Dialogues and Letters (18 page)

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3              If I had not been admitted to these studies it would not have
been worth while being born. For what would there be to cause
me delight in being numbered among the living? Eating and
drinking? Stuffing this diseased and feeble body, which would die
if it were not continuously filled, and spending my life in attendance
on a sick man? Fearing death, for which alone we are born?
You can have this inestimable boon: life is not worth the agitation

5          and the sweat. What a pitiful thing is man unless he rises above
human concerns! As long as we are battling with our passions
what greatness can we achieve? Even if we get the better of them
we are only defeating monsters. What reason have we to admire
ourselves because we are only different from the worst? I cannot
see why a man should feel satisfied because he is healthier than an

6           invalid. There is a big difference between vigorous strength and
just lack of ill-health.

You have avoided the faults of the soul. You don't have a deceitful air; your speech is not adapted to someone else's wishes; your heart is not veiled; you do not suffer from greed, which denies to itself what it has taken from everyone else, nor extravagance, which wastes money shamefully only to recover it even more shamefully, nor ambition, which will raise you to a worthy status only through unworthy means. So far you have achieved nothing; and though you have escaped many evils, you have not yet escaped yourself.

That particular virtue which we aspire to is magnificent, not because to be free from evil is in itself a blessing, but because it releases the mind, prepares it for the perception of heavenly things, and makes it worthy to associate with god.

7               The mind enjoys the complete and perfect benefit of its human
destiny only when it has spurned every evil, seeking the heights
and entering the secret heart of nature. As it then wanders among
the very stars it takes pleasure in laughing at the fancy floors of
rich men's homes, and the whole earth with the gold it contains.
I do not mean just the gold which has already been mined and
used for minting money, but that too which the earth still keeps

8           hidden for the greed of generations to come. The mind cannot
despise colonnades, ceilings panelled with gleaming ivory, clipped
shrubbery, and streams diverted towards mansions, until it travels
over the whole world, and looking down upon the earth from
on high – an earth cramped and mostly covered by sea and, even
where it emerges from the sea, barren or parched or frozen – it
then says to itself: ‘Is this that pinprick which is divided by fire

9          and sword among so many nations? How ridiculous are the boundaries of mortal men! Let our empire restrain the Dacians beyond
the Ister, and confine the Thracians by Mount Haemus; let the
Danube separate Sarmatian and Roman interests, and the Rhine
put a limit to Germany; let the Pyrenees raise their slopes between
the Gauls and the Spains; and let a barren waste of sand lie
between Egypt and Ethiopia. If you gave ants a human intellect,

10        would they not also divide a single piece of ground into many
provinces? Since you have elevated yourself to truly great conceptions,
whenever you see armies advancing with standards raised
and cavalry (as if doing something impressive) now scouting far
afield, now deployed on the flanks, you will enjoy quoting: “A
dark battle-line moves over the plains.”
That which you see is
merely a bustling of ants toiling on their narrow ground. What is
the difference between the ants and ourselves, apart from the
measure of a tiny body?'

4A . 2 . 4–6

The Cataracts of the Nile

4          The Cataracts receive the Nile, a region famous for its remarkable

5          spectacle. There it surges through rocks which are steep and
jagged in many places, and unleashes its forces. It is broken by
opposing rocks, and struggling through narrows, everywhere it
either conquers or is conquered as it surges forward. There for
the first time its waters are stirred up, which had been flowing
undisturbed along a smooth channel, and in a violent torrent it
leaps forward through narrow passages. Even its appearance
changes: up to that point it flows along muddy and murky; but
after it has lashed against the rocks and sharp boulders, it foams
and takes its colour not from its own properties but from its
violent treatment in that locality. Finally it struggles through the
obstructions in its way, and then, suddenly losing its support, falls
down an enormous depth with a tremendous crash that echoes
through the surrounding regions. The people settled there by the
could not endure this noise, as their ears were deafened
by the constant uproar, and for that reason they transferred their
abode to a quieter spot.

6              One of the strange stories I have heard about the river is the
incredible daring of its inhabitants. They embark on small boats,
two to a boat, and one rows while the other bails out water. Then
they are violently tossed about in the raging rapids and backlashing
waves of the Nile. At length they reach the narrowest channels,
through which they escape the rocky gorge; and, swept along by
the whole force of the river, they control the rushing boat by
hand and plunge head downward to the great terror of the
onlookers. You would believe sorrowfully that by now they were
drowned and overwhelmed by such a mass of water, when far
from the place where they fell they shoot out as from a catapult,
still sailing, and the subsiding wave does not submerge them but
carries them on to smooth waters.

