She had stopped singing, but the enchantment of her song left me spellbound. I was absorbed and wanted to go on listening. After a moment I spoke to her.
‘You are the greatest comfort for exhausted spirits. By the weight of your tenets and the delightfulness of your singing you have so refreshed me that I now think myself capable of facing the blows of Fortune. You were talking of cures that were rather sharp. The thought of them no longer makes me shudder; in fact I’m so eager to hear more, I fervently beg you for them.’
‘I knew it,’ she replied. ‘Once you began to hang on my words in silent attention, I was expecting you to adopt this attitude –or rather, to be more exact, I myself created it in you. The remedies still to come are, in fact, of such a kind that they taste bitter to the tongue, but grow sweet once they are absorbed.
‘But you say you are eager to hear more. You would be more than eager if you knew the destination I am trying to bring you to.’
I asked what it was and she told me that it was true happiness.
‘Your mind dreams of it,’ she said, ‘but your sight is clouded by shadows of happiness and cannot see reality.’
I begged her to lead on and show me the nature of true happiness without delay.
‘For you,’ she said, ‘I will do so gladly.
‘But first I will try to describe and sketch an idea of the cause of happiness. Then, with a proper vision of that, you will be able to turn your gaze in a different direction and recognize the pattern of true happiness.
‘Whoever wants to sow in virgin soil
First frees the fields of undergrowth and bush,
Cuts back thick ferns and brambles with the scythe
And clears the way for crops of swelling wheat.
The tongue that first has tasted bitter food
Finds honey that the bees have won more sweet;
And stars shine out more pleasing to the eye
When from the south the rain-winged wind has dropped.
First the morning star gives chase to night,
Then beauteous day drives in his rosy steeds.
You, too, have seen the face of spurious good
From whose ill yoke you start to raise your neck,
And true good now shall penetrate your mind.’
She stood gazing at the ground for a while, as if she had retreated into the recesses of thought, and then began to speak again.
‘In all the care with which they toil at countless enterprises, mortal men travel by different paths, though all are striving to reach one and the same goal, namely, happiness, beatitude, which is a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired. It is the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good; and if anything were missing from it, it couldn’t be perfect, because something would remain outside it, which could still be wished for. It is clear, therefore, that happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good, a state, which, as we said, all mortal men are striving to reach though by different paths. For the desire for true good is planted by nature in the minds of men, only error leads them astray towards false good.
‘Some men believe that perfect good consists in having no wants, and so they toil in order to end up rolling in wealth. Some think that the true good is that which is most worthy of respect, and so struggle for position in order to be held in respect by their fellow citizens. Some decide that it lies in the highest power, and either want to be rulers themselves, or try to attach themselves to those in power. Others think that the best thing is fame and busy themselves to make a name in the arts of war or peace. But most people measure the possession of the good by the amount of enjoyment and delight it brings, convinced that being abandoned to pleasure is the highest form of happiness. Others again confuse ends and means with regard to these things, such as people who desire riches for the sake of power and pleasure, or those who want power for the sake of money or fame. So it is in these and other such objectives that the aim of human activity and desire is to be found, in fame and popularity which appear to confer a kind of renown, or in a wife and children which men desire for the sake of the pleasure they give. And as for friendship, the purest kind is counted as a mark not of good fortune, but of moral worth, but all other friendship is cultivated for the sake of power or pleasure.
‘Now, it is clear that physical endowments are aspects of higher blessings: for clearly bodily strength and size give a man might; beauty and speed give him renown; and health gives him pleasure. And through all of this it is clear that the only thing men desire is happiness. Each man considers whatever he desires above all else to be the supreme good. We have already defined the supreme good as happiness; so that the state which each man desires above all others is judged by him to be one of happiness. So you have before you the general pattern of human happiness – wealth, position, power, fame, pleasure. Taking only these into consideration, Epicurus with perfect consistency stated that pleasure was the highest good, because all the others bring the mind enjoyment.
‘But to return to the pursuits of men. Inspite of a clouded memory, the mind seeks its own good, though like a drunkard it cannot find the path home. No one would say that people who strive to have all they want are wrong. In fact there is no other thing which could so successfully create happiness as a condition provided with all that is good, a condition of self-sufficiency and with no wants. No one again would say those people are wrong who think that that which is most worthy of respect and veneration is the best. It is no cheap and contemptible thing the possession of which is the object of the exertions of almost all mankind. Power, too, must be counted among the things that are good. For something which is agreed to be superior to all things can scarcely be considered weak and impotent. And, again, fame can’t be considered valueless. It can’t be ignored because anything that is of great excellence is also of great renown. It is irrelevant to say that happiness is a state free from anxiety, sadness, and the domination of grief and suffering, when even in small matters, what men look for is something which gives delight by its possession and enjoyment.
‘These, then, are the things which people long to obtain. And they want riches, position, estates, glory and pleasures, because it is their conviction that through them they will achieve self-sufficiency, respect, power, celebrity and happiness. This is the good that men are looking for in such a variety of pursuits. And it is not difficult to show the hand of nature in this, since in spite of the variety and difference of their opinions, men are agreed in their choice of the good as their goal.
‘My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings
How mighty Nature holds the reins of things,
And how she frames her laws in providence
Which keep in motions fixed the globe immense;
How all things singly she doth bind and curb
With such a bond that nothing can disturb.
Although the lion wear decorated chains,
Although he’s subject to the lash’s pains,
Although he fear the tamer and will stand
To catch at morsels from an outstretched hand,
Let blood just once touch his bristling jaws,
His latent spirit will return and cause
Him with a roar his old self to recall
And break the chains that from his neck will fall.
