Dialogues and Letters (10 page)

11              What I am saying applies to people who are imperfect, commonplace and unsound, not to the wise man. He does not have to walk nervously or cautiously, for he has such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to make a stand against Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint. Nor is he thereby cheap in his own eyes because he knows he is not his own, but he will act in all things as carefully and meticulously as a devout and holy man guards anything entrusted to him. And whenever he is ordered to repay his debt he will not complain to Fortune, but he will say: ‘I thank you for what I have possessed and held. I have looked after your property to my great benefit, but at your command I give and yield it with gratitude and good will. If you want me still to have anything of yours, I shall keep it safe; if you wish
otherwise, I give back and restore to you my silver, both coined and plate, my house and my household.' Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightway what you gave me before I was conscious – take it.' What is the harm in returning to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as something cheap. To quote Cicero,
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we hate gladiators if they are keen to save their life by any means; we favour them if they openly show contempt for it. You must realize that the same thing applies to us: for often the cause of dying is the fear of it. Dame Fortune, who makes sport with us, says, ‘Why should I preserve you, base and fearful creature? You will only receive more severe wounds and stabs, as you don't know how to offer your throat. But you will both live longer and die more easily, since you receive the blade bravely, without withdrawing your neck and putting your hands in the way. He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise. For by foreseeing anything that can happen as though it will happen he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well. There is disease, imprisonment, disaster, fire: none of these is unexpected – I did know in what riotous company Nature had enclosed me. So many times have the dead been lamented in my neighbourhood; so many times have torch and taper conducted untimely funerals past my threshold. Often has the crash of a falling building echoed beside me. Many who were linked to me through the forum and the senate and everyday conversation have been carried off in a night,
which has severed the hands once joined in friendship. Should it surprise me if the perils which have always roamed around me should some day reach me? A great number of people plan a sea voyage with no thought of a storm. I shall never be ashamed to go to a bad author for a good quotation. Whenever Publilius
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abandoned the absurdities of the mime and language aimed at the gallery, he showed more force of intellect than the writers of tragedy and comedy; and he produced many thoughts more striking than those of tragedy, let alone farce, including this one: ‘What can happen to one can happen to all.' If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you too, you will be armed long before you are attacked. It is too late for the mind to equip itself to endure dangers once they are already there. ‘I didn't think it would happen' and ‘Would you ever have believed it would turn out so?' Why ever not? Are there any riches which are not pursued by poverty and hunger and beggary? What rank is there whose purple robe and augur's staff and patrician shoe-straps are not attended by squalor and the brand of disgrace and a thousand marks of shame and utter contempt? What kingship does not face ruin and trampling down, the tyrant and the hangman? And these things are not separated by wide intervals: there is only a brief hour between sitting on a throne and kneeling to another. Know, then, that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you too. You are rich: but are you richer than Pompey?
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Yet even he lacked bread and water when Gaius, his old relation and new host, had opened the house of Caesar to him so that he could close his own. Though he possessed so many rivers flowing from source to mouth in his own lands, he had to beg for drops of water. He died of hunger and thirst in a kinsman's palace, and while he starved his heir was organizing a state funeral for him. You have filled the highest offices: were they as high or unexpected or all-embracing as Sejanus
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had? Yet on the same day the senate escorted him to prison and the people tore him to
pieces; and there was nothing left for the executioner to drag away of the man who had had everything heaped on him that gods and men could offer. You are a king: I shall not direct you to Croesus,
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who lived to see his own funeral pyre both lit and extinguished, thus surviving not only his kingdom but his own death; nor to Jugurtha,
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who was put on show to the Roman people within a year of causing them terror. We have seen Ptolemy, king of Africa, and Mithridates, king of Armenia, imprisoned by Gaius. One of them was sent into exile; the other hoped to be sent there in better faith. In all this topsy-turvy succession of events, unless you regard anything that can happen as bound to happen you give adversity a power over you which the man who sees it first can crush.

12              The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. In other words, let our labour not be in vain and without result, nor the result unworthy of our labour; for usually bitterness follows if either we do not succeed or we are ashamed of succeeding. We must cut down on all this dashing about that a great many people indulge in, as they throng around houses and theatres and fora: they intrude into other people's affairs, always giving the impression of being busy. If you ask one of them as he comes out of a house, ‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?' he will reply, ‘I really don't know; but I'll see some people, I'll do something.' They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness. You will feel sorry for some folk you see rushing along as if to a fire; so often do they bump headlong into those in their way and send themselves and others sprawling,
when all the time they have been running to call on someone who will not return the call, or to attend the funeral of somebody they don't know, or the trial of somebody who is constantly involved in litigation, or the betrothal of a woman who is constantly getting married, and while attending a litter have on occasion even carried it. They then return home, worn out to no purpose and swearing they themselves don't know why they went out or where they have been – and the next day they will wander forth on the same old round. So let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view. It is not industry that makes men restless, but false impressions of things drive them mad. For even madmen need some hope to stir them: the outward show of some object excites them because their deluded mind cannot detect its worthlessness. In the same way every individual among those who wander forth to swell a crowd is led round the city by empty and trivial reasons. Dawn drives him forth with nothing to do, and after he has been jostled in vain on many men's doorsteps and only succeeds in greeting their slave-announcers, shut out by many he finds no one at home with more difficulty than himself. This evil leads in turn to that most disgraceful vice of eavesdropping and prying into public and secret things and learning about many matters which are safe neither to talk about nor to listen to.

