After this she fell silent for a while and the very forbearance of her silence made me turn my attention to her. At this she began to speak again.
‘If I have fully diagnosed the cause and nature of your condition, you are wasting away in pining and longing for your former good fortune. It is the loss of this which, as your imagination works upon you, has so corrupted your mind. I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion. If you can recall to mind her character, her methods, and the kind of favour she proffers, you will see that in her you did not have and did not lose anything of value. But I am sure it will require no hard work on my part to bring all this back to your memory. It used to be your way whenever she came near with her flattery to attack her with manly arguments and hound her with pronouncements taken from the oracle of my shrine. However, no sudden change of circumstances ever occurs without some upheaval in the mind; and that is why you, too, have deserted for a while your usual calm.
‘It is time, then, for you to take a little mild and pleasant nourishment which by being absorbed into your body will prepare the way for something stronger. Let us bring to bear the persuasive powers of sweet-tongued rhetoric, powers which soon go astray from the true path unless they follow my instructions. And let us have as well Music, the maid-servant of my house, to sing us melodies of varying mood.
‘What is it then O mortal man, that has thrown you down into the slough of grief and despondency? You must have seen something strange and unexpected. But you are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess. To others she still veils herself, but to you she has revealed herself to the full. If you are satisfied with her ways, you must accept them and not complain. But if you shudder to think of her unreliability, you must turn away and have nothing more to do with her dangerous games. She has caused you untold sorrow when she ought to have been a source of peace. For she has left you, she in whose constancy no man can ever trust. Do you really hold dear that kind of happiness which is destined to pass away? Do you really value the presence of Fortune when you cannot trust her to stay and when her departure will plunge you in sorrow? And if it is impossible to keep her at will and if her flight exposes men to ruin, what else is such a fleeting thing except a warning of coming disaster? It will never be sufficient just to notice what is under one’s nose: prudence calculates what the outcome of things will be. Either way Fortune’s very mutability deprives her threats of their terror and her enticements of their allure. And last of all, once you have bowed your neck beneath her yoke, you ought to bear with equanimity whatever happens on Fortune’s playground. If after freely choosing her as the mistress to rule your life you want to draw up a law to control her coming and going, you will be acting without any justification and your very impatience will only worsen a lot which you cannot alter. Commit your boat to the winds and you must sail whichever way they blow, not just where you want. If you were a farmer who entrusts his seed to the fields, you would balance the bad years against the good. So now you have committed yourself to the rule of Fortune, you must acquiesce in her ways. If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning, 1 you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance.
‘With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel,
Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro:
Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings
While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;
No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,
But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.
Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;
Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour
Sees happiness from utter desolation grow.’
‘I would like to continue our discussion a while by using Fortune’s own arguments, and I would like you to consider whether her demands are just. ‘‘Why do you burden me each day, mortal man,’’ she asks, ‘‘with your querulous accusations? What harm have I done you? What possessions of yours have I stolen? Choose any judge you like and sue me for possession of wealth and rank, and if you can show that any part of these belongs by right to any mortal man,
I will willingly concede that what you are seeking to regain really did belong to you. When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb I received you naked and devoid of everything and fed you from my own resources. I was inclined to favour you, and I brought you up –and this is what makes you lose patience with me –with a measure of indulgence, surrounding you with all the splendour and affluence at my command. Now I have decided to withdraw my hand. You have been receiving a favour as one who has had the use of another’s possessions, and you have no right to complain as if what you have lost was fully your own. You have no cause to begin groaning at me: I have done you no violence. Wealth, honours and the like are all under my jurisdiction. They are my servants and know their mistress. When I come, they come with me, and when I go, they leave as well. I can say with confidence that if the things whose loss you are bemoaning were really yours, you could never have lost them. Surely I am not the only one to be denied the exercise of my rights? The heavens are allowed to bring forth the bright daylight and lay it to rest in the darkness of night: the year is allowed alternately to deck the face of the earth with fruit and flowers and to disfigure it with cloud and cold. The sea is allowed either to be calm and inviting or to rage with storm-driven breakers. Shall man’s insatiable greed bind me to a constancy which is alien to my ways? Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require. You must surely have been aware of my ways. You must have heard of Croesus, king of Lydia, who was once able to terrorize his enemy Cyrus, only to be reduced to misery and be condemned to be burnt alive: only a shower of rain saved him. 2And you must have heard of Aemilius Paulus and how he wept tears of pity at all the disasters that had overwhelmed his prisoner, Perses, the last king of Macedonia. 3Isn’t this what tragedy commemorates with its tears and tumult –the overthrow of happy realms by the random strokes of Fortune? When you were a little boy you must have heard Homer’s story of the two jars standing in God’s house, the one full of evil and the other of good. 4Now, you have had more than your share of the good, but have I completely deserted you? Indeed, my very mutability gives you just cause to hope for better things. So you should not wear yourself out by setting your heart on living according to a law of your own in a world that is shared by everyone.