First limb from limb the tamer then is torn
Whose new spilt blood augments the rage reborn.
A bird which chattered noisily when free
Into a cage is taken from the tree;
Though cups are set all sweet with honey there
And food in plenty with the sweetest care
Is ministered by men in their delight,
It flutters in the cage and catches sight
Of where the pleasant woodland shade is cast:
The food beneath its feet is scattered fast;
Now for the wood alone she sadly longs,
For the woods alone she sings her whispered songs.
Forced by strong hands the pliant switch obeys,
Its bended head down to the ground it lays;
But when those hands the withy cease to ply,
Its head springs up again to face the sky.
The sun into the western waves descends,
Where underground a hidden way he wends;
Then to his rising in the east he comes:
All things seek the place that best becomes.
Each thing rejoices when this is retrieved:
For nothing keeps the order it received
Except its rising to its fall it bend
And make itself a circle without end.’
‘You earthly creatures, you also dream of your origin, however faint the vision. You do have some sort of notion, unclear as it is, of the true goal of happiness, and so an instinctive sense of direction actually guides you towards the true good, only various errors lead you astray. Consider, therefore, whether men really can reach their appointed goal by the means with which they think they are going to win happiness or beatitude. If money or position or the rest do bring some sort of condition which doesn’t seem to lack any of the good things, I will join you in admitting that some people do become happy through the possession of them. But if money and the rest can’t achieve what they promise and are actually lacking in the greater number of good things, it will be quite obvious that in them men are snatching at a false appearance of happiness.
‘So first I will ask you a few questions, since you yourself were a wealthy man not long ago. In the midst of all that great store of wealth, was your mind never troubled by worry arising from a feeling that something was wrong?’
‘Yes it was,’ I replied; ‘in fact I can’t remember when my mind was ever free from some sort of worry.’
‘And that was either because something was missing which you didn’t want to be missing, or because something was present which you would have preferred not to have been present.’
‘You wanted the presence of one thing and the absence of another?’
‘Now a man must be lacking something if he misses it, mustn’t he?’
‘And if a man lacks something he is not in every way self-sufficient?’
‘And so you felt this insufficiency even though you were supplied with wealth?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘So that wealth cannot make a man free of want and self-sufficient, though this was the very promise we saw it offering. And this, too, I think, is a point of great importance, namely the fact that money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will.’
I had to agree.
‘You can hardly do otherwise,’ she continued, ‘when it can happen that someone takes it from another against his will because he is stronger. What else are the lawsuits for except to recover moneys that have been stolen by fraud or violence?’
‘That is true.’
‘So that a man will need outside help to protect his money.’
‘But he won’t need it if he doesn’t possess any money which may be lost?’
‘So the situation has been reversed. Wealth which was thought to make a man self-sufficient in fact makes him dependent on outside help. In which case, what is the way in which riches remove want? If you say that rich people do have the means of satisfying hunger and driving away thirst and cold, I will reply that although want can be checked in this way by riches, it can’t be entirely removed. Every hungry and clamorous want may be satisfied with the help of riches, but the want which admits of being satisfied necessarily still remains. There is no need for me to mention that nature is satisfied with little, whereas nothing satisfies greed. So that, if so far from being able to remove want, riches create a want of their own, there is no reason for you to believe that they confer self-sufficiency.
‘Though wanton gold-lust urge the rich man on
To reap in wealth that cannot sate his greed,
Though ponderous Persian 1pearls bow down his head
And oxen by the score his acres tread,
Each day he lives with gnawing care he’ll ache,
And dead, his fickle fortunes him forsake.’
‘But it is said, when a man comes to high office, that makes him worthy of honour and respect. Surely such offices don’t have the power of planting virtue in the minds of those who hold them, do they? Or of removing vices? No: the opposite is true. More often than removing wickedness, high office brings it to light, and this is the reason why we are angry at seeing how often high office has devolved upon the most wicked of men –why Catullus calls Nonius a kind of malignant growth, in spite of the office he held. 2
‘Surely you can see how much disgrace high office heaps upon the evil? If they don’t become famous because of appointments to high office, their unworthiness will be less conspicuous. And was it possible that so much danger could lead you, too, at long last to think of taking office along with Decoratus? 3 Surely you could see he had a thoroughly evil mind, the mind of a parasite and informer? We can scarcely consider men worthy of respect on account of the offices they hold, if we judge them unworthy of those offices! But if you saw a man endowed with wisdom, you would hardly think him unworthy of respect or of the wisdom he was endowed with, would you?’
‘Because virtue has her own individual worth, which she immediately transfers to whoever possesses her. But as public offices cannot do this, it is clear that they have no beauty or worth of their own.
‘There is another point we should especially note: if a man is the more worthless the more widely he is despised, then, since high office displays men to the public gaze, but cannot make them worthy of respect, it makes them instead more despised. But not with impunity; for wicked men confer a like return on the offices they hold: they discredit them through contact with themselves.
‘But I want you to see how true respect cannot be obtained through the insubstantial honours of high office; take the example of a man who has been consul many times and comes by chance among foreign peoples: would his offices make him respected by them? If it were a natural property of high offices, they would never fail to have this effect anywhere in the world, just as anywhere on earth fire is always hot. But as it is the false opinion of men that connects them with this function and not some inherent property, immediately they reach people who don’t consider them honours, they come to nothing.
‘This is what happens among foreigners. But do they last for ever in the country of their origin? There was a time when the praetorship was an office of great power, but now it is no more than an empty name and a heavy burden on the pockets of the senatorial class. And once upon a time if a man had charge of the corn supplies, he was considered a great man, but now no office is lower. For as we said just now, if a thing has no beauty of its own, its dignity varies at different times according to the opinion of the people who use it.
