“What did I want? What have I gained from my good intention?” I gain even in torture; I gain the fire. Even if the fire consumes my limbs bit by bit and overcomes my whole body, even as my heart is filled up with good conscience yet still drips blood, it will be delighted by the flame whose light proves its pure intention.”
‘Quid mihi volui? Quid nunc mihi prodest bona voluntas?’” Prodest et in eculeo, prodest et in igne; qui si singulis membris admoveatur et paulatim vivum corpus circumeat, licet ipsum cor plenum bona conscientia stillet: placebit illi ignis, per quem bona fides conlucebit.
Seneca, De tranquilitate animi 15-16
“Although I should not give too much information, I am stalked by the weakness of good intention in all things. This worry, that I am slowly slipping behind or–what I fear more–that I am wavering like someone who is always just about to fall and may actually be much worse off than I can sense. We tend to look favorably upon our own affairs and this inclination impedes our judgment.
I imagine many people would have made it up that hill to wisdom if they had not already imagined they had already arrived, if they had not told themselves lies about their own character, as if they passed by everyone with eyes firmly shut. There’s no good reason to think that other people’s praise is more harmful to us than our own. Who is so daring as to tell themselves the truth?”
Ne singula diutius persequar, in omnibus rebus haec me sequitur bonae mentis infirmitas. Quin ne paulatim defluam vereor, aut quod est sollicitius, ne semper casuro similis pendeam et plus fortasse sit quam quod ipse pervideo; familiariter enim domestica aspicimus et semper iudicio favor officit.
Puto multos potuisse ad sapientiam pervenire, nisi putassent se pervenisse, nisi quaedam in se dissimulassent, quaedam opertis oculis transiluissent. Non est enim, quod magis aliena iudices adulatione nos perire quam nostra. Quis sibi verum dicere ausus est?
“You deny that anything is possible without god. Look, here Strato from Lampascus interrupts to grant immunity to that god of yours, however big the task. And, since the gods’ priests get a vacation, it is so much fairer that the gods do too!
Anyway, Strato denies that he needs to use divine actions to create the universe: whatever exists—he teaches—comes from natural causes. He does not, however, follow the one who argues that [the world] was put together out of rough and smooth, hook-shaped or crooked atoms separated by void. He believes that these are dreams of Democritus not as he teaches but as he imagines things. Strato himself, as he outlines the components of the universe in order, insists that whatever is or develops emerges from or was made by natural means, through gravity and motion.
Thus he frees the god of great labor and me of fear. For, once they imagine that some deity is worrying about them, who wouldn’t shudder at divine power day and night and, when anything bad happens—for who avoids such things?—wouldn’t fear that it happened because of some negative judgment? Still, I don’t agree with Strato nor, to be honest, with you. Sometimes his idea seems more likely, at other times yours does.”
 Negas sine deo posse quicquam: ecce tibi e transverso Lampsacenus Strato, qui det isti deo inmunitatem — magni quidem muneris; sed cum sacerdotes deorum vacationem habeant, quanto est aequius habere ipsos deos —: negat opera deorum se uti ad fabricandum mundum, quaecumque sint docet omnia effecta esse natura, nec ut ille qui asperis et levibus et hamatis uncinatisque corporibus concreta haec esse dicat interiecto inani: somnia censet haec esse Democriti non docentis sed optantis, ipse autem singulas mundi partes persequens quidquid aut sit aut fiat naturalibus fieri aut factum esse docet ponderibus et motibus. ne ille et deum opere magno liberat et me timore. quis enim potest, cum existimet curari se a deo, non et dies et noctes divinum numen horrere et si quid adversi acciderit, quod cui non accidit, extimescere ne id iure evenerit? nee Stratoni tamen adsentior nec vero tibi; modo hoc modo illud probabilius videtur.’
When the spirit is worn out and begins to hate a benefit while it waits for it, is it possible to still be grateful? Just as it is the most bitter cruelty which makes a punishment last longer and that killing quickly is a kind of mercy since torment supplies its own final end and the time which comes before death is the greatest period of suffering, so too gratitude for a gift will be greater the shorter the duration of suspense.
For the expectation of good things is upsetting too and since most gifts bring relief from some kind of thing, if anyone allows someone else to be tortured for a while when he was able to free him of burden or if he is slow to rejoice, he has added a punitive slap to his good deed. All generosity should move quickly—someone who acts quickly is someone who acts voluntarily. If someone drags his feet day to day, he does not act according to his spirit. He has thus lost two precious things: time and the demonstration of willing friendship. Consenting slowly is an indication of someone who is unwilling.”
