Hiding Wickedness With Power

Here a third and likely final selection from Plutarch’s fragmentary essay. Plutarch’s strong feelings about leadership were influenced by Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, but also by the history of living under the Roman Emperors. Plutarch, who lived from 46-120 CE, witnessed some bad emperors and some good ones–but they were all still emperors.

Plutarch, To an Uneducated Ruler 782

“It is not possible to hide wickedness in power. But, as when someone with vertigo* might go up in a high place and move around, only to become dizzy and uncertain, thus revealing their suffering, so fortune amplifies the untaught and ignorant a little with some wealth, reputation or offices and, once they have risen up, it shows them falling. Or rather, it is the same as when you cannot tell which of some containers is solid and which is cracked but when you pour water into them, the culprit leak is clear: rotten minds cannot manage power, but they ooze out random desires, rages, improprieties, and base manners.”

 Οὐδὲ γὰρ λαθεῖν οἷόν τε τὰς κακίας ἐν ταῖς ἐξουσίαις· ἀλλὰ τοὺς μὲν ἐπιληπτικούς, ἂν ἐν ὕψει τινὶ γένωνται καὶ περιενεχθῶσιν, ἴλιγγος ἴσχει καὶ σάλος, ἐξελέγχων τὸ πάθος αὐτῶν, τοὺς δ᾿ ἀπαιδεύτους καὶ ἀμαθεῖς ἡ τύχη μικρὸν ἐκκουφίσασα πλούτοις τισὶν ἢ δόξαις ἢ ἀρχαῖς μετεώρους γενομένους εὐθὺς ἐπιδείκνυσι πίπτοντας· μᾶλλον δ᾿, ὥσπερ τῶν κενῶν ἀγγείων οὐκ ἂν διαγνοίης τὸ ἀκέραιον καὶ πεπονηκός, ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν ἐγχέῃς, φαίνεται τὸ ῥέον· οὕτως αἱ σαθραὶ ψυχαὶ τὰς ἐξουσίας μὴ στέγουσαι ῥέουσιν ἔξω ταῖς ἐπιθυμίαις, ταῖς ὀργαῖς, ταῖς ἀλαζονείαις, ταῖς ἀπειροκαλίαις.

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*The original Greek seems to be about people with epilepsy (tous epilêptikous). I changed this for a few reasons. Although I understand ancient physiognomic standards, I am uncomfortable with perpetuating the analogy implied here between sickness of mind and that of body. A person who has such a malady should not be subjected to a comparison to the sick of spirit.

2 thoughts on “Hiding Wickedness With Power

    • Some biographers do say that he suffered from a disease, but I am not willing to say whether it is true or not! What is interesting to me is that biographers, historians, etc. are engaged in speculating about it or in perpetuating the detail…

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