‘ ‘‘If Plenty from her well-stocked horn
With generous hand should distribute
As many gifts as grains of sand
The sea churns up when strong winds blow,
Or stars that shine on starlit nights,
The human race would still repeat
Its querulous complaints.
Though God should gratify their prayers
With open-handed gifts of gold
And furbish greed with pride of rank,
All that God gave would seem as naught.
Rapacious greed soon swallows all
And opens other gaping mouths;
No reins will serve to hold in check
The headlong course of appetite
Once such largess has fanned the flames
Of lust to have and hold:
No man is rich who shakes and groans
Convinced that he needs more.’’ ’
‘If Fortune herself had been speaking, she would have left you without a single syllable you could utter by way of reply. But if there is some argument which you can offer as a just defence for your complaints, you must put it forward and we will give you a hearing.’
And so I had my turn.
‘All that you have said,’ I began, ‘is certainly plausible and well sugared with the sweet honey of rhetoric and music. But it is only while one is actually listening that one is filled with pleasure, and for the wretched, the pain of their suffering goes deeper. So as soon as your words stop sounding in our ears, the mind is weighed down again by its deep seated melancholy.’
‘It is true,’ she rejoined, ‘for none of this is meant to be a cure for your condition, but simply a kind of application to help soothe a grief still resistant to treatment. When the time comes, I will apply something calculated to penetrate deep inside. In the meantime stop thinking of yourself as plunged in misery. Have you forgotten how fortunate you have been in many ways? I will not dwell on it, but when you were orphaned you were taken up into the care of men of the highest rank and chosen to marry into families which boasted the state’s most distinguished citizens. Even before you became their kinsman, you had begun to win their love, and that is the most precious kind of kinship of all. There was no one who would not have called you the luckiest man in the world, considering the glory reflected from your new connexions, the modesty of your wife, and the blessings your two sons proved to be. I have no desire to waste time on ordinary matters, so I will pass over the various dignities you received while still a young man, dignities which are denied the majority of men at any age. I want to come straight to the outstanding culmination of your fortune. If the enjoyment of any earthly blessing brings with it any measure of happiness, the memory of that splendid day can never be destroyed by the burden however great of growing evil. I mean the day that you saw your two sons amid the crowding senators and the rapture of the people carried forth from your house to be consuls together – the day they took their official seats in the senate chamber to listen to you delivering the speech of congratulation to the king and saw the genius of your oratory receive its crowning recognition: the same day as you sat in the stadium between the two consuls and as if it were a military triumph let your largess fulfil the wildest expectations of the people packed in their seats around you.
‘In my opinion you beguiled Fortune with empty words so long as you had her caresses and she cherished you as her darling. And you went off with a gift never before bestowed on any private individual. Perhaps you would like to reckon up the score with her? You will find this is the very first time she has turned an unfriendly eye upon you. If you thought of all the things that have happened to you, what kind of things they were, and whether they were happy or unhappy things, you would not be able to say you have not been fortunate up to now. On the other hand, if you do not consider that you have been lucky because your onetime reasons for rejoicing have passed away, you cannot now think of yourself as in misery, because the very things that seem miserable are also passing away. Why behave like a stranger newly arrived on the stage of life? You know there is no constancy in human affairs, when a single swift hour can often bring a man to nothing. For even if you can’t expect any permanence in a life of chance events, on the last day of one’s life there is a kind of death for Fortune even when she stays with one. What difference do you think it makes whether it is you that quit her by dying or she that quits you by desertion?
