The Patience of the Damned

Heinrich Seuse (aka Henry Suso) was a 14th-century German mystic who wrote on spiritual matters and his own mortifications (think flagellation and tacks in his underwear).

The passage below, taken from his Clock of Wisdom (Horologium Sapientiae), displays the vivid style which contributed to the popularity of his books: 

The Clock of Wisdom. X (On the Torments of Hell). ed. Joseph Strange. 1861.

Imagine there’s an enormous millstone which reaches up to every corner of the sky. And imagine that after 100,000 years there comes some tiny bird: with its beak it pecks off a small bit of the stone, the equivalent of one-tenth a kernel of grain.  

After 100,000 years the same process repeats (i.e.,the bird pecks off a tenth of a kernel), and it goes on this way, such that in a 1,000,000 years the stone shrinks by the dimensions of a single kernel of grain. 

Look at what misery is! We wretches would be so grateful if our perpetual sentence of damnation came to an end only after this sort of long, extended nibbling away of the whole stone.  

But alas! Divine justice absolutely forbids the wretched this consolation.” 

. . . [Q]uod esset aliquis lapis molaris adeo magnus, quod ubique circumferenciam celi contingeret, et quod aliqua avicula minime quantitatis post centum milia annos veniens, de lapide predicto solummodo tantum per rostrum suum avelleret quantum est decima pars milii, et iterum post centum milia annorum curricula sicut prius, scilicet unam particulam de decem, et sic per singulas partes, ita quod in decies centenis milibus annis non plus diminueretur quantitas lapidis nisi quantum habet in magnitudine granum unius milii: en prochdolor nos miseri multum grati essenius, quod post talem longam et plenam consumpcionem tocius lapidis finem haberet sentencia nostre eterne dampnacionis. Sed heu hec eadem consolacio miseris a divina iusticia penitus est negata.

blurry picture of an engraving of a man praying
17th C. drawing of Henry Suso.
Harvard Art Museums.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

Incrimination and Punishment

Demosthenes, On the False Legation

“You hear me always accusing these men and incriminating them and saying directly that they have taken the money and made off with all the things of the state.”

καὶ κατηγοροῦντος ἀκούετέ μου καὶ ἐλέγχοντος ἀεὶ τούτους καὶ λέγοντος ἄντικρυς ὅτι χρήματ᾿ εἰλήφασι καὶ πάντα πεπράκασι τὰ πράγματα τῆς πόλεως.

Terence, The Eunuch 809

“Are you listening? He’s incriminating himself for theft!”

audin tu? furti se alligat

Dinarchus, Against Demosthenes 113

“Athenians, you know that these men testify against your concerns and that they are common enemies of the laws and the whole state. Do not accept them, but demand that they defend themselves against the actual charges. And don’t tolerate his madness either, this man who thinks much of his rhetorical abilities and since he has clearly accepted bribes against you, he has been refuted even more as defrauding you.

Punish him as is worthy of yourselves and this state. If you do not, you will permit all those who have been implicated in a single vote and hearing–you will encourage corruption for all those in the future to act against you and the people and even if you try to prosecute those who acquitted them later, it won’t help you at all.”

