Book IV


Philosophy delivered this sweet and gentle song with dignity of countenance and gravity of expression. But I had still not forgotten the grief within me and I cut her short just as she was preparing to say something.

‘You,’ I said, ‘who are my leader towards the true light, all that you have poured forth in speech up to now has been clearly both divine to contemplate and invincibly supported by your arguments. You have spoken of things I had forgotten because of the pain of what I had suffered, but before this they were not entirely unknown to me.

‘But the greatest cause of my sadness is really this – the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. This fact alone you must surely think of considerable wonder. But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime. That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint.’

‘It would indeed be a matter of infinite wonder,’ she said, ‘it would be something more horrible than any outrage, if, as you reckon, in the well-ordered house of so great a father the worthless vessels were looked after at the expense of the precious ones, which grew filthy. But it is not so.

‘If your recent conclusions may remain intact, you can learn from the Creator Himself since it is His realm we are speaking of, that the good are always strong and the wicked always humbled and weak. From Him, too, you can learn that sin never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded, and that what happens to the good is always happy and that what happens to the bad always misfortune. There are many other considerations of this kind which, once your complaints have been stilled, will give you firm and solid strength.

‘You have seen the shape of true happiness when I showed it to you just now, and you saw where it is to be found; and when we have run through all that I think we should clear out of the way beforehand, I will show you the path that will bring you back home. I will give your mind wings on which to lift itself; all disquiet shall be driven away and you will be able to return safely to your homeland. I will be your guide, your path and your conveyance.

‘For I have swift and speedy wings

With which to mount the lofty skies,

And when the mind has put them on

The earth below it will despise:

(5) It mounts the air sublunary

And far behind the clouds it leaves;

It passes through the sphere of fire

Which from the ether heat receives,

Until it rises to the stars,

(10) With Phoebus there to join its ways,

Or sail with cold and ancient Saturn

As soldier of his shining rays.

Wherever night is spangled bright

The orbit of a star it takes,

(15) And when the orbit’s path is done

The outmost pole of heaven forsakes.

It treads beneath the speeding ether

Possessing now the holy light,

For here the King of kings holds sway,

(20) The reins of all things holding tight,

Unmoving moves the chariot fast,

The lord of all things shining bright.

If there the pathway brings you back –

The path you lost and seek anew –

(25) Then, ‘‘I remember,’’ you will say,

‘‘My home, my source, my ending too.’’

And if you choose to seek again

The lightless earth which you have left,

Dictators whom the people fear,

(30) Will outcasts seem of home bereft.’ 1


Then I cried out in wonder at the magnitude of her promises. ‘Not that I don’t think you can do it,’ I said. ‘Only do not keep me waiting, now that you have whetted my appetite.’

‘First then,’ she said, ‘that the good are always strong and that the wicked always bereft of all power, these are facts you will be able to see, the one being proved by the other. For since good and evil are opposites, the weakness of evil is shown by establishing the strength of good, and vice versa. So to strengthen your confidence in my teaching, I will proceed along both ways and prove my assertions doubly.

‘Now, there are two things on which all the performance of human activity depends, will and power. If either of them is lacking, there is no activity that can be performed. In the absence of the will, a man is unwilling to do something and therefore does not undertake it; and in the absence of the power to do it, the will is useless. So that if you see someone who wants to get something which he cannot get, you can be sure that what he has been lacking is the power to get what he wanted.’

‘It is obvious,’ I said, ‘and cannot be denied.’

‘And if you see a man who has done what he wanted, you will hardly doubt that he had the power to do it, will you?’


‘Therefore, men’s power or ability is to be judged by what they can do, and their weakness by what they can’t do.’

‘I agree.’

‘Do you, then, remember how earlier in the argument we reached the conclusion that the instinctive direction of the human will, manifested through a variety of pursuits, was entirely towards happiness?’

‘I remember that this was proved as well.’

‘And you recall that happiness is the good itself and similarly that since they seek happiness, all men desire the good?’

‘Not so much recall it, as hold it fixed in my mind.’

‘So that without any difference of instinct all men, good and bad alike, strive to reach the good.’

‘Yes, that follows.’

‘But surely men become good by acquiring goodness?’


‘So that good men obtain what they are looking for?’

‘It seems so.’

‘But if the wicked obtained what they want – that is goodness – they could not be wicked?’


‘Since, then, both groups want goodness, and one obtains it and the other doesn’t, surely there can be no doubt of the power of the good and the weakness of the bad?’

‘Anyone who does doubt it is no judge either of reality or the logic of argument.’

‘Again,’ she said, ‘suppose there were two men who are set the same natural task, and one of them performs and completes it by natural action, while the other cannot manage the natural action, but uses another method contrary to nature, and does not actually complete the task but approximates to someone completing it; which would you say had the more power?’