‘When Phoebus in his ruby car
Through heaven begins to spread his light,
Thereupon each pale-faced star
Grows dim before his radiance bright.
The woodlands at the breath of spring
Carmine coloured roses wear,
But let the wind his cold blasts fling,
They’ll leave the thorns of beauty bare.
Often the sea lies calm and still,
Its shimmering waves at rest,
And often the north wind churns the deep
With raging storms and mad unrest.
The world stays rarely long the same,
So great its instability,
So put your faith in transient luck,
And trust in wealth’s mortality!
In law eternal it lies decreed
That naught from change is ever freed.’
‘All that you say is true,’ I agreed. ‘You truly are mother of all virtues, and I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity. It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it. In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.’ 5
‘But you are suffering because of your misguided belief, and you can’t blame events for that,’ she replied. ‘If you are really so moved by the empty name of chance happiness, you can reckon up with me now the number of the very great blessings you still enjoy. And if you find that you still possess that which among all the gifts of Fortune was most precious to you and find it through God’s power unharmed and still untouched, you will hardly be able to talk about misfortune with any justice while you still possess outstanding blessings.
‘Take your father-in-law, Symmachus, one of the most precious ornaments of the human race; he is still full of vigour and– something you would willingly pay for with your life – a man wholly composed of wisdom and virtue, who disregards his own sufferings and weeps for yours. Your wife, too, is alive, a lady unsurpassed in nobility and modesty of character; to sum up all her qualities in a word, I would say she is the mirror of her father. She is, as I say, still alive and in her disgust with this life draws every breath for you alone. She longs for you and is consumed with tears and suffering, one thing in which I would concede that your happiness is diminished. I don’t know what more to add about your consular sons. Now, as when they were boys, they reflect the example of their father’s and grandfather’s character. You are a happy man, then, if you know where your true happiness lies, since when the chief concern of mortal men is to keep their hold on life, you even now possess blessings which no one can doubt are more precious than life itself. So dry your tears. Fortune has not yet turned her hatred against all your blessings. The storm has not yet broken upon you with too much violence. Your anchors are holding firm and they permit you both comfort in the present, and hope in the future.’
‘And I pray that they will hold,’ I said. ‘So long as they do, we will ride the storm out. But look how far events have gone since the time of my glory.’
‘If you are no longer dissatisfied with the whole of your fortune, we have made a little progress,’ she said. ‘But I can’t put up with your dilly-dallying and the dramatization of your care-worn grief-stricken complaints that something is lacking from your happiness. No man is so completely happy that something somewhere does not clash with his condition. It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety; they never prosper perfectly and they never remain constant. In one man’s case you will find riches offset by the shame of a humble birth and in another’s noble birth offset by unwelcome publicity on account of the crippling poverty of his family fortunes. Some men are blessed with both wealth and noble birth, but are unhappy because they have no wife. Some are happily married but without children, and husband their money for an heir of alien blood. Some again have been blessed with children only to weep over their misdeeds. No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him. There is something in the case of each of us that escapes the notice of the man who has not experienced it, but causes horror to the man who has. Remember, too, that all the most happy men are over-sensitive. They have never experienced adversity and so unless everything obeys their slightest whim they are prostrated by every minor upset, so trifling are the things that can detract from the complete happiness of a man at the summit of fortune. How many men do you think would believe themselves almost in heaven if they possessed even the smallest part of the luck you still enjoy? This very place which is banishment to you is home to those who live here. So nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity. No one is so happy that he would not want to change his lot if he gives in to impatience. Such is the bitter-sweetness of human happiness. To him that enjoys it, it may seem full of delight, but he cannot prevent it slipping away when it will. It is evident, therefore, how miserable the happiness of human life is; it does not remain long with those who are patient, and doesn’t satisfy those who are troubled.
‘Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? You are led astray by error and ignorance. I will briefly show you what complete happiness hinges upon. If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your own self, you will say no. So if you are in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away. In order to see that happiness can’t consist in things governed by chance, look at it this way. If happiness is the highest good of rational nature and anything that can be taken away is not the highest good – since it is surpassed by what can’t be taken away – Fortune by her very mutability can’t hope to lead to happiness.