‘If, therefore, high offices cannot make people worthy of respect and if, furthermore, they become tarnished by contact with evil men; if their splendour can disappear with the change of time and they grow cheap in the estimation of foreign peoples, without asking what beauty they can confer, what beauty worth desiring do they even possess?
‘Although the proud lord clothed himself
In purple robes and gem-stones white,
Yet Nero grew to all men’s hate
A wild and cruel sybarite.
At times the evil man would give
To reverend elders office low;
But who could think those honours good
Which wretched men on them bestow?’
‘Can being a king or being the friend of a king give a man power? If the answer is ‘‘Yes, because their happiness endures uninterrupted,’’ I shall reply that history, and our own times too, is full of examples of kings who exchanged happiness for ruin. What a splendid thing power is, when we find it insufficient even for its own preservation!
‘Now, if kingly power is a source of happiness, any deficiency in it means a diminution of happiness and the introduction of unhappiness, doesn’t it? Whatever the size of human empires, it is inevitable that many people are left unruled by any king. And wherever the power that makes men happy comes to an end, lack of power enters and makes them wretched. So that there necessarily exists among kings a larger share of misery. Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse knew well enough the dangers of his position, when he illustrated the fears of kingship to Damocles by making a sword dangle over his head by a single hair.
‘What is this power, then, which cannot banish the nagging of worry or avoid the pin-prick of fear? Kings would like to live free from worry, but they can’t. And then they boast of their power! Do you think of a man as powerful when you see him lacking something which he cannot achieve? A man who goes about with a bodyguard because he is more afraid than the subjects he terrorizes, and whose claim to power depends on the will of those who serve him?
‘And what should I say of the friends of kings, when I can show that kingship itself is full of such weakness? They are often brought down while the royal power remains unimpaired, but often too when it collapses. The decision to commit suicide was forced upon Seneca by the very Nerowhose friend and mentor he had been. And Papinian who had long been a power in the court was thrown to the soldiers’ swords by Caracalla. 4 Each of them was willing to give up his power. Seneca even tried to give his money to Nero and go into retirement. But like men who lose their footing and are pulled down by their own weight, neither was able to achieve what he wanted.
‘What sort of power is it, then, that strikes fear into those who possess it, confers no safety on you if you want it, and which cannot be avoided when you want to renounce it? There is no support, either, in friends you acquire because of your good fortune rather than your personal qualities. The friend that success brings you becomes your foe in time of misfortune. And there is no evil more able to do you injury than a friend turned foe.
‘Whoever wants to wield high power
Must tame his passions fierce;
His heart to evil must not cower
Or bow to lust’s fell yoke.
For distant India tremble may
Beneath your mighty rule,
And Thulé 5bow beneath your sway
Far in the Northern sea,
But if to care and want you’re prey,
No king are you, but slave.’
‘Fame, in fact, is a shameful thing, and so often deceptive. Euripides was right to make Andromache cry out
O Fame, o Fame! –many a man ere this
Of no account hast thou set up on high. 6
Many, indeed, are the men who have wrongly acquired fame through the false opinions of the people. There is nothing more conceivably shameful than that. Men who are unjustifiably commended cannot but blush at the praise they receive. And even if the praise is deserved, it cannot add anything to the philosopher’s feelings: he measures happiness not by popularity, but by the true voice of his own conscience.
‘If it is thought a fine achievement to have spread this fame far and wide, it follows that it must be judged shameful not to have spread one’s fame. But, as I said just now, there must of necessity be many peoples to whom the reputation of one single man can never extend, so that you may consider a man famous, whom the next quarter of the globe will never even have heard of. This is why I don’t consider popularity worth mentioning in this list; its acquisition is fortuitous and its retention continuously uncertain.
‘As for the claim to nobility, no one is blind to the vanity and worthlessness of that. If it derives from fame, it is borrowed nobility, for it is clearly a kind of praise derived from the deeds of one’s parents. Fame is the product of praise, and it is logical that it is those who are praised that become famous. Therefore the praise of someone else cannot ennoble you unless you are famous in your own right. If there is anything good in nobility, I think it is only this: that there is a necessary condition imposed upon the noble not to fall short of the virtue of their ancestors.
‘From one beginning rises all mankind;
For one Lord rules and fathers all things born.
He gave the sun his light, the moon her horns,
And men to earth and stars to deck the sky;
He closed in bodies minds brought down from high,
A noble origin for mortal men.
Why then proclaim your kin and ancestry?
Look whence you came and see who made you, God.
No man is base except through sin he quit
His proper source to cherish meaner things.’
‘Of bodily pleasure I can think of little to say. Its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse. Frequently, like a kind of reward for wickedness, it causes great illness and unbearable pain for those who make it their source of enjoyment. I do not know what happiness lies in its passions, but that the end of pleasure is sorrow is known to everyone who cares to recall his own excesses. But if bodily pleasure can produce happiness, there is no need to deny that animals are happy, since their whole aim in life is directed towards the fulfilment of bodily needs. The pleasures derived from a wife and children are indeed most honest; but there is a story all too natural that a certain man found his children tormentors. How painful the condition of every such man is, there is no need to remind you, since you have experienced such conditions yourself, and are still not free from anxiety. So I agree with my Euripides when he said that the childless man was fortunate in his misfortune. 7
‘All pleasures have one quality alike:
They drive their devotees with goads.
