their pains. They too are beggars, they are unhappy. And so it is in vain that you seek repose from outside your own mind or from any source but God, Who is never not within you, and is also the sweetest, unless you refuse Him. But as it is said in those golden verses commonly said to be by Pythagoras, “We wretches fail to see that the goods we seek are here at hand.”
142. It is very well said by Aristotle, “A man who lives a solitary life is either like a beast, being unfit and unsuited for human intercourse, or like a god, relying on the inward greatness of his mind and having no need of a throng.” I have quoted this so that it might be understood that to the degree every man is excellent he is less concerned with external things, and, on the other and, a constant variety of concerns in the mark of a poverty-stricken mind. Socrates said, “It is the characteristic of the gods not to need anything, and of the men who are closest to being godlike to need as little as possible.” When this same philosopher once saw a large store and variety of things for sale in the Agora, he said to a friend, “Oh Zeus, how much I don’t need!” For him, his rich mind and private kingdom, which supplied him with all things, was all the more splendid because he went hungry amidst such abundance. Diogenes neglected to search for a runaway slave, and when asked by a friend why he had done this he replied, “it is unworthy of him to do without Diogenes, and unworthy of Diogenes to be able to live without him.” When Anaxagoras was notified that had been condemned to go into exile and live without Athens forever, he said, “Athens is also condemned to live with out me forever.” If the men I have just mentioned seem too humble (although there is no humility in things, when wisdom is present) for us to imitate (for the profession of philosophy is commonly mocked), for the sake of our advantage we still should nevertheless embrace those ways of living which confer greatness of mind on us, and a carefree and tranquil one at that. If once we can disdain and set aside beggarliness, there will be no quarrels and squabbles between men, but rather a kind of common enthusiasm for maintaining our dignity will prevail in human affairs.
143. But since we all live here amidst this ambitious poverty, there is no end to the commotion of life and its tumults. You join me in seeking gold. You chase after this position or honor, and I do the same. You wish to be the only one, or at least the foremost one, in the eyes of that girl whose form captivates you and whom you adore, and I do the same. This is a kind of shared beggarliness and, as Hesiod says, “beggar is jealous of beggar.” If you leave these vulgar desires to someone else and recall yourself to your true wealth, you have conquered, and you are truly great and possessed of the greatest things. He, basely deceived and imagining himself to live in the lap of luxury, as he is disgracefully and wretchedly set amidst his shadows of dinners and banquets, is tortured by constant starvation. These are the reason why we conceal, indeed why we banish, our disgraceful ways. This is a reality of wealth. These are the surest pledges of a divine mind, wrapped up in no pandering allurements.
DEM. So we should retire from the throng. We should not become involved in our republic, we have no ned to help our kinsmen or friends, and we should have no dealings with mankind. For this private wealth of minds appears to be self-sufficient.
144. Inasmuch as “we are not born for ourselves,” you should pay attention to this: whether you need other people’s help, or whether then need yours. Certainly a man who aspires to be praised for his perfect humanity should, like Cato (as Lucan has it), “think he is has been born, not for himself, but for the whole world.” And so it is not within our power not to expend our effort on relieving men’s dangers, “unless," as Cicero says, “we are unafraid of being reproached for unkindness or arrogance.” For avoiding effort is a mark of sloth, turning one’s back on suppliants one of arrogance, and neglect of friends one of improbity. It certainly is a stupor and hardness of mind to grant nothing to friendship. Indeed it is taught by the wisest of men that struggles on behalf of one’s republic are not to be avoided. And so whatever resources for helping we receive from either nature or fortune we should first and foremost contribute to the common good, and then to each individual to the degree that he is in need and nearest to us. In my opinion a great lawsuit is to be lodged against those who never sally out of the harbor of contemplation and enter into the ocean of human activity. Nor indeed can we be industrious, merciful or dutiful if we plunge ourselves into literary studies and this sheltered way of life to the degree that we refuse our support to our nation or friends in their hours of need. And yet those men are not to be criticized, but rather they are singularly deserving of phase who, since they are men of powerful intellect, have removed themselves from the throng and not become involved in everyday affairs, so that with greater convenience they might someday publish the observations about truth they have devised in their minds and the things they have invented, and commit them to monuments of literature. For if their studies concern things useful and worthy of the thinking, they greatly help the society of mankind. But at this point this is to be observed, it is one thing for a man to be debarred from serving his republic for all time, but another for him to take a voluntary vacation. I recall what I once read in St. Augustine, “charity requires pious leisure, but charity’s obligation undertakes its legitimate task.”
145. If nobody imposes this burden, then we should invest our free time in determining and contemplating truth; if one is imposed, it should be eagerly shouldered, but in such a way that afterwards there will be a return to that delight of contemplation, lest the mind, refreshed by no intermission of tranquil peace, succumbs under the magnitude of its task. But if a man could be wholly immersed in that light of divine contemplation, I should rise to my feet in his honor as if he were some divinity, and admit that he is above human affairs. Now, if you are not permitted to turn your back on the public advantage because of your contemplation of nature, this is much less allowed because of some personal reasons, if you are a man who can assist others with your help or advise. Some hide themselves away in secret places so that they might more freely enjoy pleasures without interruption. This is useless and indeed an unjust kind of men who live for themselves rather than for virtue, albeit one does not wholly live for himself who shuns the company of mankind. They put up some pretence and cite as their excuse the dangers of those who are involved in the light of public affairs and in the throng, But if they were subjected to careful scrutiny, it would often be possible to see other reasons, for example that they could not stand seeing other men in a more flourishing condition than themselves, or that their manner of life was such that they feared the light. Seneca writes that in his time such as Servilius Vacia, a former praetor. He, although a man of particular wealth, preferred nothing than to live at leisure in his mansion at Cumae, with the result that busy men used to exclaim, “oh Vacia, you alone know how to live!” although he was hiding more than he was living. When he traveled by, Seneca used to say, “Here lies Vacia,” as if speaking of a man in his tomb. Nor is that common saying “live in such a way that nobody will know you were alive” to be twisted into a defense of that slothful and useless leisure.
146. I am only warning that we should not become involved in life’s commotion rashly or like busybodies. For it’s one thing to be involved in civil live, but another to become plunged in pointless concerns. But let it be admitted that there’s much effort involved in helping one’s republic, one’s friends, or whatever men can be relieved by your aid (for the boundaries of humanity are always to be advanced and expanded), it still is not the mark of a noble mind to shun the difficulties of exertions associated with duty and honesty. Nor indeed would tranquility of mind be a great thing “if,” as Plutarch says, “idleness could nourish it or any praiseworthy exertion could destroy it.” I admit that fortune often ruins even the noblest undertakings, but it’s no reason for not shooting at a target because we don’t always hit it, since there can never be a greater shipwreck of honorable intentions. If we act as we should, even if things turn out otherwise than we hoped, there is a great deal of consolation in the awareness of having done our duty, especially since (as Cato says in Lucan), “it should be enough to do that which is praiseworthy, even if the honest never increases thanks to success.” As Cicero writes, “all praise for virtue lies in action.” And so every man should devote himself to that plan of life whereby he can be most useful both for himself and for others. Nuisances will never be lacking, but you will not be pained by these nuisances unless you allow yourself to be. I have perhaps been a little too loquacious on this point, but certainly (as it seems) not beside the point, both because the effort involved in affairs appears contradictory to tranquility, and because everywhere, both in cities and hamlets, you can see magnificent dwellings constructed where men pursue their gluttony and where stupid folk strain to stuff themselves under a showing of piety. And, to sum up the whole thing in a few words, we can not inappropriately apply what Cicero said only about old age to a variety of things. Let us say that not only old age, but every place, every association, every solitude, every leisure, every idleness is troublesome to those who have no inner resources for living well and happily. But on the other hand, for those who possess virtue and seek their stability and the security of their affairs from themselves rather than fortune whatever condition chances to occur is tolerable, for them every time is happy and flourishing.