νομίσαντες οὖν, ὦ Ἀθηναῖοι, καθ᾿ ὑμῶν πάντας τούτους ἀναβαίνειν καὶ κοινοὺς ἐχθροὺς εἶναι τῶν νόμων καὶ τῆς πόλεως ἁπάσης, μὴ ἀποδέχεσθ᾿ αὐτῶν, ἀλλὰ κελεύετ᾿ ἀπολογεῖσθαι περὶ τῶν κατηγορημένων· μηδὲ τὴν αὐτοῦ τούτου μανίαν, ὃς μέγα φρονεῖ ἐπὶ τῷ δύνασθαι λέγειν, καὶ ἐπειδὰν φανερὸς ὑμῖν γένηται δωροδοκῶν, ἔτι μᾶλλον ἐξελήλεγκται φενακίζων ὑμᾶς, <ἀλλὰ> τιμωρήσασθε ὑμῶν αὐτῶν καὶ τῆς πόλεως ἀξίως. εἰ δὲ μή, μιᾷ ψήφῳ καὶ ἑνὶ ἀγῶνι πάντας τοὺς ἀποπεφασμένους καὶ τοὺς μέλλοντας ἀφέντες εἰς ὑμᾶς αὐτοὺς καὶ τὸν δῆμον τὴν τούτων δωροδοκίαν τρέψετε, κἂ ὕστερον ἐγκαλῆτ τοῖς ἀφεῖσιν, ὅτε οὐδὲν ἔσται πλέον ὑμῖν.

Punishment of a Hunter, Paulus Potter 1650

The Danger of Delaying Justice

Plutarch, On Divine Vengeance (Moralia 549c-e)

“An immediate slap or kick following a mistake or offense corrects a horse and sends him where he needs to go but whippings and screaming and pulling the reins later, after time has passed, seems to have some other function than teaching, which in fact causes pain without instruction. In the same way, wickedness which is beaten down and reined in through criticism each time it stumbles and fails might be made humble, and fearful of a god who is not a procrastinating judge when setting right the actions and passions of human beings.

A justice that falls on the wicked with a slow foot and in its own time, as Euripides says, is more mechanical than thoughtful because it is random, late, and ill-fit to the deed. This is why I don’t see any use in what people call the slow grinding of the gods’ mills, a process that renders punishment obscure and blunts any fear of being bad.”

καθάπερ γὰρ ἵππον ἡ παραχρῆμα τὸ πταῖσμα καὶ τὴν ἁμαρτίαν διώκουσα πληγὴ καὶ νύξις ἐπανορθοῖ καὶ μετάγει πρὸς τὸ δέον, οἱ δὲ ὕστερον καὶ μετὰ χρόνον σπαραγμοὶ καὶ ἀνακρούσεις καὶ περιψοφήσεις ἑτέρου τινὸς ἕνεκα μᾶλλον γίνεσθαι δοκοῦσιν ἢ διδασκαλίας, δι᾿ ὃ τὸ λυποῦν ἄνευ τοῦ παιδεύειν ἔχουσιν, οὕτως ἡ καθ᾿ ἕκαστον ὧν πταίει καὶ προπίπτει ῥαπιζομένη καὶ ἀνακρουομένη τῷ κολάζεσθαι κακία μόλις ἂν γένοιτο σύννους καὶ ταπεινὴ καὶ κατάφοβος πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ὡς ἐφεστῶτα τοῖς ἀνθρωπίνοις πράγμασι καὶ πάθεσιν οὐχ ὑπερήμερον δικαιωτήν· ἡ δὲ ἀτρέμα καὶ βραδεῖ ποδὶ κατ᾿ Εὐριπίδην καὶ ὡς ἔτυχεν ἐπιπίπτουσα Δίκη τοῖς πονηροῖς τῷ αὐτομάτῳ μᾶλλον ἢ τῷ κατὰ πρόνοιαν ὅμοιον ἔχει τὸ πεπλανημένον καὶ ὑπερήμερον καὶ ἄτακτον. ὥστε οὐχ ὁρῶ τί χρήσιμον ἔνεστιν τοῖς ὀψὲ δὴ τούτοις ἀλεῖν λεγομένοις μύλοις τῶν θεῶν καὶ ποιοῦσι τὴν δίκην ἀμαυρὰν καὶ τὸν φόβον ἐξίτηλον τῆς κακίας.”