6 . 1 . 4–7

The terrors of earthquakes

4            We must find consolation for anxious people and relieve them of
their great fear. For what can seem safe enough to anyone if the
world itself is shaken and its most substantial parts collapse? If the
one thing in the cosmos which is immovable, and fixed so as to
support everything that rests on it, starts to sway, and if the earth
loses its characteristic feature of stability, where will our fears
eventually subside? What shelter will living creatures find? Where
will they take refuge in their dismay if the source of their fear is

5          drawn from the depths below them? Everyone feels panic when
buildings creak and threaten to fall. Then everybody rushes out
headlong, abandoning his home and trusting himself to the outdoors.
What hiding place can we look to, what assistance, if the
earth itself is causing the ruin, if that which protects and sustains
us, on which our cities are built, which some have claimed to

6          be the foundation of the universe, gives way and totters? What
consolation – I do not say help – can you have when fear has lost
its way of escape? What, I say, is sufficiently protected? What is
strong enough to defend others and oneself? I will keep off an
enemy from a wall, and fortifications on a precipitous height will
obstruct even large armies by making an approach difficult. A
harbour protects us from a storm. Roofs ward off the violent
force of storm clouds and incessant rainfall. Fire does not chase
people who flee from it. Underground houses and deeply dug
caves can protect against threatening thunderstorms and skies.
That fire from the heavens does not penetrate the earth, but is
deflected by any small obstruction on the ground. During a plague
we can go and live elsewhere. There is no disaster without some

7          means of escape. Thunderbolts have never burned up whole
peoples. A season of plague has emptied cities, not carried them
off. But the disaster of an earthquake stretches far and wide; it is
unavoidable, voracious, and deadly to everyone. For it not only
devours homes, families and individual cities: it submerges whole
nations and regions. Sometimes it covers them in ruins, sometimes
buries them in a deep chasm, not even leaving any evidence that
what is no longer there at least once was. Only the ground covers
the noblest cities, without any trace of their former appearance.




. Seneca himself and his brothers Novatus (also called Gallio) and Mela.

. Places to which exiles were banished. Sciathus, Seriphus and Gyara are in the Aegean; Cossura (now Pantelleria) lies between Sicily and North Africa.

. Antenor was said to have come from Troy to Italy and to have founded Patavium (Padua). Evander was an Arcadian prince who founded Pallanteum (afterwards the site of Rome). Diomedes, after fighting in the Trojan War, came to Italy and founded Argyripa (later Arpi) in Apulia.

. Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27
), the most famous scholar of his time.

. The conspirator against Julius Caesar, who wrote several philosophical works.

. The name given to two ancient thatched huts in Rome, which were regarded as venerable relics from the humble beginnings of the city.

. Marcus Claudius Marcellus, consul in 51
, and a supporter of Pompey. After Pharsalus he retired to Mytilene.

. A river in Colchis (now the Rion) flowing into the Black Sea. The birds referred to are pheasants; and vengeance from the Parthians alludes to the notorious victory of the Parthians over the Romans at Carrhae in 53

. Manius Curius Dentatus: see n.

. A notorious gourmet who lived under Augustus and Tiberius. (The treatise on cookery that survives under his name is from a later period.)

. Consul, 503
: the episode referred to occurred in 494.

. For Regulus see n.
. and for Scipio, mentioned shortly, n.

. See n.

. See n.
to Letter 24.

. Aristides is probably a slip for Phocion, a fourth-century
Athenian general and statesman: Plutarch tells the same story of Phocion (
. 36).

. Mother of the two famous tribunes, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (133 and 123
): she was regarded as the type of the high-principled Roman matron.

. Gaius Aurelius Cotta was exiled in 90
on a charge of inciting the Italians to revolt, and subsequently became consul in 75.

. Gallio and Mela.

. Almost certainly Mela's son, the poet Lucan, born in

. Daughter of Gallio (formerly called Novatus).

. Wife of Gaius Galerius, prefect of Egypt
16–31. His death and the shipwreck referred to shortly occurred on their way home from Egypt in 31.

. Alcestis, in place of her husband Admetus. The story is the theme of Euripides'


. Serenus was a close friend of Seneca, who mentions him elsewhere in his works. He held the public office of
praefectus vigilum
, commander of a force at Rome which performed police and fire-brigade duties.

. The first three heads of the Stoic school.

. A distinguished fifth-century philosopher from Abdera and a pioneer in atomist theories of the nature of matter.

. A reference to
24.10–11, where Achilles cannot sleep for grief over the dead Patroclus.

. A slightly inaccurate quotation from
De Rerum Natura

. A notable Stoic philosopher from Tarsus: he was a friend of Cicero and teacher of Augustus.

. Prytanis and sufes are names for certain chief magistrates, the prytanis in some Greek states, the sufes in Carthage and some other Phoenician cities.

. They seized autocratic power in Athens (404–403
) after the end of the Peloponnesian War.

. Famous for his part in killing the tyrant Hipparchus at Athens in 514

. A famous soldier and statesman (died 270
), notable for his plebeian origins and his incorruptibility.

. A fourth-century
historian and pupil of the orator Isocrates.

. Plato and the historian Xenophon were famous pupils of Socrates. For Cato see n.
to Letter 24.

. A third-century
lecturer and writer from Borysthenes on the Black Sea noteworthy for his mordant wit.

. The founder of the Cynic school in the fourth century

. He came from Gadara and is used here as the type of the wealthy man.

. A reference to the accidental burning of the famous library during Julius Caesar's Alexandrine War in 48

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