Every Age a Clodius

Seneca, Moral Epistle 97.10-13

“Every generation produces a Clodius, but every one doesn’t make a Cato. We lean more easily into ruin, not because we have no leader or lack a guide, but because the action itself happens easily without a leader, without help. The path to vice isn’t just downhill, it’s steep too and it makes many of us unfixable because life’s mistakes feel good while screwups in all the other arts are a source of shame and causes harm to those who do them.

A captain doesn’t smile when his ship flips over; a doctor doesn’t grin at a sick patient dead, an orator does not laugh when the person they’re defending loses because of their mistake. But in contrast, everyone’s personal crime is a source of pleasure! This guy is charmed by adultery, the same ‘difficulty’ that got him into trouble in the first place. Another dude finds counterfeiting and theft a thrill, and isn’t disappointed with his fault until his luck fails him. This is the outcome of debased practices!

However, so that you know that our spirits possess some notion of proper behavior even when they have been seduced into the worst things and that we are not ignorant of what is wrong, just negligent, everyone covers over their faults and, even if they do it well, still enjoy their products even while disguising them. The good conscience wants to step out and be seen–evil is afraid of shadows. So, I think that Epicurus put it well that “It’s possible for a guilty person to hide, but it’s impossible to trust the hiding.”

Or, if you think it is better to convey the sense in this way: “There’s no advantage for people who screw up to hide because even if that have the good luck, there’s no promise of staying hidden.” I mean this: crimes can be safeguarded, but they can never be secure.”

Omne tempus Clodios, non omne Catones feret. Ad deteriora faciles sumus, quia nec dux potest nec comes deesse, et res ipsa etiam sine duce, sine comite procedit. Non pronum est tantum ad vitia, sed praeceps, et quod plerosque inemendabiles facit, omnium aliarum artium peccata artificibus pudori sunt offenduntque deerrantem, vitae peccata delectant. Non gaudet navigio gubernator everso, non gaudet aegro medicus elato, non gaudet orator, si patroni culpa reus cedidit; at contra omnibus crimen suum voluptati est. Laetatur ille adulterio, in quod inritatus est ipsa difficultate. Laetatur ille circumscriptione furtoque, nec ante illi culpa quam culpae fortuna displicuit. Id prava consuetudine evenit.

Alioquin ut scias subesse animis etiam in pessima abductis boni sensum nec ignorari turpe, sed neglegi; omnes peccata dissimulant et, quamvis feliciter cesserint, fructu illorum utuntur, ipsa subducunt. At bona conscientia prodire vult et conspici; ipsas nequitia tenebras timet. Eleganter itaque ab Epicuro dictum puto: “potest nocenti contingere, ut lateat, latendi fides non potest,” aut si hoc modo melius hunc explicari posse iudicas sensum: “ideo non prodest latere peccantibus, quia latendi etiam si felicitatem habent, fiduciam non habent.” Ita est: tuta scelera esse possunt, secura esse non possunt.

Etching of a scene from the Roman Republic. A man in a toga lies dead on the stairs of a building. Onlookers stare from above and the side.
Francesco Bertolini, Antiquite romaine ‘le cadavre de Publius Clodius Pulcher (92-52 avant JC) retrouve sur la via appia a Rome

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