147. So let us taken this as a given. Repose is to be sought from within, not without, and the true goods of the mind are to be sought with all effort, whereas external ones not at all, or at least very moderately. Here I could investigate the magnitude of both these kinds of effort, which is greater, perhaps, regarding those deceptive pursuits, a thing which the poets have elegantly expressed in writing of that stream which recedes from Tantalus as he vainly snatches at it and Sisyphus, laboriously rolling his heavy rock forever in the Underworld. And indeed, as young men sometimes are put off by a mistress’s insults and hauteur and transfer their love elsewhere, so this labor which only results in more labor can move us to embrace that brief form of effort which soon produces enduring repose. But I would prefer us to be deterred from this silly striving by the baseness and inconstancy of things rather than by its difficulty.
DEM. But can’t it happen that minds striving after good things can waste their time and effort?
FLOR. No, it is so far from the truth that minds earnestly seeking goods can be cheated or frustrated of their hopes that this very seeking (and I want you to understand me carefully) is a great kind of good, and an earnest will always reaps an incalculable profit from its effort. In addition, as I have told you above, no external force intervenes. In addition, too, God gladly supports this striving. But on the other hand, that desire which is attracted to external things is easily left abandoned in an even more ardent condition than it was, which is both baser and more excruciating. Now my description of this column’s teaching is completed, from which, I think, it is clearly that a lessening of common desires and a transferal of a mind to its own goods is necessarily required for the acquisition of peace of mind. In the face of such clear truth are we to hesitate? Amidst such urgency are we to resort to delay and plead any difficulty as our excuse? Were there any truth to support the other side, or if it offered any hope of peace, this delay could justify itself by the difficulty or obscurity of things. But since the matter stands otherwise, it is great stupidity if we delay any further.
148. Next I arrived at the filth column, on which was written:
DO NOT THINK OF YOUSELF WITH PRIDE OR BE PLEASED WITH YOURSELF, NOR LOOK DOWN ON OTHERS
We have now seen that we require a burning desire for our goods, rather than that base, useless beggarliness. But since that inflation of mind, out of which troubles are often wont to grow, does not exist only because of fortune’s indulgence, but sometimes because of our endowments of intellect and learning and our sense of excellence, things which appear to be among the true goods, it is scarcely amiss to have an added precept concerning the moderation of our sense and restraint of mental elation. A puffed-up mind breaks forth in boastful talk and contempt of others, from which trouble is deservedly brought down on us because of our immodesty. And although there are many other forms of immoderation and injury which disturb the peace of human association and society, and many inconveniences which we inflict on each other, yet no other is so widespread or works its harm more gravely than men’s arrogant pride and contempt. It is indeed this inflation of mind which drives men to inflicting nearly every manner of injury, and so it is given separate treatment here. Before the logic of this precept can fully be grasped, there is no small difficulty in it. It is said that once Chilo, asked what was the most difficult thing in life, answered, “to know yourself.” But if that self-love, I mean this immodest adoration of oneself so deeply ingrained in the mind, is born out of self-ignorance. Thus it comes about that we regard the praiseworthy and useful qualities which the dispensation of heaven’s providence desires to be common, and the particular property of no single man, as bestowed on ourselves alone. We likewise consider ourselves alone worthy of glory and benefits, and cheerfully allow ourselves to be worshiped, not so much by others as by ourselves. In whatever field of endeavor we devote ourselves, we crave to seem the leading men of all its principal arts, and for nobody to be our equal. In sum, we think that whatever honor or profit is added to others is subtracted from ourselves.
149. From this same source derives our propensity for being ready to shift the blame onto someone else if we do something wrong. We desire everything to be permissible for ourselves, but little or nothing for others. With what piety we raise our eyes skyward over other men’s lusts or misdeeds, indignantly wondering that something of the kind could have occurred! We sedulously hunt, and happily listen for things we can criticize in others, and (the mark of the worst of characters, by far) sometimes we ourselves manufacture them. With a grimace we regard this man as deformed or a fool. We scorn that one as a sordid womanizing wastrel. We hatefully attack another as arrogant and (nothing more insane) we are sometimes in the habit of prying into the secret and silent thoughts of a man’s mind, as if we dwell in men’s hearts, and in this way we denounce them: “he does not believe in Purgatory,” “he is hungry for fowl even on solemn days of fasting,” “he does not accept the seven Sacraments and his thinking is contrary to our great religion.” We are very troubled lest God be provoked by other men’s sins, we fear lest the earth open up and swallow us alive, and we convince ourselves we have done our duty well if we stoutly accuse others of their errors. This would almost be tolerable if we only raged against other men’s vices. But as matters stand, not content with those odious accusations, if any man, relying on some wisdom of his mind, is a little stand-offish from the crowd and does not join us as a comrade when we are going to a banquet or a brothel, we interpret this as arrogance and scorn. If he dissimulates or disdains the injuries he has received, or forgives them for Christ’s sake, we contemptuously call him a timid and stupid little Christian. If he does not resort to whoring, we explain this in terms of a cold temperament or miserliness. If he spends his money freely and we get nothing, he is a spendthrift (but if we do, he’s a liberal man). Not to pursue this in detail, by a certain depravity of nature we convert the very virtues into vices, being persuaded other men’s humiliation, no matter how unjust, immediately enhances our excellence. On the other hand, we don’t see what is in the wallet we carry our own backs; if we could see, we wouldn't’t so easily descend into mockery and contempt of others. But, just as the clowns who make us laugh are unaware they are clowns, thus our folly escapes us. Why did I say it escapes us? Indeed we give the vices the names of virtues and when we turn our eyes towards ourselves, good God, how handsome are our moles, our warts and wens, and even our lameness! Arrogance is high-mindedness, squalor is frugality, lust is affability of character, and stubborn ignorance of religious matters is piety and sanctity. It is a given that everything we ourselves do is welcome, although it would be better candidly to excuse other men’s faults and gladly lessen our own.
DEM. I don’t think you mean we should not criticize wrongdoers, since you yourself sometimes inveigh against men in high places.
150. FLOR. I scarcely mean that, but I do say that it behooves us to employ great moderation, especially when you are criticizing someone by name. First you need to beware lest this be done out of an enthusiasm for backbiting, then both the occasion must be heeded, so that some benefit may seem to ensue from it, for example that when a young man hears criticism of naughty men he himself might be less disposed to naughtiness. Then you must take care that no secret is revealed, but when it has been disclosed, then the offender is to be criticized in such a way that what he has done is so manifestly criminal that a better interpretation cannot be placed on it. Then to, there is something which concerns your candor and kindness of character, which is to exaggerate his praiseworthy features and to reduce your criticisms. And you won’t be lacking in ways to do this reduction and exaggeration if you are not deficient in the candor of our humanity. That which you say I have done does not contradict this, since it is a very different thing to attack targets by name and out of a desire to make them unpopular by embroidering on their mistakes, than to speak only in general terms, out of a concern for the public welfare, about their negligence, which militates against preserving the due honor of our everliving Christ and true God.
151. But to return to the point where I digressed, by that inflation of thoughts we often arrive at such great insanity that we are not fit company not just for other men, but also for very own selves. We choke ourselves with our pent-up anger; silently (albeit in vain) we are angry at heaven itself if we see others enjoying something magnificent that we ourselves lack, if others are preferred to ourselves, since we fail to appreciate that it is uncivil to expect every the greatest helping from every dainty dish at a banquet, or to have it set before ourselves alone. For he does no differently who, having no consideration for common society, desires that everything that happens will be for his own good and advantage, and always claims first place. Rightly, therefore, it is written by Plato that every man should “avoid immoderate self-love.” For love deceives us. Since is true when we fall in love with others, how much more so when we fall in love with ourselves! And this immodest love and elation of mind comes about when that most famous precept KNOW THYSELF is neglected. For, to be able to be kings of kings, we should constantly brood on this, that we are trifling things and living beings depending on the precarious breath of life; that whatever we own is on loan; that everything comes from God; that nothing occurs that is not by His will and permission; that although we promise to do great things, our proud spirits can be stifled in a moment; that all our hopes can be frustrated unexpectedly and our enterprises turn out otherwise than we anticipate; and that our lives, on which depend all else, can be snuffed out at the very moment we are the most puffed-up. Who is no wholly crestfallen when he carefully reflects on these things, so that the swelling of his mind subsides?