Ubi in taedium adductus animus incipit beneficium odisse, dum expectat, potest ob id gratus esse? Quemadmodum acerbissima crudelitas est, quae trahit poenam, et misericordiae genus est cito occidere, quia tormentum ultimum finem sui secum adfert, quod antecedit tempus, maxima venturi supplicii pars est, ita maior est muneris gratia, quo minus diu pependit. Est enim etiam bonarum rerum sollicita expectatio, et cum plurima beneficia remedium alicuius rei adferant, qui aut diutius torqueri patitur, quem protinus potest liberare, aut tardius gaudere, beneficio suo manus adfert. Omnis benignitas properat, et proprium est libenter facientis cito facere; qui tarde et diem de die extrahens profuit, non ex animo fecit. Ita duas res maximas perdidit, et tempus et argumentum amicae voluntatis; tarde velle nolentis est.
“The case of the person who is hard-pressed by disaster is different from that of the one who seeks improved affairs when nothing adverse stands in the way. Charity will be obligated to favor those in misfortune unless there is some way they have earned their misfortune. Even for these, still, we should not refuse those who desire to be helped not only that they are suffering misfortune but that they may rise to a higher station. But we should guide our judgment and care in selecting those who are worthy. For, as Ennius famously says: “I believe that good deeds poorly placed are poorly done.”
In addition, when some benefit is given to a good and grateful man, it is useful both in his response and in others’ reactions too. For, generosity is most gratefully received it is not random and people praise it more heartily because it it is represents the goodness of a man in a high station and common refuge for all. Hence, efforts much be made to provide as many people as possible with benefits so that the memory of our generosity will be handed down to their children and grandchildren so that even they may not be ungrateful. For all people hand forgetfulness of a favor and consider it as an injury which has been committed against them because generosity is discouraged and those who do this are a common enemy of the poor.”
Alia causa est eius, qui calamitate premitur, et eius, qui res meliores quaerit nullis suis rebus adversis. Propensior benignitas esse debebit in calamitosos, nisi forte erunt digni calamitate. In iis tamen, qui se adiuvari volent, non ne affligantur, sed ut altiorem gradum ascendant, restricti omnino esse nullo modo debemus, sed in deligendis idoneis iudicium et diligentiam adhibere. Nam praeclare Ennius:
Bene fácta male locáta male facta árbitror.
Quod autem tributum est bono viro et grato, in eo cum ex ipso fructus est, tum etiam ex ceteris. Temeritate enim remota gratissima est liberalitas, eoque eam studiosius plerique laudant, quod summi cuiusque bonitas commune perfugium est omnium. Danda igitur opera est, ut iis beneficiis quam plurimos afficiamus, quorum memoria liberis posterisque prodatur, ut iis ingratis esse non liceat. Omnes enim immemorem beneficii oderunt eamque iniuriam in deterrenda liberalitate sibi etiam fieri eumque, qui faciat, communem hostem tenuiorum putant.
“If you desire to be free of this and freedom seems truly attractive to you, and if you seek help for this reason alone—that it might be allowed for you to do this without constant trouble—how would the whole gang of Stoics fail to approve it? Every Zeno and Chrysippus will advise you about your moderation and honor. But if you keep turning your back so you can try to see how much you carry with you and how much money you need for leisure you will never find an end to it.
No one can swim to safety with their bags. Emerge to a better life with divine favor but let it not be in that way in which they are favorable to those people to whom they grant great evils with pleasant and pleasing glances—and they are excused for doing so because those things which burn and torture are given to those who beg for them.
I was already closing this letter with a seal, but it had to be opened again so that it may come to you with the dutiful contribution and bring some great saying to you. And look, here is something that comes to my mind which I don’t know if it is truer or more well-put. “Whose saying?” you ask? It is Epicurus, for I am still sewing my quilt from other people’s fragments. “Everyone leaves from life just as if they just had entered it”.
Grab anyone suddenly—a youth, an old man, someone in the middle—and you will find them equally afraid of death and without understanding of life. No one has finished anything, because we keep postponing everything we do to tomorrow. Nothing makes me happier in that quotation than the fact that it calls old men out for being babies.
“No one”, he says, “leaves the world differently from the way in which they were born.” This is false! We are worse when we die than when we are born. This is our fault, not nature’s. Nature ought to criticize us, saying, “What is this? I produced you without desires, without fear, without superstition, without treachery and these diseases! Leave as you were when you got here!”