Tampa 86.24Side B: two riders Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Swift Reprisal for Evil Done is Best for All Involved? Plutarch, “On Divine Procrastination in Vengeance”

Plutarch’s De Sera Numinis Vindicta (Moralia 548c-e)

“Patrokleas responded, “The slowness and procrastination of the deity’s punishment of the wicked seems to me to be especially terrible. Now, too, I am compelled and renewed by these words even as long ago I was moved when I heard Euripides saying “[Apollo] delays, this is the nature of the gods.”

Certainly, it is not right for god to delay in anything, least of all in punishing the wicked, men who are far from slow themselves, who are never procrastinators of doing evil, but who are driven by piercing passions into their crimes.

And, further, as Thucydides says, “when a response comes closest to suffering” it immediately creates blocks the path for those most moved by an easy way with wickedness. For nothing renders the wronged party weaker in his hopes and spirit and increases the criminal’s daring and audacity than a debt paid late. But the immediate punishment meted out to bold acts is both a restraint on futures crimes and a special comfort to those who have suffered from them.”

Καὶ ὁ Πατροκλέας ‘ἡ περὶ τὰς τιμωρίας’ εἶπε ‘τῶν πονηρῶν βραδυτὴς τοῦ δαιμονίου καὶ μέλλησις ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ μάλιστα δεινὸν εἶναι· καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ τῶν λόγων τούτων ὥσπερ πρόσφατος γέγονα τῇ δόξῃ καὶ καινός, ἔκπαλαι δ’ ἠγανάκτουν ἀκούων Εὐριπίδου λέγοντος (Or. 420)

‘μέλλει, τὸ θεῖον δ’ ἐστὶ τοιοῦτον φύσει.’

καίτοι πρὸς οὐθὲν ἥκιστα δὲ πρέπει πρὸς τοὺς πονηροὺς ῥᾴθυμον εἶναι τὸν θεόν, οὐ ῥᾳθύμους ὄντας αὐτοὺς οὐδ’ ‘ἀμβολιεργούς’ τοῦ κακῶς ποιεῖν, ἀλλ’ ὀξυτάταις ὁρμαῖς ὑπὸ τῶν παθῶν φερομένους πρὸς τὰς ἀδικίας. καὶ μήν ‘τὸ ἀμύνασθαι τῷ παθεῖν,’ ὡς Θουκυδίδης (III 38, 1) φησίν,  ‘ὅτι ἐγγυτάτω κείμενον’ εὐθὺς ἀντιφράττει τὴν ὁδὸν τοῖς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον εὐροούσῃ τῇ κακίᾳ χρωμένοις. οὐθὲν γὰρ οὕτω χρέος ὡς τὸ τῆς δίκης ὑπερήμερον γινόμενον ἀσθενῆ μὲν ταῖς ἐλπίσι ποιεῖ καὶ ταπεινὸν τὸν ἀδικούμενον, αὔξει δὲ θρασύτητι καὶ τόλμῃ τὸν μοχθηρόν· αἱ δ’ ὑπὸ χεῖρα τοῖς τολμωμένοις ἀπαντῶσαι τιμωρίαι καὶ τῶν μελλόντων εἰσὶν ἐπισχέσεις ἀδικημάτων καὶ μάλιστα τὸ παρηγοροῦν τοὺς πεπονθότας ἔνεστιν αὐταῖς.

Pythagoras Saw Homer and Hesiod Punished in Hell! (plus an etymology for his name)

Diogenes Laertius, 8.21 (Lives of the Sophists)


“Hieronymos says that when Pythagoras went down into Hades he saw the ghost of Hesiod bound to a bronze pillar, squeaking, and that Homer’s ghost was hanging from a tree surrounded by snakes. They were being punished for the things they said about the gods. And in addition he saw men who were not willing to have sex with their own wives. This is the reason, that Pythagoras was honored by the inhabitants of Croton. Aristippos of Cyrene in his work Peri Physiologoi says that Pythagoras was given his name because he spoke the truth publically [agoreuô] no less than the Pythian oracle.”