‘Again, the man who is borne along by happiness which can at any time fail, either knows or does not know its unreliability. If he does not know it, what kind of happiness can there be in the blindness of ignorance? And if he does know it, he can’t avoid being afraid of losing that which he knows can be lost. And so a continuous fear prevents him being happy. And if he thinks the possibility of losing it a matter for indifference, then the good whose loss can be borne with such equanimity must be small indeed.
‘Furthermore, since you are a man I know to have been fully convinced by innumerable proofs that the human mind cannot die, and since it is clear that happiness which depends on chance comes to an end with the death of the body, it seems beyond doubt that if this happiness dependent on chance can bring pleasure, then the whole human race falls at death into misery. Yet we know that many men have sought the enjoyment of happiness through death and even through suffering and torment. It seems that the happiness which cannot make men unhappy by its cessation, cannot either make them happy by its presence.
‘The careful man will wish
To build a lasting home
Unshakeable by winds
That thunder from the East.
He’ll shun the open sea
That threatens with its waves,
And choose no mountain peaks
Which all the strength of winds
Buffet and beat from the South;
He’ll choose no thirsty sands
That sink and melt away
Beneath the building’s weight.
He’ll flee the dangerous lot
Of sites that please the eye,
Secure on lowly rock.
Though thunderous winds resound
And churn the seething sea,
Hidden away in peace
And sure of your strong-built walls,
You will lead a life serene
And smile at the raging storm.’
‘But the applications of reasoning that I have been using on you are beginning to penetrate, and the time has come, I think, for something rather stronger. So then, if the gifts that Fortune offers are not transitory and short-lived, tell me, which is there among them that can ever belong to you or whose worthlessness is not revealed by a moment’s thoughtful consideration? What makes riches precious, the fact that they belong to you or some quality of their own? And which is preferable, the gold itself or the power conferred by hoarded wealth? Yet if being miserly always makes men hated, while being generous wins them popularity, it is by spending rather than hoarding that men win the better reputation. Now, if something which is transferred to another cannot remain with its first owner, it is only when money is transferred to others in the exercise of liberality and ceases to be possessed that it becomes valuable. This same money, if it were ever collected together from wherever it lies among people into the possession of one man would make all the rest destitute of it. When you speak, your whole voice fills the ears of many hearers to an equal extent, but your riches cannot in the same way be shared equally among many without diminution. When riches are shared among many it is inevitable that they impoverish those from whom they pass. How poor and barren riches really are, then, is clear from the way that it is impossible for many to share them undiminished, or for one man to possess them without reducing all the others to poverty.
‘Perhaps your eyes are attracted by the way precious stones reflect the light. But if there is any special quality in this brilliance, it is in the light of the precious stones, not of men, so that I am astonished that men can admire them. Surely there is nothing devoid of life to give it movement, and devoid of structure, which living rational nature can justifiably consider beautiful? Such things may be works of the Creator and may draw some minimal beauty from their own ornamental nature, but they are of an inferior rank to you as a more excellent creature, and cannot in any way merit your admiration.
‘Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun. However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.
‘Perhaps you think that beauty means being resplendent in clothing of every variety: but if the clothing catches my eye, my admiration will be directed at either the quality of the material or the skill of the tailor. If you take pleasure in having a long line of attendants to wait on you, there are two points to consider: either they are rogues, in which case your household is nothing less than a dangerous burden and a positive threat to its master; or they are honest, and other men’s honesty can scarcely be counted among your possessions.
‘From all this it is obvious that not one of those things which you count among your blessings is in fact any blessing of your own at all. And if, then, they don’t contain a spark of beauty worth seeking, why weep over their loss or rejoice at their preservation? If Nature gives them their beauty, how does it involve you? They would still have been pleasing by themselves, even if separated from your possessions. It isn’t because they are part of your wealth that they are precious, but because you thought them precious that you wanted to add them to the sum of your riches.
‘What in fact is it that you are looking for in all this outcry against Fortune? To put poverty to flight with plenty? If so, it has turned out the very opposite. The more varied your precious possessions, the more help you need to protect them, and the old saying is proved correct, he who hath much, wants much. And the contrary is true as well, he needs least who measures wealth according to the needs of nature, and not the excesses of ostentation.