‘I can guess what you mean,’ I said, ‘but I would like to have it more clearly put.’

‘You will not deny that the action of walking is natural and human, will you?’


‘And presumably you have no doubt that it is the natural function of the feet?’

‘No, indeed.’

‘If, then, one man is able to proceed on foot and goes walking, and another lacks the natural function of the feet and tries to walk on his hands, which may properly be considered the more able or powerful?’

‘Ask me another! No one could doubt that the man who can do the natural action is more able than the one who can’t.’

‘Well, the supreme good is the goal of good men and bad alike, and the good seek it by means of a natural activity – the exercise of their virtues – while the bad strive to acquire the very same thing by means of their various desires, which isn’t a natural method of obtaining the good. Or don’t you agree?’

‘Yes, for what follows is also obvious; from what I have already admitted it follows that the good are powerful and the bad weak.’

‘You anticipate correctly. As the doctors like to think, it is a sign of a constitution strong and fighting back. But seeing you are so quick of understanding, I will pile the arguments on. Just think how great the weakness is that we see in wicked men; they can’t even reach the goal to which almost by compulsion their natural inclination leads them. What if they were deserted by this great and almost invincible help, and nature ceased to show them the way?

‘Think of the extent of the weakness impeding the wicked. It is not as if the prizes they failed to win were mere sports trophies. The quest in which they fail is the quest for the highest and most important of all things, and success is denied these wretched men in the very pursuit they toil at night and day to the exclusion of all else, the same pursuit in which the strength of the good stands out.

‘If a man by walking could reach a point beyond which there was nowhere for him to go, you would consider him the champion at walking. In the same way you must judge the man who achieves the goal of all endeavour, beyond which there is nothing, to be supreme in power. The opposite of this is also true; those who do not gain it 2are obviously lacking in all power.

‘For I ask you, what is the cause of this flight from virtue to vice? If you say it is because they do not know what is good, I shall ask what greater weakness is there than the blindness of ignorance. And if you say that they know what they ought to seek for, but pleasure sends them chasing off the wrong way, this way too, they are weak through lack of self control because they cannot resist vice. And if you say they abandon goodness and turn to vice knowingly and willingly, this way they not only cease to be powerful, but cease to be at all. Men who give up the common goal of all things that exist, thereby cease to exist themselves. Some may perhaps think it strange that we say that wicked men, who form the majority of men, do not exist; but that is how it is. I am not trying to deny the wickedness of the wicked; what I do deny is that their existence is absolute and complete existence. Just as you might call a corpse a dead man, but couldn’t simply call it a man, so I would agree that the wicked are wicked, but could not agree that they have unqualified existence. A thing exists when it keeps its proper place and preserves its own nature. Anything which departs from this ceases to exist, because its existence depends on the preservation of its nature.

‘To the objection that evil men do have power, I would say that this power of theirs comes from weakness rather than strength. For they would not have the power to do the evil they can if they could have retained the power of doing good. This power only makes it more clear that they can do nothing, for if, as we concluded a short time ago, evil is nothing, it is clear that since they can only do evil, the wicked can do nothing.’


‘But I want you to understand the exact nature of the power we are talking about. A moment ago we decided that there is nothing with greater power than the supreme good.’

‘That is so.’

‘But supreme goodness cannot do evil.’


‘Now, no one thinks of human beings as omnipotent, do they?’

‘Not unless they are mad.’

‘But men can do evil?’

‘I only wish they couldn’t.’

‘It is obvious, therefore, that since a power that can only do good is omnipotent, while human beings who can also do evil are not, these same human beings who can do evil are less powerful. In addition to this we have shown that all forms of power are to be included among those things worth pursuing, and that all these worthwhile objects of pursuit are related to the good as to a kind of supreme exemplar of their nature. Now, the ability to commit a crime cannot be a form of goodness, and is therefore not worth pursuing. But all forms of power are worth seeking after, so that it is obvious that the ability to do evil is not a form of power.

‘From all this the power of good men is obvious and, beyond all doubt, so is the weakness of bad men. And it is clear that what Plato said in the Gorgias 3 is true, namely that only the wise can achieve their desire, while the wicked busy themselves with what gives pleasure without being able to achieve their real objective. Their actions depend on the belief that they are going to obtain the good they desire through the things that give them pleasure. But they do not obtain it, because evil things cannot reach happiness.

‘High kings you see sit loftily on thrones, In purple bright, by sober arms enhedged, With savage threat in passion’s breathless rage; Once strip from pride their robes of empty show, And see within the straitening fetters worn: Here lust o’erthrows the heart with poisonous greed, Here like a wave wrath whips and bears off sense, Here captive sorrow sits or hope torments; Here in one heart so many tyrants rule, The king’s own will’s deposed, the enslaver slaved.’