152. He appreciated this who thought we should avoid proud boasting, because “no man knows what the night and day will bring.” Paul, that great interpreter and teacher of Christian piety, said “And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why doest thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” Imagine (although this is granted to none but God) that you are by far the most surpassing concerning everything praiseworthy in all things, that nobody can be found comparable to yourself, and that you seem like some god among mortals. It will be in your best interest not only to acknowledge the Author of such great gifts with gratitude, and also, to the extent that you are more lofty, to conduct yourself in a more humble manner, and to consider you have attained to this rare state of splendor, not so you might arrogantly scorn others or proudly trample on them, but so that by supporting and assisting the infirmities of others you might imitate the excellence of Him Who is greater than anything else (and this means He is also better), Who granted you such great things, undeserving as you were, on the condition that He can take them back when He wishes. This odor of moderation is most welcome, nor is there anything more popular than humanity. Pride and arrogance, on the other hand, alienate both God and Man from us. David, that most pious of the Kings of Jerusalem, chided by his wife the daughter of Saul because he had been seen dancing amidst the common people before that mystical altar, reproached her womanly vanity, proclaiming that that royal enhancement, which he acknowledged to come from God, was going to be for him grounds for modesty, not arrogance, saying “It was before the Lord, Which chose me before thy father, and before all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore will I play before the Lord. And I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight: and of the maidservants which thou hast spoken of, of them shall I be had in honour.” Taxiles, one of the Indian kings who came to meet his conqueror Alexander, addressed him with words no less wise than noble: “I challenge you to a contest, not of arms but of something far more noble: if you are my inferior, receive my benefit; if you are my superior, confer it.” This king of great wit readily perceived that to the degree that one is the greatest, therefore he should be the most benevolent and kindly. Nor am I reluctant to recall the singular modesty of King Ptolemy son of Lagus. When he wished to convict some grammarian of ignorance, he asked him who was the father of Peleus. The grammarian pertly turned the insult back on him, asking “First you tell me, oh king, who was the father of Lagus?” He was reproaching the king for the obscurity of his ancestors, for Lagus was one of Alexander’s ordinary soldiers. The king was so far from commanding his friends to take revenge for this insult that he condemned himself rather than the grammarian for his forwardness, saying, “If it is royal not to suffer himself to be attacked by anyone even in words, assuredly it is no less royal not to employ words to harm anybody.” So it is wonderfully conducive both to avoiding offenses and gaining good favor if we hold nobody in scorn.
153. There is no man who does not by a certain natural instinct feel there is something divine within himself, which obviously requires to be worshipped. Thus, no matter how great the man who looks down on you may be, the man who is looked down upon or abusively dismissed fees chagrin and indignation at being held in contempt, as it strikes him that he is suffering a diminution of that natural majesty of what I spoke. And, just as there is nothing that can make you grow angry at a man more quickly than criticism, there is no easier way to win men over to yourself, particularly those of fine character, than praise. Hence Socrates says in Xenophon, “Expressions of praise have the power of philters and incantations, and so the Sirens used these when they wanted to attract Ulysses” For thus they made their beginning in Homer: “Come hither, noble Odysseus, great glory of the Greeks.” So we should never be like mordant Momus or reproachful. We should never pluck the flowers of another man’s dignity with the foul teeth of envy. We should not only display favor towards other men’s established praise, but also praise when it is a-borning. If someone outstrips us in praise, we ourselves should help him on his way. In passing judgmen on characters we should repay vices with virtues. We should concede much to infirmity, and sometimes blame the mistakes of others on fate or mischance. And furthermore, when it comes to our own affairs, an equal humility of speech should accompany our mind’s modesty, nor should we speak about ourselves in a high-flown way for the sake of hunting praise. Boastfulness is a hateful thing, and it does the most to alienate others from ourselves. Those who are dismissive about themselves are favored by all, but the boastful are envied because he who, because of his excellence of dignity and fortune, boldly seeks to surpass and transcend normal limits appears to work harm against the equality of common right. Albeit a rhetoritician, Quintialian offers a philosophical explanation for this. For he says (and such is the case) that our mind possesses a certain lofty element which cannot tolerate a superior, and thus we willingly give help to the abject and self-deprecating, because we thus seem to be acting like their betters, whereas those who boast or extol themselves immoderately are hateful because by so doing they are not trying to make themselves greater, but to make others their inferiors. So let us have no boasting about ourselves. Let us proclaim nothing great about ourselves, indeed let us attempt to nothing that would justly have us branded with the reproach of arrogance. That is a wholesome precept, “guard against doing the things that incur reproach.”
154. And this does not just mean that we must be averse to all enthusiasm for glory, but also that we attach no importance to being held in contempt. For if a man seriously and wholeheartedly thinks modestly of himself will never be zealous for glory, so he will not be greatly moved if he is neglected by men. But when, because of our vehement self-love, “things that are not beautiful appear to be so,” like those hobgoblins they tell stories about, who wear eyes when they go abroad but take them off at home, so we constantly approve of ourselves, and indeed are unwelcome, impudent heralds of our own praise. But those who are little more bashful by nature, even if they do not openly proclaim themselves to be liberal or dutiful, likewise they sometimes freely expatiate at length on the benefits they have conferred on their friends, so that it necessarily comes out, even if more guardedly, that praise for kindness or dutifulness is being sought. Unless he is some Thraso, a man who has distinguished ancestors will not openly boast or announce that he is noble, but nonetheless will devote a lengthy speech (often not without the disgust of his audience) to rehearsing the pedigree of his forefathers, extolling the achievements in which the family distinction was created because of which he wants to be highly esteemed. Likewise you will discover among those who have spent their life in learning certain fine gentleman who, even although they blush to call themselves erudite, nevertheless cite many philosophical passages which they claim to have first been appreciated and understood by themselves. One will point out mistakes in Plato, Aristotle, Pliny, or some outstanding writer and will spend much time in scourging the writer over something where a suitable interpretation would without effort have done away with the entire tragedy. Another will tell you how the slim volume over which he toiled for ten whole years flowed from his pen idly and with spontaneity rather than being written, thus taking an indirect route to garner a reputation for intellect and learning. You will see others so boastful that it would be easier for them to be fire-eaters than not to spout about themselves. And it is a want of common sense which drives them to try to to stake a claim on the distinction due to foremost men.
155. We are all of us led on by a craving for praise, and sometimes we ardently burn for glory. The only distinction in this is this man strives for it more cautiously and guardedly, that one more openly and foolishly. But what I am saying should not be taken to mean that a man must always speak of himself abjectly: excess is never free of fault. But, although a middle course should be maintained, better for us to incline to the side of self-deprecation rather than of self-enhancement. Therefore, when an occasion compels to speak of our affairs, we should not sail out on the sea with full-spread sails. We should reef our mast and cling close to the shore, and when we must do something, we should comport ourselves that, even as we say nothing, the manner of our life and pursuits does not allow us to go without glory. Indeed, we should pursue moderation in all things, as is by far the most advantageous course, so that, the more fully and deeply we become known and examined, the more devotedly men will admire and love us, as they are always discovering more that has been kept in concealment than what we display or have openly promised. And, although there is much vanity in all human life, there is none greater than that which is involved in the pursuit of glory. What does it matter if that man ignores me? Surely I should not grow angry with him because my endowments are unknown to him, and are not valued as highly as I myself value them? By what law is he bound to do so? Many men are regarded as greater than they actually are, and some as lesser than they deserve. Now chose to which number you want to belong. And perhaps, if you become as valued as you deserve, no more and no less, this will please you less than the esteem you now enjoy. For you have no idea how highly you will be valued by individual men: if his one accords you less than your endowments require, there is another who regards you as excellent and outstanding, although you are barely mediocre.