And like a swarm of bees upon the wing,
They first pour out their honey loads,
Then turn and strike their victim’s heart
And leave behind their deep set sting.’
‘There is no doubt, then, that these roads to happiness are side-tracks and cannot bring us to the destination they promise. The evils with which they are beset are great, as I will briefly show you. If you try to hoard money, you will have to take it by force. If you want to be resplendent in the dignities of high office, you will have to grovel before the man who bestows it: in your desire to outdo others in high honour you will have to cheapen and humiliate yourself by begging. If you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks. If fame is what you seek, you will find yourself on a hard road, drawn this way and that until you are worn with care. Decide to lead a life of pleasure, and there will be no one who will not reject you with scorn as the slave of that most worthless and brittle master, the human body.
‘For think how puny and fragile a thing men strive to possess when they set the good of the body before them as their aim. As if you could surpass the elephant in size, the bull in strength, or the tiger in speed! Look up at the vault of heaven: see the strength of its foundation and the speed of its movement, and stop admiring things that are worthless. Yet the heavens are less wonderful for their foundation and speed than for the order that rules them. 8
‘The sleek looks of beauty are fleeting and transitory, more ephemeral than the blossom in spring. If, as Aristotle said, we had the piercing eyesight of the mythical Lynceus 9and could see right through things, even the body of an Alcibiades, 10so fair on the surface, would look thoroughly ugly once we had seen the bowels inside. Your own nature doesn’t make you look beautiful. It is due to the weak eyesight of the people who see you. Think how excessive this desire for the good of the body is, when, as you know, all that you admire can be reduced to nothing by three days of burning fever.
‘The sum of all this is that because they can neither produce the good they promise nor come to perfection by the combination of all good, these things are not the way to happiness and cannot by themselves make people happy.
‘Alas, what wretched ignorance leads
Mankind from the path astray!
Who looks on spreading boughs for gold,
On vines for jewels gay?
What man sets nets on mountain-tops
For feasts of rich sea-food?
What huntsman has the wild goat
Upon the sea pursued?
The very ocean’s depths men know
Beneath the waves on high;
They know which strand is rich with pearls,
Which shores with purple dye;
They know the bays for tender fish,
For shellfish where to try.
But in their blindness they do not know
Where lies the good they seek:
That which is higher than the sky
On earth below they seek.
What can I wish you foolish men?
Wealth and fame pursue,
And when great toil wins false reward,
Then may you see the true!’
‘I have said enough to give a picture of false happiness, and if you can see that clearly, the next thing is to show what true happiness is like.’
‘I do indeed see that sufficiency has nothing to do with riches, or power with kingship, respect with honours, glory with fame, or happiness with pleasures.’
‘But have you grasped the reasons for this?’
‘I think I can see a glimmer of them, but I would like to learn of them more clearly from you.’
‘The reason is very clear. That which is one and undivided is mistakenly subdivided and removed by men from the state of truth and perfection to a state of falseness and imperfection. Do you consider self-sufficiency as a state deficient in power?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Of course not; for if a being had some weakness in some respect, it would necessarily need the help of something else.’
‘So that self-sufficiency and power are of one and the same nature.’
‘So it seems.’
‘Would you then consider a being of this kind beneath contempt, or on the contrary supremely worthy of veneration?’
‘The latter, there is no doubt about it.’
‘Then let us add the state of being revered to sufficiency and power, that we may judge all three to be one.’
‘We must, if we care to admit the truth.’
‘What do you think, then, would such a combination be unrecognized and unknown, or famous and renowned? Granted that it lacks nothing, possesses all power, and is supremely worthy of honour, ask yourself whether it would lack a glory which it cannot provide for itself and therefore whether it seems of qualified merit.’
‘I can only say that in view of its nature it would be unsurpassed in fame and glory.’
‘And consequently we may say that fame, glory, renown is nothing different from the three we already have.’
‘If there were, then, a being self-sufficient, able to accomplish everything from its own resources, glorious and worthy of reverence, surely it would also be supremely happy?’
‘How any sorrow could approach such a being is inconceivable: it must be admitted that provided the other qualities are permanent, it will be full of happiness.’
‘And for the same reason this conclusion, too, is inescapable; sufficiency, power, glory, reverence and happiness differ in name but not in substance.’
‘Human perversity, then, makes divisions of that which by nature is one and simple, and in attempting to obtain part of something which has no parts, succeeds in getting neither the part – which is nothing – nor the whole, which they are not interested in.’
‘How does that happen?’
‘If a man pursues wealth by trying to avoid poverty, he is not working to get power; he prefers being unknown and unrecognized, and even denies himself many natural pleasures to avoid losing the money he has got. But certainly no sufficiency is achieved this way, since he is lacking in power and vexed by trouble; he is of no account because of his low esteem, and is buried in obscurity. And if a man pursues only power, he expends wealth, despises pleasures and honour without power, and holds glory of no account. But you can see how much this man also lacks; at any one time he lacks the necessaries of life and is consumed by worry, from which he cannot free himself, so he ceases to be what he most of all wants to be, that is, powerful. A similar argument can be applied to honour, glory, and pleasures, for, since any one of them is the same as the others, a man who pursues one of them to the exclusion of the others, cannot even acquire the one he wants.’
‘But suppose someone should want to obtain them all at one and the same time.’
‘Then he would be seeking the sum of happiness. But do you think he would find it among these things which we have shown to be unable to confer what they promise?’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘So that it is impossible to find happiness among these things which are thought to confer each of the desired states individually?’
‘I agree, and no truer word could be spoken.’
‘Then there you have both the nature and the cause of false happiness. Now turn your mind’s eye in the opposite direction and you will immediately see the true happiness that I promised.’