‘You can see, therefore, the filth in which crime wallows and the light in which goodness is resplendent. It is clear that good deeds never lack reward, or crimes their appropriate punishment. The proper way of looking at it is to regard the goal of every action as its reward, just as the prize for running in the stadium is the wreath of laurels for which the race is run. Now, we have shown that happiness is the very same good which motivates all activity; so that goodness itself is set as a kind of common reward of human activity. But goodness cannot be removed from those who are good; therefore, goodness never fails to receive its appropriate reward. So despite all the raging of the wicked, the wise man’s crown of laurels will never fall from him or wither away. The wickedness of others can never wrest their individual glory from the good. If it was a borrowed glory that we prided ourselves upon, other people including the very one who conferred it on us could take it away; but since the glory is conferred on each one by his own goodness he will only lose his reward when he stops being good.

‘Finally since every reward is desired because it is believed to be good, no one will consider a man endowed with goodness to be without reward. But what kind of reward? The greatest and most beautiful of all. Think again of that corollary I emphasized to you a short time ago, and consider it this way. Goodness is happiness, and therefore it is obvious that all good men obtain happiness in virtue of their being good. But we agree that those who attain happiness are divine. The reward of the good, then, a reward that can never be decreased, that no one’s power can diminish, and no one’s wickedness darken, is to become gods. This being so, no wise man can be in any doubt of the inevitability of the punishment of the wicked. Like good and evil, reward and punishment are opposites. There ward we see due to the good must be balanced by a corresponding punishment of the wicked. Therefore, just as goodness is its own reward, so the punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness. Now, no one who suffers a punishment doubts that he suffers something evil. So, if they are willing to examine themselves, I do not think men can consider themselves immune from punishment when they suffer the worst evil of all: evil is not so much an infliction as a deep set infection.

‘Again, think of the punishment that dogs the wicked from the opposite point of view of the good. A short while ago you learned that all that exists is in a state of unity and that goodness itself is unity; from which it follows that we must see everything that exists as good. This means that anything which turns away from goodness ceases to exist, and thus that the wicked cease to be what they once were. That they used to be human is shown by the human appearance of their body which still remains. So it was by falling into wickedness that they also lost their human nature. Now, since only goodness can raise a man above the level of human kind, it follows that it is proper that wickedness thrusts down to a level below mankind those whom it has dethroned from the condition of being human.

‘The result is that you cannot think of anyone as human whom you see transformed by wickedness. You could say that someone who robs with violence and burns with greed is like a wolf. A wild and restless man who is for ever exercising his tongue in lawsuits could be compared to a dog yapping. A man whose habit is to lie hidden in an ambush and steal by trapping people would be likened to a fox. A man of quick temper has only to roar to gain the reputation of a lion-heart. The timid coward who is terrified when there is nothing to fear is thought to be like the hind. The man who is lazy, dull and stupid, lives an ass’s life. A man of whimsy and fickleness who is for ever changing his interests is just like a bird. And a man wallowing in foul and impure lusts is occupied by the filthy pleasures of a sow. So what happens is that when a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal.

‘The sails of the lord of Ithaca 4

And his wandering sea-borne ships

Were blown from the East to the island

Where a beautiful goddess lives,

Circe, daughter of the sun.

For her new-come guests she mixes

Cups she has touched with a spell;

In various shapes they are changed

By her hands in herb-lore skilled.

One takes the form of a boar,

And one in fang and claw

A lion of Africa;

Another becomes a wolf,

Can’t weep, can only howl;

And here like an Indian tiger

One gently pads around.

Perils surround lord Odysseus,

But the winged Arcadian god

Takes pity on his plight,

Saves him from Circe’s curse.

Odysseus’ crew have drunk

The evil powered draughts,

And leave the bread men eat

To seek as pigs for husks:

Nothing is left intact,

Their voice and body changed;

Only the mind remains

To mourn their monstrous plight.

But Circe’s hand was weak

Her herbs were powerless;

They changed the body’s limbs

But could not change the heart;

Safe in a secret fastness

The strength of man lies hid.

Those poisons, though, are stronger,

Which creeping deep within,

Dethrone a man’s true self:

They do not harm the body,

But cruelly wound the mind.’


Then I said, ‘I agree, and I see the justice of saying that though they retain the outward appearance of the human body, wicked people change into animals with regard to their state of mind. But I could have wished that no freedom was allowed to the fury of cruel and wicked-minded men to bring destruction on the good.’

‘It’s not a question of freedom,’ she said, ‘as I will show at the appropriate point. But supposing the freedom they are believed to enjoy were removed, it would to a large extent mean relieving criminals of their punishment. It may seem incredible to some, but it must be the case that the wicked are less happy if they achieve their desires than if they are unable to do what they want. For, if desiring something wicked brings misery, greater misery is brought by having had the power to do it, without which the unhappy desire would go unfulfilled. So, since each stage has its own degree of misery, if you see people with the desire to do something wicked, the power to do it and the achievement, they must necessarily suffer a triple degree of misfortune.’