156. And so (unless you prefer the appearance to the reality) try to be great, and don’t be concerned about how greatly you are valued. If some man keenly competes against you so as to seem the better, allow him that deceptive semblance of glory towards which he is madly attracted. The reason for his bilious persistence is that his proud nature sees somebody equipped to surpass him. You who are not dependent on opinion (the mark of a man who is actually excellent), should do what even schoolboys learn, “conquer when you can, but sometimes yield to your friend, since sweet friendships are preserved by being deferential.” It is a thing of singular prudence to allow what belongs to each man to seem fair in his own eyes, as the proverb has it. You should say and do things worthy of glory and, content with your awareness of having done so, be happy in your heart. Empty eggs float, whole ones sink. Where there exists the most windy boastfulness, there you will find the least of substance: rather the boaster’s awareness of his unworthiness is concerned about concealing it. Genuine virtue is carefree and unconcerned about such things. As they say, you don’t need to place an ivy garland around a bowl containing acceptable wine. It’s not yours to decide how much praise is owed to you, devote this care to our pursuits. For the glory of this character is that it shuns followers. It doesn’t wish itself to be sought, but rather the virtue from which it is arisen. This is virtue’s mark, not to chase after glory. Glory therefore pursues those who flee it, and attaches itself as a companion to noble deeds none otherwise than a shadow to a body set in the sunlight, as I recall I said above when I was digressing about the nature of glory. And if you are fleeing but somebody persistently follows at your heels wishing to put gold in your hand, but refuses to give it if you turn back to him, my opinion is that you should not look backward as long as something furnishes you with the strength to flee and keep on in your course.
157. If a man aspires to glory for false reasons and boasts that he can perform more than he is fit to do, claiming to vaunt himself in some respect for which he is unfit, he is, as they say, trying to wash a brick. Either envy, the passage of time or some occasion will bring his vanity to light. Simulated things do not endure, rather they return to their true nature and, just as the cosmetics with which women smear their faces is blown off by a light breeze, so celebrity acquired for false reasons and not supported by the roots of the virtues easily collapses. This is neatly expressed by Aesop’s fable about the jackdaw dressed in other birds’ plumage, who brazenly inserted himself into a flock of doves, and, being caught out, paid the penalty for his imposture. But why am I engaged so long in this opposition to the pursuit of glory, when this ought to suffice, that all praise and glory is owed to God alone, the Source of all praise and glory? And, since we have begun to think about excellence, God alone, the Author of all excellence, is to be kept before our eyes. It is indeed an unimaginably great sin to become mired down in thinking of some excellence of your own rather than, while you are pleasantly considering this benefit in your mind, thanking its Author for it. If you fail to do so, nor think of its origin and let your consideration end at yourself as if you have reached the end of the matter, you are in a sense usurping for yourself the glory of divinity, and you are not unaware how great a sin that is.
FRANC. I once heard some verses written by you on this very subject, in which you mention that excellent and singular man Antonio Bonvisio, one of my fellow countrymen. It would be most welcome and most pleasant to hear them from you once more.
158. FLOR. Albeit they are inept, just as their author (who has never studied poetry nor greatly devoted himself to it), I shall satisfy your enthusiasm. That man, albeit worthy of great renown for his excellent virtues, nevertheless greatly shrinks from gusts of praise. For by close association I have become familiar with the man’s very sound intellect. Therefore when I was living at London, for the sake of recreation I wrote those trifling verses in which, by means of a kind of personification, I showed that very few mortals can be found who are eager for virtue, although all strive to embrace praise, which is owed to nothing else but virtue. But this is a vain attempt, because there is no genuine praise where virtue is lacking. And furthermore, other men’s flattery, dazzling the mind’s sight with its false splendor, creates in us a harmful and vain conviction or our own excellence, although in point of fact, when we carefully scrutinize ourselves, it will be found to be nonexistent. If I recall aright, the verses are like this: “When Virtue ranged throughout the city with no companion, and no rewards of praise were accompanying her, she kept asking many men for a lodging, but none would give it. Soon thereafter Praise appeared and (wonder to behold!) suddenly the city went mad and ran to her embrace. But Virtue remained locked out just like before, and was compelled to go back to her solitary forest. When Praise discovered that Dame Virtue was missing, she left the ungrateful city and returned to her mistress. After her return, both went to Bonvisio’s house. Here Virtue was let in, but Praise shut out. For he, fearing she was hiding deceit beneath her pleasant exterior, said, ‘Go away, Praise, you who are harmful to goodly pursuits.’ And she replied, ‘It is in vain that you try to shut me out, Antonio, inasmuch as noble Virtue is staying here. Although she is unwilling, I follow my mistress wherever she goes, since I am nothing but Virtue’s faithful attendant.’”
159. Soon we came to the sixth column, and its inscription was this:
SINCE YOU ARE THE SLAVE OF PROVIDENCE AND NOT ITS MASTER, OBEY WILLINGLY AND EAGERLY
Obviously, the reasoning of this precept is most important. As it says in the proverb, this life has far more aloes than honey, and by a kind of fatal necessity we encounter afflictions and calamities. Now, since nature itself violently recoils from things which are bitter and whatever brings pain or sorrow, help is to be sought from all sources, and defenses are to be set in place by which, if we cannot entirely protect ourselves and ward off the ills which arise from fate or chance, we at least can assuredly mitigate and ease them.
160. Therefore we shall fortify this kind of defenses with reflections. In the first place, we must not be behindhand in considering into what condition we have been born, what is this place into which we have come, and what are the rules of this life and place. Then we must determine in our minds something which is most well proven, that all this universe is governed, not by chance, but by providence, and this means with consummate knowledge and counsel. And from this it manifestly follows that we must take in good part and accept for the best whatever occurs. Finally, from this chaotic and confused variety of human affairs we should not gather, as the impious do, that God exhibits idleness, indifference, or neglect for this world, but rather that there are certain secret and inaccessible workings of divine counsel, and likewise that there is a time and place after the end of this life where each man will be dealt with in accordance with the manner of the life he has led. But to return to the start of this threefold argument, we should carefully meditate on the fact that this life of ours is exposed to all the missiles of fortune: nobody always enjoys sunny days without some cloud intervening; we will be visited with diseases or poverty and suffer from financial difficulties; we shall be accused of a crime with which we have nothing do do; we will be visited with disparagement; we shall receive disgraceful scourgings, we shall be dragged off to jail, and indeed haled to our execution. This is the rocky road of life we all must travel, in traversing it we are destined often to stumble, sometimes to fall, we are set in that place, as Seneca says, “where there is thunder and lightning,” there “‘sorrows and vengeful cares have set up housekeeping, where pallid diseases dwell, and sad old age.'”
161. And what will the wise man do here, and the man to whom tranquility of mind is dear? He reflects that it was appointed when we were born into what a riotous company nature has brought us; he has come to the place where one lives under these condition. He constantly keeps before his eyes all the license of fortune, he turns his gaze in all directions, he concentrates on everything, and he thinks not only about what fortune should bring, but also about what it can, and what it usually does. He is not unaware of that saying of Publilius, “whatever can happen to anybody can happen to everybody.” Therefore while he is thus on guard in his mind, nothing strange or unexpected befalls him; he composes himself far in advance, so that he can appropriately and quietly suffer whatever mishap fortune may inflict, having a refuge and secure place prepared. For is shameful for anyone caught up in the storm of events complain, “how did I get here?” If he is forced into exile, he will think he was born there where he is sent. He will not be astonished to find himself enchained, placed in custody, or rent with steel, since he understands that the nature of the human body is such that it can be bound and lacerated. Set amidst perils and woes, he will not be amazed to have encountered one of those things which he understand to have hovered around himself at all times. He is not dumbfounded by the arrival of death, because he understands that it is the height of folly for a man someday to arrive at the goal towards which he has constantly been running. He will account his life and his body among the precarious, mortgaged things, and he lives as a man comfortable with himself and ready to return his life without regret, protecting it as something entrusted to his faithful care. To nature he will say, “I do not grumble or turn tail, take back from a willing man what you gave to him when he was unaware,” and, thus employing reason, he reduces to insignificance and consummate ease things which are commonly regarded as terrible. Whoever it was in Plutarch who said, “I have anticipated you, fortune, I have got there before, and I have blocked all your entrance-ways, no matter how narrow,” fortified his mind, not with bolts and nails, but with philosophical dictums. This is an excellent armament, and in fact the only one worthy of Man, against fortune’s harshness, this provision and preparation of mind, who constantly says to himself concerning fortune, “I see wars, I see wars being readied against myself.”
