In this lesson, we continue our study of Stoic Philosophy, reading Seneca’s essay “On Firmness of Mind”. To complete the objectives of this lesson:
- Study the lesson for mastery.
- Complete the lesson assessment.
I might say with good reason, Serenus, that there is as great a difference between the Stoics and the other schools of philosophy as there is between males and females, since while each set contributes equally to human society, the one class is born to obey, the other to command. Other philosophers, using gentle and persuasive measures, are like the intimate family physician, who, commonly, tries to cure his patients, not by the best and the quickest method, but as he is allowed. The Stoics, having adopted the heroic course, are not so much concerned in making it attractive to us who enter upon it, as in having it rescue us as soon as possible and guide us to that lofty summit which rises so far beyond the reach of any missile as to tower high above all fortune. “But,” you say, “the path by which we are called to go is steep and rugged.” What of it? Can the heights be reached by a level path? But the way is not so sheer as some suppose. The first part only has rocks and cliffs, and appears impassable, just as many places, when viewed from afar, seem often to be an unbroken steep since the distance deceives the eye; then, as you draw nearer, these same places, which by a trick of the eyes had merged into one, open up gradually, and what seemed from a distance precipitous is now reduced to a gentle slope.
Recently, when there happened to be some mention of Marcus Cato, you, with your impatience of injustice, grew indignant because Cato’s own age had failed to understand him, because it had rated him lower than any Vatinius though he towered above any Pompey and Caesar; and it seemed to you shameful that when he was about to speak against some law in the forum, his toga was torn from his shoulders, and that, after he had been hustled by a lawless mob all the way from the rostrum to the Arch of Fabius, he had to endure vile language, and spittle, and all the other insults of a maddened crowd. And then I made answer that on behalf of the state you had good reason to be stirred – the state which Publius Clodius on the one hand, Vatinius and all the greatest rascals on the other, were putting up for sale, and, carried away by blind cupidity, did not realize that, while they were selling, they too were being sold. For Cato himself I bade you have no concern, for no wise man can receive either injury or insult. I said, too, that in Cato the immortal gods had given to us a truer exemplar of the wise man than earlier ages had in Ulysses and Hercules. For we Stoics have declared that these were wise men, because they were unconquered by struggles, were despisers of pleasure, and victors over all terrors. Cato did not grapple with wild beasts – the pursuit of these is for the huntsman and the peasant; he did not hunt down monsters with fire and sword, nor did he chance to live in the times when it was possible to believe that the heavens rested on one man’s shoulders. In an age when the old credulity had long been thrown aside, and knowledge had by time attained its highest development, he came into conflict with ambition, a monster of many shapes, with the boundless greed for power which the division of the whole world among three men\a could not satisfy. He stood alone against the vices of a degenerate state that was sinking to destruction beneath its very weight, and he stayed the fall of the republic to the utmost that one man’s hand could do to draw it back, until at last he was himself withdrawn and shared the downfall which he had so long averted, and the two whom heaven willed should never part were blotted out together. For Cato did not survive freedom, nor freedom Cato. Think you that what the people did to such a man could have been an injury, even if they tore from him either his praetorship or his toga? even if they bespattered his sacred head with filth from their mouths? The wise man is safe, and no injury or insult can touch him. I imagine that I see you flaring up in a temper and about to boil over; you are getting ready to exclaim: “This is the sort of thing that detracts from the weight of the teachings of you Stoics. You make great promises, promises which are not even to be desired, still less believed; then after all your big words, while you deny that a wise man is poor, you do not deny that he usually possesses neither slave nor house nor food; while you deny that a wise man is mad, you do not deny that he does lose his reason, that he babbles crazy words, that he will venture to do whatever his violent disorder impels him to do; while you deny that a wise man is ever a slave, you do not likewise go on to deny that he will be sold, that he will do what he is ordered to do, and render to his master the services of a slave. So, for all your lofty assumption, you reach the same level as the other schools -only the names of things are changed. And so I suspect that something of this sort lurks behind this maxim also, “A wise man will receive neither injury nor insult” – a maxim which at first sight, appears noble and splendid. But it makes a great difference whether you place the wise man beyond feeling injured or beyond being injured. For if you say that he will bear injury calmly, he has no peculiar advantage; he is fortunate in possessing a common quality, one which is acquired from the very repetition of injuries – namely, endurance. If you say that he will not receive injury, that is, that no one will attempt to injure him, then, abandoning all other business, I am for becoming a Stoic.” I assuredly did not intend to deck up the wise man with the fanciful honour of words, but to place him in the position where no injury may reach him. “What then?” you say; “will there be no one to assail him, no one to attempt it?” Nothing in the world is so sacred that it will not find some one to profane it, but holy things are none the less exalted, even if those do exist who strike at a greatness that is set far beyond them, and which they will never damage. The invulnerable thing is not that which is not struck, but that which is not hurt; by this mark I will show you the wise man. Is there any doubt that the strength that cannot be overcome is a truer sort than that which is unassailed, seeing that untested powers are dubious, whereas the stability that repels all assaults is rightly deemed most genuine? So you must know that the wise man, if no injury hurts him, will be of a higher type than if none is offered to him, and the brave man, I should say, is he whom war cannot subdue, whom the onset of a hostile force cannot terrify, not he who battens at ease among the idle populace. Consequently I will assert this – that the wise man is not subject to any injury. It does not matter, therefore, how many darts are hurled against him, since none can pierce him. As the hardness of certain stones is impervious to steel, and adamant cannot be cut or hewed or ground, but in turn blunts whatever comes into contact with it; certain substances cannot be consumed by fire, but, though encompassed by flame, retain their hardness and their shape; as certain cliffs, projecting into the deep, break the force of the sea, and, though lashed for countless ages, show no traces of its wrath, just so the spirit of the wise man is impregnable and has gathered such a measure of strength as to be no less safe from injury than those things which I have mentioned.