‘It seems as if you feel a lack of any blessing of your own inside you, which is driving you to seek your blessings in things separate and external. And so when a being endowed with a godlike quality in virtue of his rational nature thinks that his only splendour lies in the possession of inanimate goods, it is the overthrow of the natural order. Other creatures are content with what is their own, but you, whose mind is made in the image of God, seek to adorn your superior nature with inferior objects, oblivious of the great wrong you do your Creator. It was His will that the human race should rule all earthly creatures, but you have degraded yourself to a position beneath the lowest of all. If every good is agreed to be more valuable than whatever it belongs to, then by your own judgement when you account the most worthless of objects as goods 6 of yours, you make yourself lower than those very things, and it is no less than you deserve. Indeed, the condition of human nature is just this; man towers above the rest of creation so long as he recognizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts. For other living things to be ignorant of themselves, is natural; but for man it is a defect. What an obvious mistake to make – to think that anything can be enhanced by decoration that does not belong to it. It’s impossible. For if there is anything striking in the decoration, that is what is praised, while the veiled and hidden object continues just the same in all its ugliness.
‘My contention is that no good thing harms its owner, a thing which you won’t gainsay. But wealth very often does harm its owners, for all the most criminal elements of the population who are thereby all the more covetous of other people’s property are convinced that they alone are worthy to possess all the gold and precious stones there are. You are shuddering now at the thought of club and knife, but if you had set out on the path of this life with empty pockets, you would whistle your way past any highwayman. How splendid, then, the blessing of mortal riches is! Once won, they never leave you carefree again.
‘O happy was that long lost age
Content with nature’s faithful fruits
Which knew not slothful luxury.
They would not eat before due time
Their meal of acorns quickly found,
And did not know the subtlety
Of making honey sweeten wine,
Or how the power of Tyrian dyes
Could colour shining flocks 7of silk.
A grassy couch gave healthy sleep,
A gliding river healthy drink;
The tallest pine-tree gave them shade.
Men did not plunder all the world
And cut a path across the seas
With merchandise for foreign shores.
War horns were silent in those days
And blood unspilt in bitter hate
To horrify the reddening earth.
What reason then for enmity,
To seek the frenzied clash of arms,
When all men saw was gaping wounds
Without return for blood so spilt?
Would that our age could now return
To those pure ways of leading life.
But now the passion to possess
Burns fiercer than Mount Etna’s fire.
Alas for the man, whoever he was,
Who first dug heaps of buried gold
And diamonds content to hide,
And gave us perils of such price!’
‘I should like to say something about the dignities of high office and the exercise of power, but I am at a loss because in your ignorance of the true nature of power and dignities people like you exalt themselves to high heaven in virtue of the offices they hold. Now, whenever high office has fallen into the hands of wicked men, the disaster has been greater than flood or volcanic eruption. You remember, I am sure, how (principle of freedom though it had been) your ancestors wanted to abolish the consulship because of the arrogance of the consuls, just as before that the same arrogance had led them to abolish the title of king. If, on the other hand, the very rare case arises when these offices fall to honest men, surely the only aspect of them which finds favour is the honesty of the men who hold the offices. It follows, if this is so, that honour is not accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office because of the virtue of the holder.
‘However, let us examine this much lauded and much sought after power of yours. You creatures of earth, don’t you stop to consider the people over whom you think you exercise authority? You would laugh if you saw a community of mice and one mouse arrogating to himself power and jurisdiction over the others. Again, think of the human body: could you discover anything more feeble than man, when often even a tiny fly can kill him either by its bite or by creeping into some inward part of him? The only way one man can exercise power over another is over his body and what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquillity a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason. The tyrant Nearchus thought he would be able to torture the philosopher Zeno 8 into betraying his fellow conspirators in a plot against his person, but Zeno bit off his tongue and threw it in the face of the enraged tyrant. Nearchus had thought the tortures an occasion for barbarity, but Zeno made them an opportunity for heroism. There is nothing, in fact, which one man can do to another, which he cannot himself suffer at the hands of someone else. We have the story of how the Egyptian king Busiris used to put strangers to death until he himself was killed by a stranger in the person of Hercules. 9And in the first Punic War your general Regulus put fetters on many a Carthaginian prisoner of war, but not long afterwards was himself holding out his hands to receive a conqueror’s chains. 10Can you, then, consider it power at all, when a man cannot ensure that someone does not inflict on him what he can inflict on others?