Sed si deponere illam in animo est et libertas bona fide placuit, in hoc autem unum advocationem petis, ut sine perpetua sollicitudine id tibi facere contingat, quidni tota te cohors Stoicorum probatura sit? Omnes Zenones et Chrysippi moderata, honesta, tua suadebunt. Sed si propter hoc tergiversaris, ut circumspicias, quantum feras tecum et quam magna pecunia instruas otium, numquam exitum invenies. Nemo cum sarcinis enatat. Emerge ad meliorem vitam propitiis dis, sed non sic, quomodo istis propitii sunt, quibus bono ac benigno vultu mala magnifica tribuerunt, ad hoc unum excusati, quod ista, quae urunt, quae excruciant, optantibus data sunt.
13Iam inprimebam epistulae signum; resolvenda est, ut cum sollemni ad te munusculo veniat et aliquam magnificam vocem ferat secum, et occurrit mihi ecce nescio utrum verior an eloquentior. “Cuius?” inquis; Epicuri, adhuc enim alienas sarcinas adsero; “Nemo non ita exit e vita, tamquam modo intraverit.” Quemcumque vis occupa, adulescentem senem medium; invenies aeque timidum mortis, aeque inscium vitae. Nemo quicquam habet facti, in futurum enim nostra distulimus. Nihil me magis in ista voce delectat quam quod exprobratur senibus infantia. “Nemo,” inquit, “aliter quam qui modo natus est exit e vita.” Falsum est; peiores morimur quam nascimur. Nostrum istud, non naturae vitium est. Illa nobiscum queri debet et dicere: “Quid hoc est? Sine cupiditatibus vos genui, sine timoribus, sine superstitione, sine perfidia ceterisque pestibus; quales intrastis exite.”
“I congratulate you not so much as a brave person but as if you had won the consulship or a praetorship: you have leveled up in honor! Similarly I would say to a good person if no misfortune had given them the change to demonstrate their spirit’s strength, “I think you’re unlucky because you have never been unlucky. You have made it through life without a nemesis. No one will know what you’re capable of, not even you!”
For someone to really know themselves, they need to be tested. No one discovers what they can do without trying! This is why some people have intentionally given themselves to misfortune and have searched for some way to make their true value shine bright when it might instead pass into the unknown.
Great men, I say, often delight in facing trouble, as brave soldiers do when they face war. I once heard a gladiator named Triumphus in the reign of Tiberius Caesar complaining about how few competitions there were: “How beautiful an age has slipped away!”
Non gratulor tamquam viro forti, sed tanquam consulatum praeturamve adepto; honore auctus es. Item dicere et bono viro possum, si illi nullam occasionem difficilior casus dedit in qua una1 vim animi sui ostenderet: “Miserum te iudico, quod numquam fuisti miser. Transisti sine adversario vitam; nemo sciet quid potueris, ne tu quidem ipse.” Opus est enim ad notitiam sui experimento; quid quisque posset nisi temptando non didicit. Itaque quidam ipsi ultro se cessantibus malis obtulerunt et virtuti iturae in obscurum occasionem per quam 4enitesceretquaesierunt. Gaudent, inquam, magni viri aliquando rebus adversis, non aliter quam fortes milites bello. Triumphum ego murmillonem sub Tib. Caesare de raritate munerum audivi querentem: “Quam bella,” inquit, “aetas perit!”
Gnomologium Vaticanum, 518
“Sophokles the tragic poet, after he heard that Euripides died in Macedonia, said “The whetstone of my poetry is gone.”
“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”
Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.
Seneca, De Beata Vita 17-18
“ ‘This is enough for me: to each day lose one of my vices and recognize my mistakes. I have not perfected my health, nor certainly will I. I hope to relieve my gout rather than cure it, happy if it comes less frequently and cause less pain. But when I compare myself to your feet, I am a sprinter even though crippled.’
I do not say these things for myself—since I am deep in every kind of vice—but for the person who has done something.
You say, “You talk one way but you live another.” This insult, most shameful and hateful friend, was thrown at Plato, tossed at Epicurus, and dropped on Zeno. For all these people were talking not about how they were living themselves but about how they should live. When it comes to virtue, I do not talk about myself, and my fight is with vices, but chiefly my own. When I can, I will live as I should.”
Hoc mihi satis est, cotidie aliquid ex vitiis meis demere et errores meos obiurgare. Non perveni ad sanitatem, ne perveniam quidem; delenimenta magis quam remedia podagrae meae compono, contentus, si rarius accedit et si minus verminatur; vestris quidem pedibus comparatus, debilis1 cursor sum.” Haec non pro me loquor—ego enim in alto vitiorum omnium sum—, sed pro illo, cui aliquid acti est.