‘Yes, I agree: but I hope very much that they will soon be released from this misfortune by losing the power to do evil’

‘They will be released sooner than perhaps you would wish or they themselves expect. For in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it is immortal. Their great hope and their ambitious blue-print of crime is often destroyed by a sudden and unexpected end, which does at least impose a limit on their misery. For if wickedness is the cause of their misery, it follows that their wickedness makes them the more wretched the longer it lasts. If death did not at last end their evil, I would count them the unhappiest of men. For obviously if our conclusions about the misfortune of wickedness are true, any misery which is agreed to be everlasting is infinite.’

‘It is a strange thing to conclude and hard to accept, but I do see that it fits in with our previous admissions.’

‘You are right,’ she said, ‘but if someone thinks a particular conclusion hard to accept, he ought to show either that some false assumption has preceded it or that the way the arguments have been marshalled does not necessarily produce the conclusion. Otherwise, provided he agrees to what has preceded, there is absolutely no ground for arguing about the conclusion. What I am going to say may also seem no less strange, but it is an equally necessary conclusion from our assumptions.’

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘That the wicked are happier if they suffer punishment than if they are unrestrained by any just retribution. And I do not have in mind what you may think, namely that wickedness is corrected by punishment and returned to the path of right by the fear of punishment, and is also an example to others to avoid punishable actions. No, I think there is another way in which the wicked are more unhappy if they go unpunished, apart from any consideration of the corrective effect of punishment or its value as a deterrent to others.’

‘What other way is there?’

‘Well, we have agreed, haven’t we, that the good men are happy and the bad unhappy?’


‘Now, if someone’s misery is offset by something good, he is happier than someone else whose misery is pure and undiluted by any admixture of good, isn’t he?’

‘So it seems.’

‘What if that same unhappy person, who has no share of anything good, should receive some further evil in addition to those that have caused his unhappiness, he would have to be considered far more unhappy, wouldn’t he, than the one whose misfortune is lessened by a share of good?’

‘Of course.’

‘Now, obviously the punishment of the wicked is just, and their escape from punishment unjust.’

‘No one would deny that.’

‘And no one will deny, too, that what is just is good, and on the other hand, what is unjust is bad.’

I agreed it was obvious.

‘So when the wicked receive punishment they receive something good, the punishment itself, which is good, because of its justice; but when they go unpunished they acquire some extra evil in actually going scot free, which you have agreed is bad, because of its injustice.’

‘I cannot deny it.’

‘So the wicked are much more unhappy when they are unjustly allowed to go scot free, than when a just punishment is imposed upon them.’

‘It is the logical outcome of our previous conclusion. But, I ask you, don’t you leave any punishment of the soul until after the death of the body?’

‘There is, indeed, great punishment then, sometimes exacted with penal severity, sometimes, I think, with purifying mercy; but it is not my intention to discuss it now.

‘We have followed the argument as far as we have for you to see that what you thought of as the entirely undeserved power of the wicked is no power at all. I wanted you to see that those whose freedom from punishment you were complaining of do not at all escape paying for their wickedness. That freedom of theirs for whose speedy end you were praying doesn’t last long and will be the more miserable the longer it continues. It will be most miserable of all if it is endless. And lastly, the wicked are more wretched when unjustly absolved from punishment than when they receive a just retribution. The logical conclusion of this is that they are burdened with heavier punishment precisely when they are believed to escape it.’

Then I said, ‘When I consider your arguments, I think nothing more true could be spoken. But when I turn to the opinions of ordinary men, few would even grant you a hearing, let alone believe you.’

‘It is true,’ she said. ‘Their eyes are used to the dark and they cannot raise them to the shining light of truth. They are like birds whose sight is sharpened by night and blinded by day. So long as they look only at their own desires and not the order of creation, they think of freedom to commit crimes and the absence of punishment as happy things. But let us see what is decreed by everlasting law: if you have turned your mind to higher things, there is no need of a judge to award a prize; it is you yourself who have brought yourself to a more excellent state: but if you have directed your zeal towards lower things, do not look for punishment from without; it is you yourself who have plunged yourself into the worse condition – just as if you look by turns at the sky and the dirt of the earth, and everything else disappears and you seem at one moment to be in the mud and at the next moment among the stars, just by the action of looking. But ordinary people do not see such things.

‘Well, are we to join these people whom we have shown to be like animals? What about the case of a man who completely lost his sight and even forgot he had ever had it and thought that he had everything that belonged to human perfection; would we who had sight think the same as the blind man?