162. Thus speaks Theseus in Euripides: “I remember hearing of these things from a very learned man and I bethought me of my future woes, I brooded either on bitter death, sad flight into exile, or some burden, so that if some calamity chanced to be heaped upon me, sudden care would not rend me unprepared.” For so Cicero translates Euripides’ words. For this reason Anaxagoras was unmoved when the death of his dearest son was announced, saying, “I have removed him from my expectations, for I knew I had fathered a mortal.” In the way he received that news and reacted to his calamity this man is to be imitated, and we should display an equanimity equal to his, as best we can. You have lost your father, still flourishing in years, or your most beloved wife. What then? Surely it is no great or unusual thing is when a mortal dies? Your wife is sulky. Surely this didn’t escape your notice when you took her as the partner of your life? You are spurned and cheated by your mistress. Is it wonderful that this woman boldly plays the whore? You made a shipwreck of your estate? Were you unaware that all those goods belonged to fortune and were not yours? An unforeseen malady greatly torments you. Why was it unforeseen by your fault? It could not have escaped your notice how trifling a cause it takes to disturb the balance of our poor little bodies. Your servant is a lazy dunce. Let him be such. How many men are found who are strong both of mind and of body? If such exists, he would desire to be the master, not the servant Your old friend, paying no heed to your merit, has become alienated. When you struck up your friendship, did it escape your attention that you would be having dealings with a man who, even if he wished, could scarcely control any of his affections? It is necessary that they occasionally erupt and declare that we are not wholly rational. Here on this earth we do not live with perfect and wholly wise men, but with men with whom it is an excellent thing if even slight traces of virtue are visible. This is said with humanity: “You should not abandon a friend for a small fault.”
163. Although innocent, you are dragged off to a shameful death or the gallows. What is unexpected for a wise man in this murky inconstancy of affairs? How many memorable examples have previous times, and likewise our own, produced of shifting fortune, in which somebody who with a nod of his head can arrange for someone else, nay, for a number of others, to be hanged , is himself far more deserving of being brought to the gallows? Think of higher things, where there is no shame or disgrace. If you have done nothing to deserve it, by this thing you will actually be all the more glorious and excellent, to the extent that you can more manfully display contempt for what the common run of mankind wrongly thinks to be glorious. You have the beings of heaven as your witnesses. No kind of punishment is disgraceful per se, but because it is appointed as a punishment for wrongdoing. But we mortals, caught up in our error, do not strive to avoid wrongdoing: we shrink from its punishment as if it were the supreme evil, although there can be no greater glory than patiently to suffer an ignominious punishment for virtue’s sake. But why am I sailing out onto this vast sea of things? Let me curtail this self-indulgent digression, and by way of a conclusion let us decide that this life is no different of music: music is a harmony of the low, the high, and the middle, and life is made up of sad, happy, and tolerable things. As Plutarch says, quoting Menander, “grief and life are akin,” and, as Homer acutely observed, “there are two jars in front of Zeus’ doorway.” In one of these the good things are stored, in the other the bad, and Jupiter mixes from both and dispenses to mortals, although not always in equal helpings.
FRANC. Thinking on future calamities and anticipating troubles seems more conducive to the agitation of your life than to its tranquility. For, just as we often wrongly expect that good things will happen, so do we about the bad. So what good does it do the mind to entangle itself in the anticipation of some phantom evil that perhaps will never come? But suppose it will come for sure. What’s the benefit of voluntarily inviting this foreboding? Indeed, as it seems, the evil is doubled by dire forecasts of this kind, which make us fearful and gloomy beforehand. So heedlessness and unawareness is better than that foresight which always holds those terrible torments before our eyes.
164. FLOR. Your fine wit is so familiar to me that I have no doubt you hold a different opinion, as is shown by your argument. But a useful explanation of these difficulties will help you (and this is a proof of your excellence). And indeed what you are saying just now is no ignoble contribution to our understanding. This is the very conclusion Epicurus was wont to make, that very clever champion of he pleasures, who condemned this forecasting of evils for the selfsame reason, that it induces a premature sadness. Carneades wanted us to resent nature, and said that was lamentable that we have encountered these cruel necessities. But this abjection and softness of mind does not befit philosophers (by which I mean true men). At the outset I confess that ignorance and heedlessness are sometimes best, so that we might fear less, or at least not so quickly. This is the reason why Aristotle criticized some men who are eager to fight a war for not being truly brave, because that impulse does not come from the mind’s judgment and foresight, but from ignorance of the magnitude of the danger which exists in battle. Indeed this is also the rashness of flowering, youthful age, whereas fortitude and wisdom belong to adult years and old age. And this benefit that accrues to Man from his ignorance is to be repudiated for many reasons. First, because this specious loftiness of mind merits no praise, coming from such a vile source, I mean from oblivion and thoughtlessness. As I have often said, all Man’s dignity comes from the excellence of is intellect and reason. Hence full awareness is praiseworthy, and ignorance is culpable, and much more seriously so when it is wilfully acquired. For what else is it for a man to protect himself by ignorance than to reduce and demote his condition from being this divine living being, next to the gods in dignity, to that of the beasts, when the force of his mind (which ought to be sought from reason, and which wisdom should have informed) decides it must beg alms from stupidity and ignorance?
165. What army would choose a general lacking any foresight for the dangers of war? What men about to set sail would entrust themselves to a captain with no presentiment of the winds, no ability to forecast storms?And so fear is to be dispelled and banished by the counsels of wisdom, not the darkness of ignorance. This too should occur to you, that the blow is greater when unexpected, and unforeseen evils oppress you twice as much as ones you have thought much about beforehand. Next, anything corporeal, wisely evaluated and appraised by the mind, loses much of its value. The mind will readily see that whatever things either delight or torment the body are things of no value, since it is convinced that bodily things are perishable shadows, and that its own dignity endures inviolable. Furthermore, by thinking on future reversals the mind is stimulated to devise protections and arm itself, which cannot be done so readily at the very danger-point, or when the evil is close at hand. For “a man wearing a helmet is slow to regret a fight,” and that man is much more happy who is wise before receiving the blow, rather than after it. So commanders not unaware of these these things are far more highly esteemed by veteran soldiers, who are not unaware of the risks, than by inexperienced recruits. As Cicero says, meditation on the human condition, and the precept and plan of preparation, blunts and relieves pain. Indeed, these things are not what Epicurus says, I mean that we should always be distraught; quite to the contrary, it insures that we may never be distraught since we understand that these ills that could befall us hourly are nothing, while those which do not occur bring us an unanticipated profit. Finally, there is no place for the virtues if we take refuge in that disgraceful ignorance. For he is not temperate who does not chase after immoderate pleasures of the senses because he has no idea where they are or whence they are to be sought, nor is he genuinely brave who is unconscious of dangers and therefore fierce. But when, thanks to the counsels of the mind, these dangers are realized yet scorned, those available pleasures are rejected, how the integrity of duty may stand firm! I would not deny that it is permissible for Epicurus to shift his attention to something other than thinking about pain when the sharpness of present pain is pricking him in his mind, not because virtue enjoins this or itself desires to turn tail and hide, but because the perfection of that kind of virtue is rare which can ascend to a contempt and disdain of pain while evils are sharply wounding it.