“Aliter,” inquis, “loqueris, aliter vivis.” Hoc, malignissima capita et optimo cuique inimicissima, Platoni obiectum est, obiectum Epicuro, obiectum Zenoni; omnes enim isti dicebant non quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum esset ipsis vivendum. De virtute, non de me loquor, et cum vitiis convicium facio, in primis meis facio. 2Cum potuero, vivam quomodo oportet.
“But we say that being “blessed” are those things which are following Nature. What follows nature, moreover, is clear and straightforward just as anything which is whole. What follows nature and what is granted to us immediately at birth I do not call a good but merely the beginning of a good.
You grant the greatest good—pleasure—to infants so that a child begins life where the perfected man should arrive. You put the peak of the tree at its roots! If anyone should claim that some child, enclosed in their mother’s whom, of uncertain gender, soft, incomplete and unformed, that this child is in some stage of the good, they would seem to be a bit off.
And yet consider how little different there is between one who just now found life and another who is still a burden of maternal organs? They are both equally advanced in their understanding of good and evil and An infant is no more conscious of the Good than a tree or any other speechless creature.”
Dicimus beata esse, quae secundum naturam sint, Quid autem secundum naturam sit, palam et protinus apparet, sicut quid sit integrum. Quod secundum naturam est, quod contigit protinus nato, non dico bonum, sed initium boni. Tu summum bonum, voluptatem, infantiae donas, ut inde incipiat nascens, quo consummatus homo pervenit.
Cacumen radicis loco ponis. Si quis diceret illum in materno utero latentem, sexus quoque incerti,tenerum et inperfectum et informem iam in aliquo bono esse, aperte videretur errare. Atqui quantulum interest inter eum, qui cum1 maxime vitam accipit, et illum, qui maternorum viscerum latens onus est? Uterque, quantum ad intellectum boni ac mali, aeque maturus est, et non magis infans adhuc boni capax est quam arbor aut mutum aliquod animal.
“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher? You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.
But the human race still shames me every time I enter the school. Near to that theater of the Neapolitans, I have to pass that house of Metronax. There, the place is packed too as with a burning desire they judge who is the best flute player. The Greek horn and a herald bring a crowd. But in the place where we seek what a good man is, where how to be a good man may be learned, the smallest audience sits and they seem to most people to be up to no good in their pursuit. They are called useless and lazy. May such derision touch me. For the insults of the ignorant should be heard with a gentle mind. Contempt itself must be held in contempt as we journey toward better things.”
Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?
Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum. Pudet autem me generis humani, quotiens scholam intravi. Praeter ipsum theatrum Neapolitanorum, ut scis, transeundum est Metronactis petenti domum. Illud quidem fartum est et ingenti studio, quis sit pythaules bonus, iudicatur; habet tubicen quoque Graecus et praeco concursum. At in illo loco, in quo vir bonus quaeritur, in quo vir bonus discitur, paucissimi sedent, et hi plerisque videntur nihil boni negotii habere quod agant; inepti et inertes vocantur. Mihi contingat iste derisus; aequo animo audienda sunt inperitorum convicia et ad honesta vadenti contemnendus est ipse contemptus.
“Live mercifully with your slave, even in a friendly way. Invite him to a conversation, to share your plans and to live with you. At this suggestion the whole band of elites will shout at me: “Nothing is baser or fouler than this”. These very same men I often catch kissing on the hands of other men’s slaves.
Don’t you see this, at least, how our forebears tried to erase everything insidious and every kind of insult from slaveholding? They called the master a “father of the family” and slaves “family members”, a fact that endures today in mimes. They started a festival day one which it was custom and obligation for masters to eat with their servants. They also permitted slaves to earn honors in the home and to pronounce judgments so that the home was a microcosm of the state.”
Vive cum servo clementer, comiter quoque, et in sermonem illum admitte et in consilium et in convictum. Hoc loco adclamabit mihi tota manus delicatorum: “Nihil hac re humilius, nihil turpius.” Hos ego eosdem deprehendam alienorum servorum osculantes manum. Ne illud quidem videtis, quam omnem invidiam maiores nostri dominis, omnem contumeliam servis detraxerint? Dominum patrem familiae appellaverunt, servos, quod etiam in mimis adhuc durat, familiares. Instituerunt diem festum, non quo solo cum servis domini vescerentur, sed quo utique; honores illis in domo gerere, ius dicere permiserunt et domum pusillam rem publicam esse iudicaverunt.