‘And there is something else equally well founded on a firm base of argument which they will not agree with, namely that those who commit an injustice are more unhappy than those who suffer it.’

‘I would like to hear the argument.’

‘Well, I presume you do not deny that every wicked man deserves punishment?’


‘And it is abundantly clear that the wicked are unhappy?’


‘Therefore you would not doubt the unhappiness of those who deserve punishment?’


‘Suppose, then, you were sitting in judgment in the law courts; on whom would you decide to pass sentence, the man who had committed the wrong, or the man who had suffered it?’

‘I have no hesitation in saying I would satisfy the one who had suffered at the expense of the one who had done it.’

‘So you would think the perpetrator of the injury more wretched than the victim?’

‘It follows.’

‘For this and other reasons based on the fact that by its own nature badness makes men wretched, it is clear that when someone is done an injury, the misery belongs not to the victim but to the perpetrator.5

‘But the court orators of today take the opposite course; they try to excite the sympathy of the court for those who have suffered some grievous and painful injury, although a juster sympathy is more due to those who are guilty. They ought to be brought to justice not by a prosecution counsel with an air of outrage, but by a prosecution kind and sympathetic, like sick men being brought to the doctor, so that their guilt could be cut back by punishment like a malignant growth. In this way the work of the defence counsel would either completely come to a standstill, or, if they chose to benefit mankind, they would turn to the job of accusation. And the wicked themselves, if through some crack they were allowed a Glimpse of the virtue they had abandoned, if they could see themselves about to lay aside the filth of vice through the pains of punishment, they would no longer consider them to be pains because of the compensation of acquiring goodness, and they would refuse the services of defence counsels and give themselves up wholly to their accusers and judges.

‘This is why among wise men there is no place at all left for hatred. For no one except the greatest of fools would hate good men. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad. For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer an evil more severe than any physical illness.

‘What pleasure do men find in passions high

And tempting fate with suicidal hand?

If they seek death, unbid he’ll soon draw nigh,

Giving his steeds free rein to speed him forth.

Man is the prey of lion fangs and snake,

Of tiger, bear and boar; is man the prey

Of man as well? Why does he battles make

And long to perish by another’s blade?

Because his manners differ – just for this?

No just cause there for blood and savageness.

You want desert no due reward to miss?

Then love the good, show pity for the bad.’


Then I said, ‘Yes, I can see there is a kind of happiness and misery which are inseparable from the very actions of good and bad men. But I believe that there is both good and bad in the actual fortune of ordinary people. No wise man prefers being in exile, being poor and disgraced to being rich, respected, and powerful, and to remaining at home and flourishing in his own city. For this is the way that wisdom is more clearly and obviously seen to be operating, when somehow or other the happiness of their rulers is communicated to the people they come into contact with, especially if prison and death and all the other sufferings the law imposes by way of punishment are reserved for the wicked citizens for whom they were intended. Why this is all turned upside down, why good men are oppressed by punishments reserved for crime and bad men can snatch the rewards that belong to virtue surprises me very much, and I would like to know from you the reason for this very unjust confusion. I would be less surprised if I could believe that the confusion of things is due to the fortuitous operations of chance. But my wonder is only increased by the knowledge that the ruling power of the universe is God. Sometimes He is pleasant to the good and unpleasant to the bad, and other times He grants the bad their wishes and denies the good. But since He often varies between these two alternatives, what grounds are there for distinguishing between God and the haphazards of chance?’

‘It is not surprising,’ she said, ‘if ignorance of the principle of its order makes people think a thing is unplanned and chaotic. But even if you don’t know the reason behind the great plan of the universe, there is no need for you to doubt that a good power rules the world and that everything happens aright.

‘If you knew not the stars of Arcturus

Sail near the highest pole of heaven, or why

The Waggoner is late to take his wain

And late to dip his flames into the sea

Although his rising comes again with haste,

The law observed in heaven would leave you dazed.

And let the full moon’s gleaming horns grow pale

As night extends his bounds across her disc;

Let Phoebe dimmed the confused stars reveal

Which just before her shining light had masked;

Whole nations by the common error moved

Rain frequent blows on pots and pans of brass. 6

Yet no one wonders when the north west wind

Sweeps in the roaring waves to beat the shore,

Or when the frozen mass of hard-packed snow

Dissolves before the sun’s aestival heat.

The causes in this case are clear to view,

But hidden cause confounds the human heart,

Perplexed by things that rarely come to pass,

For unexpected things the people dread.

Then let the clouds of ignorance give way

And these events will no more wondrous seem.’


‘It is so,’ I said. ‘But since it is part of your task to unravel the causes of matters that lie hidden and to unfold reasons veiled in darkness, and since I am very much disturbed by this strange phenomenon, I do beg you to tell me your teaching on this point.’

She paused and smiled a moment before answering.