166. But there will be a later opportunity to discuss this. To continue, although the logic of life’s laws can often strike us as unfair, we must resort to that consideration of heavenly providence, for when all the things which can befall us by chance and accident (unexpectedly, I mean) are referred to us, they take on the aspect of some fixed counsel. But in this profession of the existence of providence it is not implied that the only thing you should attribute to God is a general management of things: rather you ought to persuade yourselves that He is most present and inward everywhere, that he both sees and hears everything, including the most hidden things, and that nothing but the sinful (which He does not wish, yet but which He permits) is done that is not in accordance with His wish. Certain mean philosophers who have dared measure the magnitude of the divine intellect according to the measure of their own puny ones have refused to associate God’s foresight with these particular individual occurrences. But those more subtly instructed in these things, when they see this weak narrowness of our intellect enclosing the entire world in its thought and perceive running over many things in a single moment time, they perceive it is entirely plausible that the power of the divine mind can encompass every most minute detail in its intelligence. What about it? God is the most excellent thing and all this world is His creation. Things that possess reason have greater excellence than things that have no share of reason, and nothing more absurd can be said than that the Creator of such an excellent, well-ordered mechanism lacks a precise understanding of His handiwork, and that of which we can comprehend barely a small part with the full force of our understanding is not governed by reason. Therefore let us be entirely persuaded that God is the master and governor of all things; that whatever is done is done in accordance with His direction and divine will; that He deserves the very best of mankind; that He perceives what each man is, what he does, what he allows himself, and with what attitude and piety he reveres reason; that He keeps a full accounting of the pious and impious. “For minds imbued with these sentiments,” says Cicero, “will scarcely abhor from thinking useful and true thoughts.”
167. But, omitting a more detailed formulation of these things, let me return to my purpose. Since the power of that divine comprehension and government is so great, we should earnestly take care not to commit something which would be offensive in His sight. And since we suffer no adversity which He does not ordain, we must tolerate our afflictions and difficulties calmly and without any complaint or indication of an offended mind. As is very honorably prescribed, whenever some disgraceful thing beckons, “most of all you must have a sense of shame regarding yourself.” For it is a thing of singular praise for a man to find it intolerable for himself to be aware of some turpitude, even if this escapes the attention of others, and for him to do everything with himself the sole witness as if the whole world were patching. But that piety and reverence towards our immortal God is holier, for wherever you go He numbers your steps, and He is the witness and judge of the secret workings of your mind. If you refrain from improbity, not out of fear of punishment but so you will never insult His goodness, then you have arrived at the pinnacle of all virtue and excellence. If for His sake (not unaware that, just as He is the best of Fathers, so He is the wisest, and is looking out for your interests even amidst your tortures) you nobly bear your sufferings, by your virtue you have procured yourself a place among the heroes. If you grumble and are indignant that He is not managing your affairs well, you will be twice-miserable, both in your body, because it is tormented none the less, and in your mind, because you helplessly and indignantly succumb to the pains that are being visited on you by divine will.
168. Both of you must pay close attention and carefully heed me as I tell you something particularly beneficial. As Epictetus teaches, “this life is a play, God is the playwright, and we the actors. Each of us is given our mask by Him: to this man, the master’s mask, to that the slaves; to this the pauper’s, to that the rich man; to this the celebrity’s, to that the nobody’s; to this the ugly man’s, to that the handsome; to this the flourishing, to that the careworn.” Therefore, since we live our lives not according to our will but that of Someone else, let us decide to play our assigned part with a will, having no doubt that there is no less talent or praiseworthiness required for doing an excellent job of playing the part of Irus than that of Croesus. Nor is the difficulty ever to be alleged as an excuse. An old proverb is that we should imitate God. Unresisting and uncomplaining, let us join Cleanthes in following that supreme Father and lofty Ruler of heaven where He leads. For “destiny leads the willing and drags the unwilling,” as says the tragic poet. If we obey against our will, we are slaves; if willingly, we are servants. It is not so foolish as it is dangerous to kick against the pricks. All the things over which we groan or grow fearful are bestowed by nature, and in vain we ask or hope for immunity from them. Life’s highway is obstructed, and there is a great deal of dust and mire from which we cannot extricate ourselves without effort. Such is the nature of this dwelling place or hostel where we live, many evils must be tolerated. If you don’t like it, nature will tell you what German innkeepers sometimes tell their guests. For if you go into a common bath frequented by a large number of people of all sorts, and if you take offense and demand a private cubicle, or if you ask for your dinner late at night when nobody further is expected in the dining-room, even if you have the appearance of being a man of more than average wealth, the nasty little innkeeper will tell you, “If you don’t like this inn, look for another one. Here we live according to rules,” for he’s never going to do you these favors. And so, since we don’t care to quit this life, let us effect a reconciliation with our hostess, Dame Nature, let us accommodate ourselves to her character, and since what we want can’t happen, let us wish that which we can do, unless we would prefer to be dragged rather than led.
169. Besides this consideration of necessity, which ought to go far towards motivating us for these noble suffering, there is also the common condition of this necessity: the same necessity of diseases, mishaps and at length death unites ut all, there is nothing in you that is peculiar to yourself. If you seem to be being dealt with more hard-handedly that usually befalls the rest, let this comfort you: trees are stronger on their northern sides than their western or southern ones: harsh things are wont to strengthen us, daintiness to shatter us. And then you should think on this: in the field risky tasks are imposed on the bravest men; the general selects his choicest men to attack the enemy with nocturnal ambushes, or explore his route, or dislodge a garrison. This being the case, none of those who have been sent will think that his commander has done ill by him, but rather that he has judged aright. In the same way, when we suffer the hardships that fearful cowards regard as lamentable, we should consider ourselves worthy of God, for it is to us that no common difficulties are set to be surmounted. But we are heedless of all these things, and if anything hinders us in our softness or troubles our enjoyment of pleasures, we either give ourselves over to womanish lamentations or grow irate, as if nature had affixed her signature to a guarantee promising all would fall out as we wished, the course of our prosperity was going to be undisturbed, fortune would remain towards us alone in a delightful condition, and all but carry us in her arms. When we display ourselves so basely, that reproach in Juvenal accurately applies to us: “Do you think you are a darling, fit to be placed beyond the common pale, being the chick of a white hen?”
170. Epictetus wants us “always to which that which occurs to occur,” to which must be added “as long as nothing base is involved.” For it would be sinful to wish for the death of a father, a friend, or anyone at all. But after something of this sort has occurred, uncontrollable grieving runs contrary to our duty. Our Paul does not wish us to grow sad in such circumstances, as do those with no hope remaining For in that very occurrence God’s will is revealed. I omit to point out that immoderate signs of sorrow are signs of a mind that loves this present life excessively. In these circumstances, some Stoics concede us the simulation of sorrow, but not sorrow itself. In one passage Seneca admits light pangs of compassion, saying that it is monstrous to look on our beloved ones at their funerals with an unchanged countenance and not be moved by this first separation from our near and dear. The learned subtly dispute how we ought to conform ourselves to God’s will, not only in our own harsh extremities, but also in those of our friends, and to what degree it is permissible for us to disagree with His will. But the conclusion of all these things leads to this, that in every affection, no matter what its source, it must always be understood that the grounds why we must honor God’s will remain unchanged and intact.
DEM. In what way are those pangs of compassion to be felt in the case of other men’s calamities, since we are enjoined that we feel their pains as well as our own? And how am I supposed to regard another man’s achievement of leisure, if I am to be blamed for shirking efforts? If it is accounted a good to be at rest, free of pains, why should I not procure this for myself rather than for someone else? Surely things that are goods for others are good for me too? Or does some consideration demand that somebody else be dearer to me than myself? And furthermore, it would seem that we should be encouraging these others to tolerate their evils rather than relieving them, since in that toleration virtue’s fruit shines forth. And if rest and idleness are evil, I should not seek them for myself or for others.