13              I imagine that Democritus had this in mind when he began: ‘Anyone who wishes to live a quiet life should not engage in many activities either privately or publicly' – meaning, of course, useless ones. For if they are essential, then not just many but countless things have to be done both privately and publicly. But when no binding duty summons us we must restrain our actions. For a man who is occupied with many things often puts himself into the power of Fortune, whereas the safest policy is rarely to tempt her, though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: ‘I shall sail unless something happens'; and ‘I shall become praetor unless something prevents me'; and ‘My business will be successful unless something interferes.' That is why we say
that nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation. We remove him not from the chances that befall mankind but from their mistakes, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned – and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans. But inevitably the mind can cope more easily with the distress arising from disappointed longings if you have not promised it certain success.

14              We should also make ourselves flexible, so that we do not pin our hopes too much on our set plans, and can move over to those things to which chance has brought us, without dreading a change in either our purpose or our condition, provided that fickleness, that fault most inimical to tranquillity, does not get hold of us. For obstinacy, from which Fortune often extorts something, is bound to bring wretchedness and anxiety, and much more serious is the fickleness that nowhere restrains itself. Both are hostile to tranquillity, to find change impossible and endurance impossible. In any case the mind must be recalled from external objects into itself: it must trust in itself, rejoice in itself, admire its own things; it must withdraw as much as possible from the affairs of others and devote its attention to itself; it must not feel losses and should take a kindly view even of misfortunes. When a shipwreck was reported and he heard that all his possessions had sunk, our founder Zeno said, ‘Fortune bids me be a less encumbered philosopher.' When a tyrant threatened to kill the philosopher Theodorus,
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and indeed to leave him unburied, he replied, ‘You can please yourself, and my half-pint of blood is in your power; but as to burial, you are a fool if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground.' Julius Canus,
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an outstandingly fine man, whom we can admire even though he was born in our age, had a long dispute with Gaius; and as he was going away that Phalaris
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said to him, ‘In case you are deluding yourself with foolish hopes, I have ordered you to be led off to execution.' His reply was ‘I thank you, noble emperor.' I am not certain what he meant, for many possibilities occur to me. Did he mean to be insulting by showing the extent of the cruelty
which caused death to be a blessing? Was he taunting him with his daily bouts of madness (for people used to thank him whose children had been murdered and whose property had been confiscated)? Was he accepting his sentence as a welcome release? Whatever he meant, it was a spirited reply. Someone will say, ‘After this Gaius could have ordered him to live.' Canus was not afraid of that: Gaius was known to keep his word in commands of that sort. Will you believe that Canus spent the ten days leading up to his execution without any anxiety at all? It is incredible what that man said, what he did, how calm he remained. He was playing draughts when the centurion who was dragging off a troop of condemned men ordered him to be summoned too. At the call he counted his pieces and said to his companion, ‘See that you don't falsely claim after my death that you won.' Then, nodding to the centurion, he said, ‘You will be witness that I am leading by one piece.' Do you think Canus was just enjoying his game at that board? He was enjoying his irony. His friends were sorrowful at the prospect of losing such a man, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sad? You are wondering whether souls are immortal: I shall soon know.' He did not cease searching for the truth right up to the end and making his own death a topic for discussion. His philosophy teacher went with him, and when they were not far from the mound on which our god Caesar received his daily offering, he said, ‘Canus, what are you thinking about now? What is your state of mind?' Canus replied, ‘I have decided to take note whether in that most fleeting moment the spirit is aware of its departure from the body'; and he promised that if he discovered anything he would visit his friends in turn and reveal to them the state of the soul. Just look at that serenity in the midst of a hurricane, that spirit worthy of immortality, which invokes its own fate to establish the truth, and in that very last phase of life questions the departing soul and seeks to learn something not only up to the time of death but from the very experience of death itself. No one ever pursued philosophy longer. So great a man will not quickly be relinquished, and he should be referred
to with respect: glorious spirit, who swelled the roll of Gaius' victims, we shall ensure your immortality.

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