‘If, furthermore, in these dignities and powers there was some natural and intrinsic good, they would never fall into the hands of evil men, since incompatible things do not usually associate, and nature rejects the combination of opposites. There is no doubt, then, that for the most part it is evil men who hold the offices, and it is therefore clear that these are not intrinsically good, since they admit of being associated with evil men. And the same may be properly concluded in the case of all fortune’s gifts, since they fall in greater abundance on all the most wicked people. There is another point to be considered about them. No one doubts that a man in whom he has seen evidence of bravery is brave: a man endowed with speed is manifestly speedy. In the same way music makes a man a musician, medicine makes him a doctor, and rhetoric makes him an orator; for it is the nature of anything to perform the office proper to it. It does not become mixed up in the operations of contrary things and actually repels opposites. But riches are unable to quench insatiable greed; power does not make a man master of himself if he is imprisoned by the indissoluble chains of wicked lusts; and when high office is bestowed on unworthy men, so far from making them worthy, it only betrays them and reveals their unworthiness. The reason for this is that you are accustomed to using the wrong words to refer to things which are by nature otherwise, and are easily proved to be so by their very operation. So neither riches, power nor high office can properly be called by these words. And lastly we may reach the same conclusion about Fortune as a whole. She has nothing worth pursuing, and no trace of intrinsic good; she never associates with good men and does not turn into good men those with whom she does associate.
‘We know the ruin Nero wrought
When Rome was fired and great men killed;
By brother’s hand his brother slain,
He dripped with blood from his mother spilled.
A practised eye o’er the corpse he rolled
With never a tear to wet his cheek,
Cool connoisseur of beauty cold. 11
The empire that he held in sway
Extended then from eastern dawn
To where sun sinks at close of day.
Its northern march where the two Bears stand,
Its southern bounds where the parched south wind
Burns and bakes the arid sand.
Could this high power stretched east and west
Check Nero’s frenzied lunacy?
Too often Fate, by all abhorred,
To savage poison adds the sword.’
Then I spoke to her and said that she was well aware of how little I had been governed by worldly ambition. I had sought the means of engaging in politics so that virtue should not grow old unpraised.
‘And that,’ she replied, ‘is the one thing that could entice minds endowed with natural excellence though not yet perfected with the finishing touch of complete virtue –the desire for glory, the thought of being famed for the noblest of services to the state. But just think how puny and insubstantial such fame really is. It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. The surface of the world, then, is small enough, and of it, as you have learnt from the geographer Ptolemy, approximately one quarter is inhabited by living beings known to us. If from this quarter you subtract in your mind all that is covered by sea and marshes and the vast area made desert by lack of moisture, then scarcely the smallest of regions is left for men to live in. This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. Remember, too, that this same narrow enclosure in which we live is the home of many nations which differ in language, customs and their whole way of life. Because of the difficulty of the journey, the difference of speech and the infrequence of trade, even the renown of great cities does not reach them, let alone the fame of individuals. Cicero mentions somewhere that in his time the fame of Rome had still not penetrated the Caucasus mountains, although the empire was then fully grown and an object of fear to the Parthians and other peoples in the east. 12
Surely you see, then, how cramped and confined the fame is which you are toiling to spread and propagate. You cannot expect the reputation of one of her citizens to succeed in penetrating regions which the glorious name of Rome cannot reach. And what about the fact that the manners and customs of different peoples are so unalike that different peoples will consider the same thing praiseworthy or punishable? A man may be pleased at the publication of his fame abroad, but among many peoples it may not be to his benefit at all to have his reputation spread. So a man will be content when he is famous throughout his own people, and his bright immortal fame will be confined within the bounds of a single nation.
‘Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them. And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which makes all things obscure. When you think of your future fame you think you are creating for yourself a kind of immortality. But if you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. The span of a single second can be compared with ten thousand years, but minute though it may be, it still has a value in proportion because each is a finite measure of time. But ten thousand years, or any multiple of it however great, cannot be compared with unending eternity. For while finite things can be compared with one another, the finite and the infinite can never be compared. So however protracted the life of your fame, when compared with unending eternity it is shown to be not just little, but nothing at all.