171. FLOR. Your argument is somewhat off our subject, but since there is some profit in its explanation, you may have it. It is permissible to employ honest means to ward off those evils which are called punishments, both from ourselves and from others. This is not tantamount to running away from the decree or authority of providence, since it is granted all living things by nature that they may protect themselves, their lives and bodies, and avoid those things which seem harmful to them. Virtue only requires this, that when they do befall us we do not collapse in our minds, nor think we are caught up in great evils, that we to not accuse the beings of heaven, nay, that we confess we have deserved greater ones, and at all times we must display our calmness of mind. But at this point it is worth observing that is the mark of an excellent mind readily and gladly to leave everyday idleness, advantages and pleasures to others, and to reserve honesty and glory for ourselves. It is therefore praiseworthy to react to other men’s misfortunes with greater grieving than one’s own, and to be more solicitous in coming to the help of other men’s pains, particularly if in the victim who requires this act of duty there is some visible infirmity that would otherwise succumb. And this does not entail loving yourself any the less, but rather all the more, because that which you are striving to remove does not belong to the category of genuine evils, and that which you are contributing is likewise not among the great goods. For that reason I take particular pleasure in the virtue of that woman of Patavina, who stabbed herself with a sword after her husband Paetus had been condemned, giving testimony to her man-like spirit with both her speech and her deed, not because I approve what she did, but becausea beam of her excellence somehowe dazzles my mind’s eye. But let us listen to Martial: “When Arria handed to Paetus the sword she had pulled out of her own guts, she said, ‘As you see, the wound I have made does not hurt. But what hurts me, Paetus, is that you must do the same.’”
172. Likewise after their victories the finest generals usually grant the spoils to their soldiers, but desire the glory to be their own. When in the field, commanders like Agesilaus, Cato and Marius always regarded it as unworthy to treat themselves more lavishly than their soldiers, and they demonstrated how to tolerate labors rather than merely ordering them. As it is recounted in Cicero, Marcus Curius and Titus Coruncanus expressed the hope that the Samnites and Pyrrho would be persuaded by the doctrine of a certain man at Athens whom they heard was claiming to be wise, that the thing most greatly to be sought was pleasure. For in that way they hoped their victory would be less difficult, when their enemy had given themselves over to their lusts. Would that those prelates among us who especially claim to be imitating Christ, and who possess great power and wealth in His name, were of this noble belief, that, when it came to labor, they would be willing to suffer, like Christ, that they would teach us contempt of luxury and wealth by the example of their lives, abandoning the everyday conveniences of the body, I mean the dregs of good things! But these gentlemen, who are modest and unambitious when it comes to gaining that glory for noble labor which resides in teaching the Gospel and repressing one’s lusts, leave those things to Christ, and, base men themselves, often embrace a dissolute manner of life, content to discharge the duties of the place they occupy by a certain external show of piety, and satisfy the common folk with their ceremonies. But who should a man rush to embrace that which he has never even seen in a dream, nor in any way tried to see?
DEM. Once more this appears to be a case of loving oneself rather than others, and of desiring the true goods for oneself while leaving what you call the dregs of good things to the common run of mankind.
173. FLOR. Would that we all possessed this kind of love and there was such a competition between individual man in this contest for gaining the goods as there usually is who are constantly fighting over the false ones! How handsome and noble that struggle would be, in which each man strove to be more modest, more faithful, more tolerant, more contemptuous of his life and wiser than everybody else! How much peace would grow out of the war, what a flourishing peace! For this is the nature of the true goods and those of the mind that, contrary to the situation regarding the false ones, they increase by being broadcast and shared. For they are shares in that immense, infinite Good, and come nearest to godliness. But what pertains to the body, for the very reason that pertains to the body, is narrow and confined, and cannot be spread abroad and distributed throughout individual men. But you force me to abandon my path, Demetrio.
DEM. Now I’ll bring you back where you wish to be. I readily grant you that the adversities inflicted by some mischance or natural necessity are to be borne with great fortitude, but that human improbity does not seem to be accepted as a consequence that often creates mortal dangers very different from what we deserve. A man ought to use all his reason and not rashly go a-running to do some other man’s business.
174. FLOR. The case is far different than you understand, and if we examine the matter deeply, we will perhaps discover that the injuries inflicted by men are to be tolerated with greater equanimity than those which befall us from other sources. Death comes from nature, and the diseases of the body, very often arising from bad air, being natural things, have no share of an indigenous (if I may so speak) sense and understanding. And yet they are directed by God, without Whose blessing nothing occurs either on heaven or earth, and those things which occur by chance have their origin in His divine sense, in which no perturbation, ignorance, or infirmity may occur. The situation is the opposite in men, who for the most part do not inflict any harm unless they are in some way perturbed. It therefore behooves us to feel pity for human infirmity and think that men are no less deserving of forgiveness than nature itself or happenstance. If some four year-old boy throws mud at you while you are going about the city, or hits you in the face with a stick he is holding (as sometimes happens), you will not be angry at him, unless you are a beast. If you suffer the same thing at the hands of an adult, you grow angry because he has better sense. Socrates, doubtless, was of this opinion when a friend urged him to take revenge on a man who hit him as he passed by. “What,” he said, “if a donkey had hit me? Should I fly into a rage and take vengeance on him?” For doubtless in his eyes that rude, inconsiderate fellow was the same as a donkey.
DEM. But it is credible that neither nature nor heaven’s providence afflicts us with these woes out of a desire to work harm or any malevolence, as do men? For by inflicting such injuries a man acts against his duty, and takes on himself a disgrace and blame which do not accrue to nature or God’s foresight.
175. FLOR. What does it matter to you whether any blame accrues to him when he harms you? You are not angry at him because he has sinned against the laws of equity, because you have received some loss or blame which pains you, and this desire to work harm damages himself, not you. And what is this desire to work harm? He wants to unstring your limbs or take your life. Does not nature wish the same? Also, the things he has planned or committed often arise from fear, because he was afraid that if you remain safe and sound his affairs could not stand. But nature has nothing to fear from you. And yet suppose that this desire to work harm makes Man’s case worse than nature’s, since nobody is harmed save by himself, when he unwillingly takes turpitude upon himself, it will be a matter for your dexterity to forget that thought of working harm, which does nothing to profit you, and by doing so to gain the praise and profit of tolerance. If these aren’t sufficient, this should abundantly inspire you to adopt equanimity, that nothing that adheres to you, even if it is done by Man, is not heaven-sent. I could produce foreign and profane witnesses to things, but I can find no more excellent proof of this truth than that which is related in Scripture about David, that most excellent king of Jerusalem. Once some evil man assaulted him as he went about with a military escort, not just with many reproaches but also by throwing stones, shouting in public that the king was a sinful man with blood on his hands. Abishai by far the greatest of his captains, was moved by the indignity of this thing and immediately prepared to kill the crown. But the king checked his captain’s onrush, making this speech, no less filled with prudence than sanctity, saying, “Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will reqite me good for his cursing this day..”
DEM. Since it is the vexations and injuries coming from outside, whether they are inflicted by Man or by chance, that are the things that provoke anger, fear, sorrows and pain in us, although you have spoken nobly and subtly about bearing adversities in your previous words, you will greatly oblige us by adding an amplification about the subtlety and sublimity of those things and delay your discourse a while.
176. FLOR. Perhaps, Demetio, you aren’t troubled if I gain a reputation for incompetence and inelegance by a confused and disjointed presentation of these things, as long as your ears get satisfaction.
DEM. It strikes me that there is such a connectedness of things in such a rich and wide-ranging discourse that it is necessary that these or similar places must often occur. In handling this argument, Seneca and Plutarch resort to the gravest sentiments, but perhaps less clearly and with a less well-ordered arrangement. Even though Cicero (who in his own right not unjustly claims praise for speaking fitly, clearly, and ornately) speaks of these thing more systematically in his Tusculan Disputation, he is nevertheless sometimes compelled to write some passages which (and I mean this with no ill will) he handles more ornately than acutely. But if something about the same thing must be said again, you do not repeat yourself, and you accommodate your fresh contribution to the present subject so that they seem appropriate to that time and place.
177. FLOR. Out of your deep affection, as I see, Demetrio, you make an elephant out of a flea. But lest you praise me in vain (albeit undeservedly), for the moment I’ll oblige you. Therefore, in addition to the abovementioned arguments for lessening any pain or grief, there exist others. There is a rich supply of them, and, again, they admit of many divisions. Let us call the first of these, if you will, candor of interpretation. For if it is present, we shall take more pleasure out of pains and offenses themselves than you would believe possible. And this is a matter of singular wit and industry, to make injuries turn out for the better, and to make conquered fortune say about us what Juno complains about Hercules in Seneca’s tragedy: “Whatever the sea or the air has borne, terrific, dreadful, noxious, savage, wild, has been broken and subdued. He rises anew and has thrives on trouble; he enjoys my wrath; to his own credit he turns my hate; imposing too cruel tasks, I have but proved his father, but given room for glory. Where the sun, as he brings back the day, and where, as he dismisses the day, colors both Ethiopian races with this close-passing torch, his unconquered valor is adored, and in all the world he is spoken of as a god. Now I have no monsters left, and it is less labor for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands.”