‘You are urging me to the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted. The subject is of such a kind that when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the Hydra’s heads. The only way to check them is with a really lively intellectual fire. The usual subjects of inquiry concern the oneness of providence, the course of fate, the haphazard nature of the random events of chance, divine knowledge and predestination, and the freedom of the will; you can see for yourself how difficult they are.

‘However, as a knowledge of these things, too, is a part of your treatment, we will try to determine something, in spite of the narrow limits in which we are imprisoned by time. And if the enchantments of song delight you, you will have to postpone your pleasure a little while I weave together the close-knit arguments in their proper order.’

‘Whatever you wish,’ I said.

Then, as if she were starting a fresh argument, she spoke as follows.

‘The generation of all things, the whole progress of things subject to change and whatever moves in any way, receive their causes, their due order and their form from the unchanging mind of God. In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God’s understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things, whose motion and order it controls, it is called by the name the ancients gave it, Fate. If anyone will examine their meaning, it will soon be clear to him that these two aspects are different. Providence is the divine reason itself. It is set at the head of all things and disposes all things. Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God’s mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate.

‘They are different, but the one depends on the other. The order of Fate is derived from the simplicity of Providence. A craftsman anticipates in his mind the plan of the thing he is going to make, and then sets in motion the execution of the work and carries out in time the construction of what he has seen all at one moment present to his mind’s eye. In the same way God in his Providence constructs a single fixed plan of all that is to happen, while it is by means of Fate that all that He has planned is realized in its many individual details in the course of time. So, whether the work of Fate is done with the help of divine spirits of Providence, or whether the chain of Fate is woven by the soul of the universe, or by the obedience of all nature, by the celestial motions of the stars, or by the power of the angels, by the various skills of other spirits, or by some of these, or by all of them, one thing is certainly clear: the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity.

‘Everything, therefore, which comes under Fate, is also subject to Providence, to which Fate itself is subject, but certain things which come under Providence are above the chain of Fate. These are things which rise above the order of change ruled over by Fate in virtue of the stability of their position close to the supreme Godhead. Imagine a set of revolving concentric circles. The inmost one comes closest to the simplicity of the centre, while forming itself a kind of centre for those set outside it to revolve round. The circle furthest out rotates through a wider orbit and the greater its distance from the indivisible centre point, the greater the space it spreads through. Anything that joins itself to the middle circle is brought close to simplicity, and no longer spreads out widely. In the same way whatever moves any distance from the primary intelligence becomes enmeshed in ever stronger chains of Fate, and everything is the freer from Fate the closer it seeks the centre of things. And if it cleaves to the steadfast mind of God, it is free from movement and so escapes the necessity imposed by Fate. The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding, between that which is coming into being and that which is, between time and eternity, or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.

‘The course of Fate moves the sky and the stars, governs the relationship between the elements and transforms them through reciprocal variations; it renews all things as they come to birth and die away by like generations of offspring and seed. It holds sway, too, over the acts and fortunes of men through the indissoluble chain of causes; and since it takes its origins from unchanging Providence, it follows that these causes, too, are unchanging. For the best way of controlling the universe is if the simplicity immanent in the divine mind produces an unchanging order of causes to govern by its own incommutability everything that is subject to change, and which will otherwise fluctuate at random.

‘It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. But it is no less true that everything has its own position which directs it towards the good and so governs it. There is nothing that can happen because of evil or because engineered by the wicked themselves, and they, as we have most amply demonstrated, are deflected from their search for the good by mistake and error, while the order which issues from the supreme good at the centre of the universe cannot deflect anyone from his beginning.

‘No doubt your objection will be that it is impossible for there to be a more unjust confusion than when the fortunes of good men and bad alike continually vary between adversity and prosperity. And I shall ask you if men have such soundness of mind as to be infallible in their judgement of who is good and who is bad. No, human judgements clash in this matter, and some people think the same men deserve reward as others think worthy of punishment.

‘Supposing, however, we grant that someone may be able to judge between good and bad, it will hardly enable him to see the inner hidden temperament, to borrow a term from physics, 7of men’s minds. Indeed, your surprise is like that of a man who does not know why in the case of healthy bodies sweet things agree with some and bitter things with others, or why some sick people are helped by gentle remedies, others by sharp ones. But it is no surprise to the doctor who knows the difference between the manner and temper of health and of sickness. Now, we know that in the case of the mind health means goodness and sickness means wickedness. And that the protector of the good and scourge of the wicked is none other than God, the mind’s guide and physician. He looks out from the watch-tower of Providence, sees what suits each person, and applies to him whatever He knows is suitable. This, then, is the outstanding wonder of the order of fate; a knowing God acts and ignorant men look on with wonder at his actions.