‘Even a blind man could see it,’ I said, ‘and you revealed it just now when you were trying to show the causes of false happiness. For unless I’m mistaken, true and perfect happiness is that which makes a man self-sufficient, strong, worthy of respect, glorious and joyful. And to show you that I have more than a superficial understanding, without a shadow of doubt I can see that happiness to be true happiness which, since they are all the same thing, can truly bestow any one of them.’
‘You are blessed in this belief, my child, provided you add one thing.’
‘What is that?’
‘Do you think there is anything among these mortal and degenerate things which could confer such a state?’
‘No, I don’t, and you have proved it as well as anyone could wish.’
‘Clearly, therefore, these things offer man only shadows of the true good, or imperfect blessings, and cannot confer true and perfect good.’
‘Since then you have realized the nature of true happiness and seen its false imitations, what remains now is that you should see where to find this true happiness.’
‘Which is the very thing I have long and eagerly been waiting for.’
‘But since in the Timaeu. my servant Plato was pleased to ask for divine help even over small matters, 11what do you think we ought to do now in order to be worthy of discovering the source of that supreme good?’
‘We ought to pray to the Father of all things. To omit to do so would not be laying a proper foundation.’
‘Right,’ she said, and immediately began the following hymn.
‘O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,
Creator of the planets and the sky, who time
From timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover,
No cause drove Thee to mould unstable matter, but
(5) The form benign of highest good within Thee set.
All things Thou bringest forth from Thy high archetype:
Thou, height of beauty, in Thy mind the beauteous world
Dost bear, and in that ideal likeness shaping it,
Dost order perfect parts a perfect whole to frame.
(10) The elements by harmony Thou dost constrain,
That hot to cold and wet to dry are equal made,
That fire grow not too light, or earth too fraught with weight.
The bridge of threefold nature mad’st Thou soul, which spreads
Through nature’s limbs harmonious and all things moves.
(15) The soul once cut, in circles two its motion joins,
Goes round and to itself returns encircling mind,
And turns in pattern similar the firmament.
From causes like Thou bringst forth souls and lesser lives,
Which from above in chariots swift Thou dost disperse
(20) Through sky and earth, and by Thy law benign they turn
And back to Thee they come through fire that brings them home.
Grant, Father, that our minds Thy august seat may scan,
Grant us the sight of true good’s source, and grant us light
That we may fix on Thee our mind’s unblinded eye.
(25) Disperse the clouds of earthly matter’s cloying weight;
Shine out in all Thy glory; for Thou art rest and peace
To those who worship Thee; to see Thee is our end,
Who art our source and maker, lord and path and goal.’
‘Since, then, you have seen the form both of imperfect and of perfect good, I think we now have to show where this perfect happiness is to be found.
‘The first question to ask is, I think, whether any good of the kind I defined a moment ago can exist in the natural world. This will prevent our being led astray from the truth of the matter before us by false and ill-founded reasoning. But the existence of this good and its function as a kind of fountain-head of all good things cannot be denied; for everything that is said to be imperfect is held to be so by the absence of perfection. So that if a certain imperfection is visible in any class of things, it follows that there is also a proportion of perfection in it. For if you do away with perfection, it is impossible to imagine how that which is held to be imperfect could exist. The natural world did not take its origin from that which was impaired and incomplete, but issues from that which is unimpaired and perfect and then degenerates into this fallen and worn out condition. But we showed just now that there is a certain imperfect happiness in perishable good, so that there can be no doubt that a true and perfect happiness exists.’
‘Which is a very sound and true conclusion,’ I said.
‘As to where it is to be found, then, you should think as follows. It is the universal understanding of the human mind that God, the author of all things, is good. Since nothing can be conceived better than God, everyone agrees that that which has no superior is good. Reason shows that God is so good that we are convinced that His goodness is perfect. Otherwise He couldn’t be the author of creation. There would have to be something else possessing perfect goodness over and above God, which would seem to be superior to Him and of greater antiquity. For all perfect things are obviously superior to those that are imperfect. Therefore, to avoid an unending argument, it must be admitted that the supreme God is to the highest degree filled with supreme and perfect goodness. But we have agreed that perfect good is true happiness; so that it follows that true happiness is to be found in the supreme God.’
‘I accept that. There is nothing in any way open to contradiction.’
‘But,’ she said, ‘I must ask you to make sure that your approval of our statement that the supreme God is to the highest degree filled with supreme good is unqualified and final’
‘How do you mean?’ I asked.
‘By avoiding the assumption that this Father of creation has received this supreme good with which He is said to be filled from outside Himself, or that He possesses it by nature but in such a way as would lead you to suppose that the substance 13of God the possessor was a separate thing from the substance of the happiness He possesses. If you thought that He received it from outside Himself, you would be able to count the giver superior to the receiver. But we are in agreement that it is right to consider God the most excellent of things.
‘On the other hand, if goodness is a natural property of God, but something logically distinct from Him, whenever we speak of God as the author of creation, an able mind might be able to imagine the existence of a power responsible for bringing together the two that were separate.
‘Finally, if one thing is distinct from another, it cannot be the thing from which it is perceived to be distinct. So that which by its own nature is something distinct from supreme good, cannot be supreme good; but this is something we may not hold about Him to whom we agree there is nothing superior. It is impossible for anything to be by nature better than that from which it is derived. I would therefore conclude with perfect logic that that which is the origin of all things is in its own substance supreme good.’
‘But we have agreed that supreme good is the same as happiness.’
‘So that we have to agree that God is the essence of happiness.’