Just before this passage, he writes to try to encourage people to treat slaves better. Unfortunately, Seneca seems to accept slavery as a condition of human life. This is part of the point of Macrobius’ post too, that we are all ‘slaves’ to something and therefore never truly free. Yet this certainly overlooks the very real difference in agency and liberty between those who are ‘slaves’ to desire and those who are literally enslaved to another human being (or to a state).
Seneca, Moral Epistles 47.10-12
“Please remember that the person you call your slave rose from the same seeds, enjoys the same sky and equally breathes, lives and dies! You could see him just as much as a free man as a slave. Because of the slaughter in the time of Marius, fortune struck down many born to high station, taking the trail to the senate through the army—one of these it made a shepherd, another an overseer of a cottage. Despise now the fortune of a person whose place you may take even as you look down on them!
I don’t want to get involved in a big controversy and argue about the treatment of slaves toward whom we are most arrogant, cruel, and offensive. But this is the sum of my guidance: deal with your inferior the way you wish your superior would deal with you. However many times it pops in your mind to consider how much is right for you regarding your slave, let it also occur that this is permitted to your master regarding you. “But I have no master” you say. Your age is still good. Don’t you know how old Hecuba was when she began to serve, or Croesus, or Darius’ mother, or Plato and Diogenes?”
Vis tu cogitare istum, quem servum tuum vocas, ex isdem seminibus ortum eodem frui caelo, aeque spirare, aeque vivere, aeque mori! tam tu illum videre ingenuum potes quam ille te servum. Mariana clade multos splendidissime natos, senatorium per militiam auspicantes gradum, fortuna depressit, alium ex illis pastorem, alium custodem casae fecit; contemne nunc eius fortunae hominem, in quam transire, dum contemnis, potes.
Nolo in ingentem me locum inmittere et de usu servorum disputare, in quos superbissimi, crudelissimi, contumeliosissimi sumus. Haec tamen praecepti mei summa est: sic cum inferiore vivas, quemadmodum tecum superiorem velis vivere. Quotiens in mentem venerit, quantum tibi in servum liceat, veniat in mentem tantundem in te domino tuo licere. “At ego,” inquis, “nullum habeo dominum.” Bona aetas est; forsitan habebis. Nescis, qua aetate Hecuba servire coeperit, qua Croesus, qua Darei mater, qua Platon, qua Diogenes?
Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.11
“You see how much care comes from a slave to the highest of the gods. From whence comes such a great and vain loathing for slaves, as though they did not stem from and receive their nourishment from the same elements as you, and as though they did not draw the same breath from the same source? Would you think about those whom you call slaves – that they, born from the same seed, enjoy the same sky, and live and die just as you? They are slaves, you say? No, they are people! They are slaves, you say? No, they are fellow slaves, if you would but consider that Fortune may employ the same license against you as it does against them. You can see him free just as soon as he might see you a slave. Do you not know at what age Hecuba, Croesus, the mother of Darius, Diogenes, and even Plato himself all began to be slaves? Finally, why do we fear the name of slavery?
Sure, he’s a slave – but by compulsion, and perhaps he is a slave with a free soul. This will harm him, if you can show who is not a slave. One person may serve desire, another avarice, another ambition – all of us are slaves to hope, all of us are slaves to fear. And to be sure, there is no slavery more abject than slavery which we have chosen for ourselves. But here we trample underfoot a man lying under the yoke which Fortune has thrown upon him as though he were wretched and worthless, yet we do not allow the yoke which we have accepted for ourselves to be criticized.”
Vides, quanta de servo ad deorum summum cura pervenerit. Tibi autem unde in servos tantum et tam inane fastidium, quasi non ex isdem tibi et constent et alantur elementis eundemque spiritum ab eodem principio carpant? Vis tu cogitare eos quos ius tuum vocas isdem seminibus ortos eodem frui caelo, aeque vivere aeque mori? Servi sunt? immo homines. Servi sunt? immo conservi, si cogitaveris tantundem in utrosque licere fortunae. Tam tu illum videre liberum potes, quam ille te servum. Nescis, qua aetate Hecuba servire coeperit, qua Croesus, qua Darei mater, qua Diogenes, qua Plato ipse? Postremo quid ita nomen servitutis horremus? Servus est quidem: sed necessitate, sed fortasse libero animo servus est. Hoc illi nocebit, si ostenderis quis non sit. Alius libidini servit, alius avaritiae, alius ambitioni, omnes spei, omnes timori. Et certe nulla servitus turpior quam voluntaria. At nos iugo a fortuna inposito subiacentem tamquam miserum vilemque calcamus: quod vero nos nostris cervicibus inserimus non patimur reprehendi.