‘Let us glance at a few facts concerning God’s profundity, such as human reason can grasp. In the case of someone you consider a model and a great defender of justice, omniscient Providence thinks otherwise. A member of my own household, the poet Lucan, has reminded us in the first book of his Pharsali. how in the struggle between Caesar and Pompey the winning cause pleased the Gods, but the losing cause pleased Cato, although he was a model of virtue. 8Whenever, therefore, you see something happen here different from your expectation, due order is preserved by events, but there is confusion and error in your thinking.

‘But let us suppose that there was someone of such moral goodness that in his case the judgement of man and God coincided; he will still be weak in strength of mind. Should adversity befall him, he will perhaps give up practising the innocence which could not ensure his good fortune. And so a wise direction spares the man whom adversity might affect for the worse, to avoid distressing someone who is not fit for it. Another man may be perfect in every virtue, holy and very close to God: Providence judges that it would be outrageous for him to meet with any adversity to such an extent that he is not even allowed to be upset by bodily illness. As was said by someone more excellent than me: 9

The body of the holy one was built by heaven.

‘Often it happens that supreme power is given to good men so that the exuberance of wickedness may be checked. Others receive a mixture of good and bad fortune according to their quality of mind. Providence stings some people to avoid giving them happiness for too long, and others she allows to be vexed by hard fortune to strengthen their virtues of mind by the use and exercise of patience. Some people are excessively afraid of suffering for which they actually have the endurance; others are full of scorn for suffering they cannot in fact bear. Both kinds she brings to self discovery through hardship. Some men at the price of a glorious death have won a fame that generations will venerate; some indomitable in the face of punishment have given others an example that evil cannot defeat virtue. There is no doubt that it is right that these things happen, that they are planned and that they are suited to those to whom they actually happen.

‘The fact, too, that the wicked have their ups and downs of fortune is due to the same causes. When they suffer, no one is surprised, because everyone considers they deserve ill; and their punishments both deter others from crime and correct those on whom they are inflicted. And when they prosper, it is a powerful argument to good men about the kind of judgement they should make of such happiness as they often see wait upon the wicked. And here there is something else I believe to be planned. There is perhaps someone of such a headstrong and impulsive nature that poverty could the more easily provoke him to crime. His sickness is relieved by Providence with a dose of wealth as a remedy. Another man may see his conscience blotched with the wickedness of his deeds and compare his desert with the fortune he enjoys. Perhaps he will begin to fear the hardness of losing all the things whose enjoyment is so pleasant, and therefore change his ways and abandon wickedness in the fear of losing happiness. Others have been thrown headlong into well deserved disaster by using their happiness unworthily: and some were granted the right to punish in order that they might be a source of trial for the good and of punishment for the bad. For just as there is no agreement between good men and bad men, so even the bad cannot agree amongst themselves. It could scarcely be otherwise when with his own vices tearing his conscience in shreds each one is at loggerheads with himself, and they often do things which they later see should never have been done.

‘And so sovereign Providence has often produced a remarkable effect – evil men making other evil men good. For some, when they think they suffer injustice at the hands of the worst of men, burn with hatred for evil men, and being eager to be different from those they hate, have reformed and become virtuous. It is only the power of God to which evils may also be good, when by their proper use He elicits some good result. For a certain order embraces all things, and anything which departs from the order planned and assigned to it, only falls back into order, albeit a different order, so as not to allow anything to chance in the realm of Providence.

‘But as the Ilia. puts it,

Tis hard for me to speak as though a God. 10

And it is not allowed to man to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech. Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness. He is quick to hold all that He has created in His own image, and by means of the chain of necessity presided over by Fate banishes all evil from the bounds of His commonwealth. Evil is thought to abound on earth. But if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere. But I see that you have long been bowed down by the weight of this question. You are worn out by the prolixity of the reasoning and have been looking forward to the sweetness of song. So take a draught that will refresh you and make you able to apply your thoughts more closely to further matters.

‘If you desire to see and understand

In purity of mind the laws of God,

Your sight must on the highest point of heaven rest

Where through the lawful covenant of things

The wandering stars preserve their ancient peace:

The sun forth driven by his glittering flames

Stays not the orbit of the gelid moon;

Nor does the Bear who in the highest pole

Of heaven drives her swiftly-turning course

Which never to the western sea descends

Desire to follow other stars that set,

And merge her fire beneath the Atlantic deep:

By equal intervals of time each day

The Evening Star foretells the evening dusk

And comes again as Morning Star at dawn.

So everlasting courses are remade

By mutual love and war’s disunion

Is banished from the shores of heaven above.

This concord governs all the elements

With equal measures, that the power of wet

Will yield by turns unto the hostile dry,

And cold will join in amity with hot;

The pendant fire will surge into the air,

And massive weight of earth will sink below.