‘Your premises are incontestable and I see that this inference follows upon them.’
‘Then consider whether this, too, can be firmly accepted: that it is impossible for two supreme goods to exist separate from one another. For it is clear that if the two goods are separate, the one cannot be the other, so that neither could be perfect when each is lacking to the other. But that which is not perfect is obviously not supreme. It is therefore impossible for there to be two separate supreme goods. However, we deduced that both happiness and God are supreme goodness, so that it follows that supreme happiness is identical with supreme divinity.’
‘There could scarcely be a conclusion more true to reality, or more sure in its reasoning, or more worthy of God.’
‘I will add something to it. Just as in geometry some additional inference may be drawn from a theorem that has been proved, called in technical language, in Greek a porism. and in Latin a corollary, I too will give you a kind of corollary. Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation.’
‘What you say is beautiful and valuable, whether you give it the Greek or the Latin name.’
‘But the most beautiful thing is what logic leads us to add to all this.’
‘What is that?’
‘Are all the many things we see included under the word happiness like parts combining to form a single body, yet separate in their variety, or is there any one of them which can fully supply the essence of happiness and under which the others may be classed?’
‘Could you clarify the question by being more specific?’
‘Well, we consider happiness something good, don’t we?’
‘Yes, the supreme good.’
‘You could say the same of all of them. Absolute sufficiency is judged to be the same as happiness, and so too are power, reverence, glory and pleasure. Well, the question is this, all these things – sufficiency, power and the others – are they good as if happiness were a body of which they were members, or is goodness something superordinate to which they belong?’
‘I understand the question which you are proposing we should ask, but I should like to hear what your answer would be.’
‘This is how I would resolve it. If all these were related to happiness like limbs to a body, they would differ from one another, because it is the nature of parts that the body is one, but the parts that make it up are diverse. But all these things have been proved to be identical. So that they are not like limbs. Moreover it would appear that happiness was a body made up of a single limb, which is impossible.’
‘There is no doubt of that; but I am eager for what is to come.’
‘It is clear that the other properties are classed under good. It is just because sufficiency is judged a good that people want it, and it is just because it too is believed to be a good that power is sought after. And exactly the same conclusion may be reached about reverence, glory and pleasure.
‘The chief point and reason, therefore, for seeking all things is goodness. For it is quite impossible for that which contains no good in itself whether real or apparent, to be an object of desire. On the other hand, things which are not good by nature are sought after if they nevertheless seem as if they were truly good.
‘The result is, therefore, that there is justice in the belief that goodness is the chief point upon which the pursuit of everything hinges and by which it is motivated. What seems most to be desired is the thing that motivates the pursuit of something, as, for example, if a man wants to go riding for the sake of health; it is not so much the motion of horse-riding he desires as the resultant good health. Since, therefore, all things are desired for the sake of the good in them, no one desires them as much as the good itself. But we are agreed that the reason for desiring things is happiness. So that it is patently obvious that the good itself and happiness are identical.’
‘I can see no reason for anyone to disagree.’
‘But we have shown that God and happiness are one and the same thing.’
‘We may safely conclude, then, that God is to be found in goodness itself and nowhere else.
‘Come hither now all you who captive are,
Whom false desire enchains in wicked bonds,
Desire that makes her home in earthly minds;
Here will you find release from grievous toil,
Here find a haven blessed with peaceful calm,
An ever open refuge from distress.
Not all the gold that Tagus’ sands bestow,
That Hermus sheds upon his glittering banks,
Or Indus, on whose torrid shores are strewn
Green emeralds intermixed with dazzling pearls,
May sharpen and make bright the intellect,
But wealth in its own darkness clouds the thoughts.
For all that thus excites and charms the mind
Dim earth has fostered in her caverns deep;
While that bright light which rules and animates
The sky, will shun such dark and ruined souls:
Whoever once shall see this shining light
Will say the sun’s own rays are not so bright.’
‘I agree, for all that you have said is established and connected by the soundest of reasoning.’
Then she asked, ‘How valuable would you think it if you could come to know the good itself?’
‘Infinitely valuable,’ I said, ‘if I should also be able to see God, who is the good.’
‘I will make it clear with unimpeachable reasoning,’ she said, ‘provided our recent conclusions may stand.’
‘They may,’ I said.
‘We have proved, then, haven’t we, that the various things that the majority of men pursue are not perfect and good, for the reason that they differ from one another, and because they are lacking to one another and cannot confer full and perfect good. On the other hand, true good does come about when they are brought together into one form and efficient power, as it were, so that sufficiency becomes identical with power, reverence, glory and pleasure; unless all are one and the same thing they have no claim to be included among worthwhile objects of pursuit.’
‘You have proved it and there is no room at all for doubt.’
‘When these objects differ, they’re not good, but when they begin to be one they become good; so it comes about that it is through the acquisition of unity that these things are good, doesn’t it?’
‘It seems so.’
‘But do you or do you not agree that everything that is good is so through participation in goodness?’
‘I do agree.’
‘Then you are obliged to agree by the same argument that unity and goodness are identical. For things whose natural effect is identical must have the same substance in common.’
‘I cannot gainsay it.’
‘You know, then, that everything that is remains and subsists just so long as it is one, but perishes and dissolves immediately it ceases to be one?’
‘How is that?’
‘It is just as with living creatures: when soul and body come together and remain united, we speak of a living being, but when this unity breaks up through the separation of either component, it is clear that the living being perishes and no longer exists. The very body, too, so long as it remains in one form through the combination of its members, you see a human figure; but if the parts are divided up and separated and the body’s unity destroyed, it ceases to be what it was. You may run through every other thing and it will be clear beyond a shadow of doubt that everything subsists as long as it is one, but perishes when its unity ceases.’