178. For just as tamers make lions and tigers gentle, so the wise man domesticates sorrow, need, an ignominy when they have come to him, he tames them and brings them to a tolerable, domesticated moderation. Seneca says, “What does the harm is just as weak as what is harmed,” which I take to mean that our difficulties gain or lose weight in proportion to the passivity or strength of our minds. Thus it is our mind’s dejection that makes conditions intolerable, it is not the fact but our inertia that should be held to blame no differently than the weight of a burden is rendered heavier or lighter in proportion to the bearer’s enthusiasm, so that nobody could deservedly complain about the unfairness of the weight. Let me tell you how this happens. Our body, plunged into our body, and as it sails this reef-strewn sea it is easily deceived by the song of the Sirens, which means that it is wonderfully prone to pursue those things which enhance the pleasantness of this life. Thus it comes about that it is captivated by a profound forgetfulness of its native land and is never concerned about its return; it never remembers the conditions of its birth, but craves o be buried here forever, in no way different from a pig in its wallow. You perceive how those who have devoted themselves wholly to the delights of this life shudder at even the most passing mention of death, indeed to the point that God, Who bestows everything, never enters their heads. Therefore, so we will not wholly forget Him and so that we will not wholly degenerate, our Father disturbs the false joys of this night-time by sending us difficulties, so that he might teach us by experience that beneath roses there are usually sharply-pricking thorns, that honey may float on the surface, but that the bottom of the cup contains bitterness and gall. Do not nurses wishing to wean their charges smear their nipples with mustard or something bitter? And, by heavens, it seems to me to be nearly cause for rejoicing when we encounter adversity. Who among us, if he is asleep in a sinking ship, does not feel heartfelt gratitude to the man who awakens him, since everybody else has taken to the lifeboat, so that he can be borne to shore safe and sound? And indeed, unless we are entirely demented and impious, we should be far more troubled about having our divine part constantly asleep, sunken and buried amidst filth for having this little body (which of necessity will someday be buried in the earth) be thrown in the water a single time. But (gods’ faith!) such is the power of that Siren-song over us that we are no less angry at those things which awaken us from this deadly sleep than that workman Micyllus in Lucian was angry at his rooster, which he threatened to kill because by its nocturnal crowing it interrupted his pleasant dream, in which he seemed to abound with wealth and every manner of delight, and brought him out of those false visions into a profitable wakefulness.
179. This, beyond doubt, is proof a very degenerate mind. And we see a man greatly shrinking from departing this life and separation from the body, no matter how wealthy or handsome or powerful he may otherwise be, we should esteem him very lightly. For he gives manifest signs of an ignoble mind. And where the mind is ignoble, what noble thing, or what of any importance at all can befall a man? Thus we have medicines for our woe and antidotes against the poisons of the pleasures. Next, our difficulties provide us with this, that we are well known to ourselves, and clearly understand how much spirit and fortitude we possess. For how can a man know how well he could bear up in the face of poverty if he is forever abounding in wealth, in the face of ignominy if he grows old amidst cheers, in the face of pain who melts with pleasures? What proof of a great mind can he give whose course of happiness is uninterrupted, whose days pass by sunny and hours serene, whom fortune has concluded is not worthy struggling against, and who has never been confronted with any conspicuous difficulty? Seneca says that it is a mark of a brave mind to crave to be confronted with something arduous and difficult, in the endurance or defeating of which it might display and declare its power, in the manner of Vergil’s Ascanius, that boy of noble character: “He hoped that a foaming boar would appear amidst the idle cattle, or that a tawny lion would come down from its mountain.”
180. And yet, although such energy of mind, even if it is obviously praiseworthy, is in my opinion not entirely necessary, since no man lacks certain private difficulties of the perturbations, in the overcoming of which we procure ourselves abundant praise, even if fortune provides with no further external ones. Yet, since nothing should be unexpected for the wise, that admirable science of suffering is to be learned by these preliminary exercises and apprenticeships. It behooves us to learn beforehand what is to be done in the battle-line from drill and mock-combats. Nobody learns how to lie down in a rosebed, should that be necessary, but rather is hardened in this so that he does not betray his faith amidst hardships; that he will not be overcome by lust or pain and abandon his championship of dignity and decorum. And so, although those terrifying aspects of things are not yet shown us, nor are the chains displayed and the executioner at hand, in these trifling reversals we should learn to pave the way to greater, and become accustomed to do without these common pleasures, endure poverty, insults, cold, heat, thirst, and minor inconveniences of that kind. If a man is troubled by a lantern, how he can he withstand the brightness of the sunlight? If a man cannot sleep without a soft pillow, what will he do when he is obliged to sleep on the ground or rest his head on a stone in a prison cell? If a man fetches doctors to fuss about administering their medicines to alleviate slight pinpricks, what will he do for relief when great pains are upon him? With what countenance will a man look on the gallows, the axe or fires readied for him, when all his life has been devoted to venery amidst pillows? It is related that Spartan boys voluntarily scourged themselves, and that the one who was the last to break off was regarded as the noblest and foremost. Genuine virtue of mind, which does not succumb amidst adversities and is not overcome by prosperity, is not procured save by frequent tests of strength and experiences of bitter things. But we, entirely contrary to what we ought to do, apply our industry to speed that weakening and overcoming of the mind we have received from nature, leaving no minute of our lives free of the fruits of some abject pleasure. We don’t think it sufficient to be free of sorrow unless all things which encourage delights are at hand. And we are not content with these in moderation; rather, we are always chasing after new and greater pleasures, and we do not pass them by unless their great cost forbids us.
181. I have myself seen a gentleman holding the rank of a Bishop who refused to go without the delights purveyed by those musical instruments popularly called viols even when Mass was being celebrated and he should have been lifting up his mind to divine matters. Is this how one prepares himself to struggle against fortune and strive towards strength of mind, a particularly necessary point of praise, or is it not rather to hasten at full sail towards Cadiz and the Pillars of Hercules when one ought to be steering towards the sunrise? Even if our fortune is such that we need fear nothing from diseases, sorrows, or human injuries — although no such man exists — we assuredly cannot avoid that final day. We ought to imitate Seneca in fearlessly preparing ourselves for that day. It is a great thing, which takes a long time in their learning, to depart with a calm mind when that inevitable hour arrives. Setting aside all deceptions and disguises, it is for us to decide whether we are only to speak courageously, or also to think that way, and whether whatever bold words we cast in fortune’s teeth are only a pretence and a stage-show. Finally, there is a kind of compensation to be made, which you need to consider not only regarding the evils at hand but also the good things. If nature has denied you comeliness, perhaps you may repay this loss with your intellect. You lack wealth, but perhaps you’re free of debt. You’re in debt, but you’re sound of body. You are of humble rank, but your inferiors envy you. Prison holds you, but your use of your mind is free, and you are not burdened by disease. Disease afflicts you, but you are sound and flourishing in mind, if you don’t refuse to be. Your money has been taken away, but you have plenty of other goods: your life, your strength, your senses. If the things at hand strike you as too trifling for your affairs to be brought back into balance, add your previous blessings, how much of your life has been spent at liberty, and amidst honors and delights. For your gratitude for your past blessings ought not to exist in the past, but rather the present; indeed, it should be everlasting. And indeed, at least as it seems to me, even if a man who has performed some duty in the past has begin to be unfriendly and hostile towards you, albeit you have done nothing to deserve this, it will behoove you to keep in mind his previous kindness for all time to come. For it is very squalid to value man exclusively in terms of his future usefulness. And if even their inclusion fails to make the pan of evils rise in the balance, add the future advantages. For, as somebody wrote, “a man who had the power to hurt you someday will have the power to help you.”
Go to Part III