And for these reasons when the spring grows warm

The flower-bearing year will breathe sweet scent,

In summer torrid days will dry the corn,

Ripe autumn will return with fruit endowed,

And falling rains will moisten wintry days.

This mixture brings to birth and nourishes

All things which breathe the breath of life on earth;

This mixture seizes, hides, and bears away

All things submerged in death’s finality.

Meanwhile there sits on high the Lord of things,

Who rules and guides the reins of all that’s made,

Their king and lord, their fount and origin,

Their law and judge of what is right and due.

All things that He with motion stirs to go

He holds and when they wander brings them back;

Unless He call them home to their true path,

And force them back their orbits to perfect,

Those things which stable order now protects,

Divorced from their true source would fall apart.

This is the love of which all things partake,

The end of good their chosen goal and close:

No other way can they expect to last,

Unless with love for love repaid they turn

And seek again the cause that gave them birth.’


‘Do you now see what is the consequence of all that we have said?’

‘No, what is it?’

‘All fortune is certainly good.’

‘How can that be?’

‘Listen. All fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. We agree, therefore, on the justice or usefulness of fortune, and so all fortune is good.’

‘Your argument is very true, and if I were thinking of the Providence you taught me about just now and of Fate, your opinion would be firmly founded. But let us please include it among those opinions we some time ago called inconceivable.’

‘Why so?’ she asked.

‘Because it is a common expression, frequently used by some, that people have bad fortune.’

‘Your wish, then, is that we should draw closer to everyday language to avoid the appearance of having moved too far from common usage?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘Well, you think of something that is useful as being good, don’t you?’


‘Now, such fortune as either disciplines or corrects is useful, isn’t it?’


‘And so good?’


‘Now this kind of fortune is that of men who are either already on the path of virtue when they battle with adversity, or who turn to the path of virtue after quitting evil.’

‘It is so.’

‘What about the pleasant fortune, then, that is given to good men as a reward? People don’t say this is bad, do they?’

‘No. They hold it to be extremely good, as it is.’

‘Then what about the last kind of fortune, which is adverse and curbs the bad with due punishment; do people think this is good?’

‘No, they don’t; they consider it to be the most miserable thing that can be imagined.’

‘Takecare that in following popular opinions we haven’t produced something really inconceivable!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, the result of all that we have agreed is that whatever the fortune of those who are in possession of virtue (whether that possession is perfect, still growing or only incipient), it is good, while the fortune of all those who rest in wickedness is utterly bad.’ ‘This is true, even if no one would dare to admit it.’ ‘So a wise man ought no more to take it ill when he clashes with fortune than a brave man ought to be upset by the sound of battle. For both of them their very distress is an opportunity, for the one to gain glory and the other to strengthen his wisdom. This is why virtue gets its name, because it is firm in strength and unconquered by adversity. 11

‘For you who are set on the path of increasing virtue have not come so far only to abandon yourself to delights or languish in pleasure. You are engaged in a bitter but spirited struggle against fortune of every kind, to avoid falling victim to her when she is adverse or being corrupted by her when she is favourable. Hold to the middle way with unshakeable strength. Whatever falls short or goes beyond, despises happiness but receives no reward for its toil. It is in your own hands what fortune you wish to shape for yourself, for the only function of adversity apart from discipline and correction, is punishment.

‘For twice five years did Agamemnon war,

The ruthless son of Atreus, till at Troy

He vengeance took for wedlock set at naught;

The same who when he wished the Grecian fleet

(5) To sail, with blood did purchase favouring winds,

Put off the father and, iron-hearted priest,

Befouled   with   steel   a   daughter’s   wretched   throat. 12

Odysseus wept for his companions lost

When Polyphemus in his cavern vast

(10) Lay back and plunged them in his monstrous crop;

The Cyclops, eyeless, blinded, raged with pain

And paid the price of joy with woeful tears. 13

Great Hercules is famous for his toils;

At Pholoe¨ he tamed the Centaurs proud;

(15) At Nemea he won the lion’s pelt;

His arrows pierced the birds of Stymphalus,

And from beneath the dragon’s gaze he snatched

The golden fruit of the Hesperides.

The captured Cerberus he led in chains,

(20) And when he won the mares of Diomede

He served their master’s flesh for them to eat.

He burnt the Hydra and its poison fell,

And dealt a shameful wound to Achelou¨ s

Who hid his blushing face beneath his bank.

(25) In Lybia he laid Antaeus low;

And Cacus satisfied Evander’s wrath.

Those shoulders which the heavens were to press,

The Erymanthian boar defiled with spume.

His final labour was to hold the skies

(30) On neck unbent, and for this latest feat14

He earned a place in heaven as his reward.

    Go now, ye strong, where the exalted way

Of great example leads. Why hang you back?

Why turn away? Once earth has been surpassed

        It gives the stars.’

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