‘Yes, I can think of many things of which this is true.’
‘Now is there anything which in the course of its natural activity loses the will to exist and desires to obtain death and corruption?’
‘If I confine my thoughts to living creatures endowed by nature with freedom of choice, I can find nothing which in the absence of external compulsion would give up the intention to live and willingly hasten towards death. For every kind of animal is at pains to guard its own safety, and shuns death and destruction. But in the case of plants and trees, I am in some doubt as to what I would agree with.’
‘And yet there is no room for indecision here either, because you can see how in the first place plants and trees grow up in places suitable to them and where it would be unnatural for them quickly to wither and die. Some grow in fields, some on hills, some in marshes; some cling to rocky ground and the barren desert abounds with others. And if you tried to transplant them into other habitats, they would wither away. Nature gives each one whatever suits it, and as long as life is possible toils to prevent them dying. Just think how they all draw nourishment through their roots, as if they were burying their mouths in the earth, and how strength spreads through their pith and bark. And how the softest part like the pith is always buried inside, while the covering of bark with the strength of the wood is set on the outside to withstand the inclemency of the weather, like a protector capable of enduring such malice. And how painstaking Nature is to ensure that all things are propagated by the multiplication of their seed. Everyone knows that they are like a kind of machine not only for the duration of their own lifetime, but for the almost everlasting propagation of their species.
‘Even things which are believed to be inanimate also desire in a similar way that which is their own, don’t they? Otherwise why is flame carried upwards by its lightness and solid things carried down by their weight, except because these positions and motions suit the individual things? Furthermore, that which is suitable to each thing, they preserve, just as they destroy what is harmful. Things that are hard, like stone, cohere with great tenacity throughout their parts and resist being easily broken up. But fluids, like air and water, easily give way before a dividing force, and easily reunite again with the parts that have been cut off; and fire doesn’t admit of being cut at all.
‘We are not dealing with willed motions of the conscious mind, but with instinctive motions, like the way we digest the food we have taken without thinking about it, and the way we breathe in our sleep without being conscious of it. Not even in living things is the love of self-preservation due to the wishes of their mind, but to the principles of their nature. For often when there are reasons which force death upon a creature, Nature turns away in horror, but the will accepts it. And on the other hand, the work of procreation which alone gives mortal creatures their continuity and which Nature always desires, is sometimes curbed by the will. To such an extent does this love of self-preservation stem not from conscious desire, but from natural instinct. Providence has given its creatures one great reason to go on living, namely the instinctive desire for the greatest possible self-preservation. There is no reason, therefore, for you to have any doubt that all things have an instinctive desire to preserve their life and avoid destruction.’
‘I admit that what just now seemed uncertain to me I can now see without any doubt.’
‘Now, whatever seeks to subsist and remain alive desires to be one; take unity away from a thing and existence too ceases.’
‘That is true.’
‘So that all things desire unity.’
‘But we proved that unity is identical with goodness.’
‘So that all things seek the good, which you could describe by saying that it is goodness itself which all things desire.’
‘No truer conclusion could be discovered. For either all things are inclined to no one thing and will wander about aimlessly as though destitute of any head or helmsman to guide them, or if there is something to which all things are inclined, it will be the sum of all good.’
‘I am very happy, my son, for you have fixed in your mind the very mark of the central truth. And in this you have revealed the very thing you were just now saying you did not know.’
‘What was that?’
‘What the end of all things was. For certainly it is the same as that which all things desire; we have deduced that that is goodness, and so we must agree that the end of all things is the good.
‘Whoever deeply searches out the truth
And will not be decoyed down false by-ways,
Shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,
Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home
(5) And teach his heart that what it seeks abroad
It holds in its own treasuries within.
What error’s gloomy clouds have veiled before
Will then shine clearer than the sun himself.
Not all its light is banished from the mind
(10) By body’s matter which makes men forget.
The seed of truth lies hidden deep within,
And teaching fans the spark to take new life;
Why else unaided can man answer true,
Unless deep in the heart the touchwood burns?
(15) And if the muse of Plato speaks the truth,
Man but recalls what once he knew and lost.’14
Then I said, ‘I agree very strongly with Plato. This is the second time you have reminded me of these matters. The first time was because I had lost the memory through the influence of the body, and this second time because I lost it when I became overwhelmed by the weight of my grief
‘If you look at what we have already agreed, you won’t be far from remembering what you said you did not know just now.’
‘What was that?’
‘The manner in which the world is governed.’
‘I remember admitting my ignorance, but even though I have some inkling of them I should like to hear more plainly what arguments you would adduce.’
‘Just now you thought it was beyond doubt that this world was ruled by God.’
‘I still do think it is beyond doubt, and will always think so. I will briefly explain the arguments which convince me in this matter.
‘This world would never have coalesced into one form out of such diverse and antagonistic parts had there not been one who could unify such diversity. Their very diversity in turn would make them break out into dissension and tear apart and destroy the unity of the world unless there were a power capable of holding together what he had once woven. Nature’s fixed order could not proceed on its path and the various kinds of change could not exhibit motions so orderly in place, time, effect, distance from one another, and nature, unless there was one unmoving and stable power to regulate them. For this power, whatever it is, through which creation remains in existence and in motion, I use the word which all people use, namely God.’
Then she said, ‘Since this is your opinion, I think little remains for me to do before you acquire happiness and return safe and sound to your true homeland.