φησὶ δ’ ῾Ιερώνυμος (Hiller xxii) κατελθόντα αὐτὸν εἰς ᾅδου τὴν μὲν ῾Ησιόδου ψυχὴν ἰδεῖν πρὸς κίονι χαλκῷ δεδεμένην καὶ τρίζουσαν, τὴν δ’ ῾Ομήρου κρεμαμένην ἀπὸ δένδρου καὶ ὄφεις περὶ αὐτὴν ἀνθ’ ὧν εἶπον περὶ θεῶν, κολαζομένους δὲ καὶ τοὺς μὴ θέλοντας συνεῖναι ταῖς ἑαυτῶν γυναιξί· καὶ δὴ καὶ διὰ τοῦτο τιμηθῆναι  ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν Κρότωνι. φησὶ δ’ ᾿Αρίστιππος ὁ Κυρηναῖος ἐν τῷ Περὶ φυσιολόγων Πυθαγόραν αὐτὸν ὀνομασθῆναι ὅτι τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἠγόρευεν οὐχ ἧττον τοῦ Πυθίου.


The sacrilege of Homer and Hesiod is an ancient motif finding its earliest extant articulation in the pre-Socratic poet Xenophanes:

Xenophanes, fragments 9-11


“From the beginning, according to Homer, since everyone has learned [from him…]

*          *          *

“Homer and Hesiod have attributed everything to the gods
that is shameful and reprehensible among men:
theft, adultery and deceiving each other

*          *          *

How they have sung the most the lawless deeds of the gods!
That they steal, commit adultery and deceive one another…


Fr. 9

ἐξ ἀρχῆς καθ’ ῞Ομηρον, ἐπεὶ μεμαθήκασι πάντες …


Fr. 10

πάντα θεοῖσ’ ἀνέθηκαν ῞Ομηρός θ’ ῾Ησίοδός τε,
ὅσσα παρ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,
κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.


Fr. 11

ὡς πλεῖστ’ ἐφθέγξαντο θεῶν ἀθεμίστια ἔργα,
κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.

Euripides on a Sick Country: fr. 267 (Auge)

“The sick state is ingenious at discovering crimes.”

δεινὴ πόλις νοσοῦσ’ ἀνευρίσκειν κακά.

I’m sure we can all think of events in our respective polities appropriate to this fragment from Euripides. The more things change…

But, here’s a useful reminder from Aeschylus on consequences (Eumenides, 644-651)

“After the dust has soaked up the blood
Of a dying man, there is no resurrection.
My father can’t cast a spell on this
But all other things he can turn back and forth
Without losing his breath at all.”

ἀνδρὸς δ’ ἐπειδὰν αἷμ’ ἀνασπάσῃ κόνις
ἅπαξ θανόντος, οὔτις ἔστ’ ἀνάστασις.
τούτων ἐπῳδὰς οὐκ ἐποίησεν πατὴρ
οὑμός, τὰ δ’ ἄλλα πάντ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω
στρέφων τίθησιν οὐδὲν ἀσθμαίνων μένει.

The father in question in this passage is Zeus, the god of justice. The Greeks needed to believe that Zeus would support justice (ultimately) because they saw that men failed to. Since we’re playing Aristophanes here and having the old tragedians compete, I’ll give Euripides a final and sacrilegious word:

Euripides, fr. 292.6 (Bellerophon)

“If the gods do a shameful thing, they are not gods.”

εἰ θεοί τι δρῶσιν αἰσχρόν, οὐκ εἰσὶν θεοί.

Ovid, Heroides 5.5-9: Oenone to Paris

“What god has put his power against my prayers?
What crime stops me from remaining yours?
We must bear lightly whatever suffering we’ve earned.
We must mourn the punishment that comes undeserved.”

Quis deus opposuit nostris sua numina votis?
ne tua permaneam, quod mihi crimen obest?
leniter, e merito quicquid patiare, ferendum est;
quae venit indignae poena dolenda venit.