‘You, however, don’t know how to act uprightly except with an eye to popular favour and empty reputation. You ignore those excellent qualities, a good conscience and virtue, and pursue your reward in the common gossip of people. Listen while I tell you how cleverly someone once ridiculed the shallowness of this kind of conceit. A certain man once made a virulent attack on another man for falsely assuming the title of philosopher more in order to satisfy his overweening pride than to practise virtue, and added that he would accept that the title was justified if the man could suffer attacks upon him with patience and composure. For a time he did assume patience and after accepting the insults asked with a sneer whether the other now agreed that he was a philosopher. ‘‘I would,’’ came the reply, ‘‘if you had not spoken.’’ 13
‘But it is great men we are considering, men who seek fame for virtue. What do they care about reputation when the body grows lifeless in death which ends all things? If the whole of man dies, body and soul –a belief which our reason forbids us –fame is nothing at all, since the man who is said to have won it doesn’t exist. But if the mind stays conscious when it is freed from the earthly prison and seeks out heaven in freedom, surely it will despise every earthly affair. In the experience of heaven it will rejoice in its delivery from earthly things.
‘Let him whose headstrong thoughts no other end
Than praise, nor higher purpose contemplate
Than fame, the width and breadth of heaven regard
And with the narrow earth their magnitude
Compare. This narrow circle of the world –
O shame – his spreading glory cannot fill.
Why do the proud endeavour to escape
The destined yoke of man’s mortality?
Fame may diffuse to peoples far remote,
And as she spreads may loosen tongues of men;
The house may shine with honours radiant,
But leveller Death despising glory’s pride,
In scorn of rank abases all alike,
The mighty to the humble equal made.
Where now the bones of staunch Fabricius?
Where lies unbending Cato, Brutus where?
A little fame lives on inscribed in stone,
A line or two of empty reputation:
We know their splendid names but not their selves.
You, too, lie utterly unknown to men,
And no renown can render you well-known:
For if you think that fame can lengthen life
By mortal famousness immortalized,
The day will come that takes your fame as well,
And there a second death awaits for you.’
‘But I don’t want you to think I am rigidly opposed to Fortune, for there are times when she stops deceiving and helps man. I mean when she reveals herself, when she throws offher disguise and admits her game. Perhaps you still don’t understand what I’m saying. What I want to say is a paradox, and so I am hardly able to put it into words. For bad fortune, I think, is more use to a man than good fortune. Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by change she shows her true fickleness. Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens. With her display of specious riches good fortune enslaves the minds of those who enjoy her, while bad fortune gives men release through the recognition of how fragile a thing happiness is. And so you can see Fortune in one way capricious, wayward and ever inconstant, and in another way sober, prepared and made wise by the experience of her own adversity. And lastly, by her flattery good fortune lures men away from the path of true good, but adverse fortune frequently draws men back to their true good like a shepherdess with her crook. Do you think it is of small account that this harsh and terrible misfortune has revealed those friends whose hearts are loyal to you? She has shown you the friends whose smiles were true smiles, and those whose smiles were false; in deserting you Fortune has taken her friends with her and left those who are really yours. Had you remained untouched and, as you thought, blessed by Fortune, you would have been unable to get such knowledge at any price. So you are weeping over lost riches when you have really found the most precious of all riches – friends who are true friends.
‘The world in constant change
Maintains a harmony,
And elements keep peace
Whose nature is to war.
The sun in car of gold
Draws forth the rosy day,
And evening brings the night
When Luna holds her sway.
The tides in limits fixed
Confine the greedy sea;
No waves shall overflow
The rolling field and lea.
And all this chain of things
In earth and sea and sky
One ruler holds in hand:
If Love relaxed the reins
All things that now keep peace
Would wage continual war
And wreck the great machine
Which unity maintains
With motions beautiful.
Love, too, holds peoples joined
By sacred bond of treaty,
And weaves the holy knot
Of marriage’s pure love.
Love promulgates the laws
For friendship’s faithful bond.
O happy race of men
If Love who rules the sky
Could rule your hearts as well!’