‘But let us look at the arguments we have set forth. Under happiness we have included sufficiency, haven’t we, and we have agreed that God is happiness itself ?’
‘So that in regulating the universe He will need no external assistance–otherwise, if He needs anything, He won’t have complete sufficiency.’
‘The inference is inescapable.’
‘So that He regulates all things by Himself?’
‘It cannot be denied.’
‘Now, we have proved that God is the good itself.’
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘So that it is by goodness that He rules all things, since He rules them by Himself and we have agreed that He is the good. It is this which is the helm and rudder, so to speak, by which the fabric of the universe is kept constant and unimpaired.’
‘I strongly agree; and this is exactly what I thought you were going to say, although I wasn’t sure of my surmise.’
‘I believe you,’ she said, ‘for now, I think, you are bringing your eyes to look with greater care upon the truth. And what I am going to say is no less clear to the sight.’
‘What is that?’ I asked.
‘Since we are right in thinking that God controls all things by the helm of goodness, and all things, as I have said, have a natural inclination towards the good, it can hardly be doubted, can it, that they are willingly governed and willingly obey the desires of him who controls them, as things that are in harmony and accord with their helmsman.’
‘It is necessarily so, for it would hardly seem a happy government if it were like a yoke imposed upon unwilling necks instead of a willing acceptance of salvation.’
‘There is nothing, therefore, which could preserve its own nature as well as go against God.’
‘If it did try, it wouldn’t make any progress against Him whom we have agreed to be, because of His happiness, supreme in power.’
‘No, it would be completely powerless.’
‘Is there anything, then, which might either wish to be or be able to withstand this supreme good?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘It is the supreme good, then, which mightily and sweetly orders all things.’
Then I said, ‘The conclusion of this highest of arguments has made me very happy, and I am even more happy because of the words you used. 15 I am now ashamed of the stupidity of all my railing.’
‘You have no doubt heard how in mythology the giants began attacking heaven, 16and as was right, they, too, were kindly but firmly set to order. But would you like us to bring about a conflict of arguments? Perhaps from a collision of this kind some beautiful spark of truth might leap forth.’
‘Whatever you decide,’ I said.
‘No one could doubt that God is omnipotent.’
‘No one, at any rate, who is in his right mind would have any doubt about it.’
‘But there is nothing that an omnipotent power could not do?’
‘Then, can God do evil?’
‘So that evil is nothing, since that is what He cannot do who can do anything.’
‘You are playing with me, aren’t you, by weaving a labyrinth of arguments from which I can’t find the way out. At one moment you go in where you’ll come out, and at another you come out where you went in. Or are you creating a wonderful circle of divine simplicity? Just now you began with happiness and said it was the highest good, and you said it was to be found in God. Then you began arguing that God Himself was also the supreme good and perfect happiness and added as a kind of bonus that no one could be happy unless he was also divine. You said that the very form of the good was identical with the substance of God and of happiness. And you taught us that unity itself was the same as the good, because all things had a natural inclination to it. Then you argued that God rules the universe by the helm of goodness, that all things obey willingly, and that evil is nothing. All of which you unfolded without the help of any external aid, but with one internal proof grafted upon another so that each drew its credibility from that which preceded.’
Then she replied, ‘I am not mocking; through the favour of God whom we prayed to a moment ago, we have achieved the greatest of all things. The form of the divine substance is such that it does not spread out into outside things or take up into itself anything from them. As Parmenides says of it,
like the mass of a sphere well-rounded in all ways 17
it rotates the moving sphere of the universe while remaining itself unmoved. If we have been dealing with arguments not sought from without but within the bounds of the matter we have been discussing, there is no reason for you to be surprised. You have learnt on the authority of Plato that we must use language akin to the subject matter of our discourse.
‘Happy the man whose eyes once could
Perceive the shining fount of good;
Happy he whose unchecked mind
Could leave the chains of earth behind.
(5) Once when Orpheus sad did mourn
For his wife beyond death’s bourn,
His tearful melody begun
Made the moveless trees to run,
Made the rivers halt their flow,
(10) Made the lion, hind’s fell foe,
Side by side with her to go,
Made the hare accept the hound
Subdued now by the music’s sound.
But his passions unrepressed
15 Burned more fiercely in his breast;
Though his song all things subdued,
It could not calm its master’s mood.
Complaining of the gods above,
Down to hell he went for love.
(20) There on sweetly sounding strings
Songs that soothe he plays and sings;
All the draughts once drawn of song
From the springs the Muses throng,
All the strength of helpless grief,
(25) And of love which doubled grief,
Give their weight then to his weeping,
As he stands the lords beseeching
Of the underworld for grace.
The triform porter stands amazed,
(30) By Orpheus’ singing tamed and dazed;
The Furies who avenge men’s sin,
Who at the guilty’s terror grin,
Let tears of sorrow from them steal;
No longer does the turning wheel
(35) Ixion’s head send whirling round;
Old Tantalus upon the sound
Forgets the waters and his thirst,
And while the music is rehearsed
The vulture ceases flesh to shred.
(40) At last the monarch of the dead
In tearful voice, ‘‘We yield,’’ he said:
‘‘Let him take with him his wife,
By song redeemed and brought to life.
But let him, too, this law obey,
(45) Look not on her by the way
Until from night she reaches day.’’
But who to love can give a law?
Love unto love itself is law.
Alas, close to the bounds of night
(50) Orpheus backwards turned his sight
And looking lost her twice to fate.
For you the legend I relate,
You who seek the upward way
To lift your mind into the day;
(55) For who gives in and turns his eye
Back to darkness from the sky,
Loses while he looks below
All that up with him may go.’ 18