“What then?” you say; “will there be no one who will attempt to do the wise man injury?” Yes, the attempt will be made, but the injury willnot reach him. For the distance which separates him from contact with his inferiors is so great that no baneful force can extend its power all the way to him. Even when the mighty, exalted by authority and powerful in the support of their servitors, strive to injure him, all their assaults on wisdom will fall as short of their mark as do the missiles shot on high by bowstring or catapult, which though they leap beyond our vision, yet curve downwards this side of heaven. Tell me, do you suppose that when that stupid king\a darkened the day with the shower of his darts, any arrow fell upon the sun, or that he was able to reach Neptune when he lowered his chains into the deep? As heavenly things escape the hands of man and divinity suffers no harm from those who demolish temples and melt down images, so every wanton, insolent, or haughty act directed against the wise man is essayed in vain. “But it would be better,” you say, “if no one cared to do such things.” You are praying for what is a hard matter – that human beings should do no wrong. And that such acts be not done is profitable to those who are prone to do them, not to him who cannot be affected by them even if they are done. No, I am inclined to think that the power of wisdom is better shown by a display of calmness in the midst of provocation, just as the greatest proof that a general is mighty in his arms and men is his quiet unconcern in the country of the enemy. Let us make a distinction, Serenus, if you like, between injury and insult. The former is by its nature more serious; the latter, a slighter matter -serious only to the thin- skinned – for men are not harmed, but angered by it. Yet such is the weakness and vanity of some men’s minds, there are those who think that nothing is more bitter. And so you will find the slave who would rather be struck with the lash than the fist, who considers stripes and death more endurable than insulting words. To such a pitch of absurdity have we come that we are harrowed not merely by pain but by the idea of pain, like children who are terror-stricken by darkness and the ugliness of masks and a distorted countenance; who are provoked even to tears by names that are unpleasant to their ears, by gesticulation of the fingers,\a and other things which in their ignorance they shrink from in a kind of blundering panic. Injury has as its aim to visit evil upon a person. But wisdom leaves no room for evil, for the only evil it knows is baseness, which cannot enter where virtue and uprightness already abide. Consequently, if there can be no injury without evil, no evil without baseness, and if, moreover, baseness cannot reach a man already possessed by uprightness, then injury does not reach the wise man. For if injury is the experiencing of some evil, if, moreover, the wise man can experience no evil, no injury affects a wise man. All injury is damaging to him who encounters it, and no man can receive injury without some loss either in respect to his position or his person or things external to us. But the wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself, he trusts nothing to fortune, his own goods are secure, since he is content with virtue, which needs no gift from chance, and which, therefore, can neither be increased nor diminished. For that which has come to the full has no room for further growth, and Fortune can snatch away only what she herself has given. But virtue she does not give; therefore she cannot take it away. Virtue is free, inviolable, unmoved, unshaken, so steeled against the blows of chance that she cannot be bent, much less broken. Facing the instruments of torture she holds her gaze unflinching, her expression changes not at all, whether a hard or a happy lot is shown her. Therefore the wise man will lose nothing which he will be able to regard as loss; for the only possession he has is virtue, and of this he can never be robbed. Of all else he has merely the use on sufferance. Who, however, is moved by the loss of that which is not his own? But if injury can do no harm to anything that a wise man owns, since if his virtue is safe his possessions are safe, then no injury can happen to the wise man.
When Demetrius, the one who had the appellation of Poliorcetes, had captured Megara, he questioned Stilbo, a philosopher, to find out whether he had lost anything, and his answer was, “Nothing; I have all that is mine with me.” Yet his estate had been given up to plunder, his daughters had been outraged by the enemy, his native city had passed under foreign sway, and the man himself was being questioned by a king on his throne, ensconced amid the arms of his victorious army. But he wrested the victory from the conqueror, and bore witness that, though his city had been captured, he himself was not only unconquered but unharmed. For he had with him his true possessions, upon which no hand can be laid, while the property that was being scattered and pillaged and plundered he counted not his own, but the adventitious things that follow the beck of Fortune. Therefore he had esteemed them as not really his own; for all that flows to us from without is a slippery and insecure possession. Consider now, can any thief or traducer or violent neighbour, or any rich man who wields the power conferred by a childless old age, do injury to this man, from whom war and the enemy and that exponent of the illustrious art of wrecking cities could snatch away nothing? Amid swords flashing on every side and the uproar of soldiers bent on pillage, amid flames and blood and the havoc of the smitten city, amid the crash of temples falling upon their gods, one man alone had peace. It is not for you, therefore, to call reckless this boast of mine\a; and if you do not give me credence, I shall adduce a voucher for it. For you can hardly believe that so much steadfastness, that such greatness of soul falls to the lot of any man. But here is one\b who comes into our midst and says: “There is no reason why you should doubt that a mortal man can raise himself above his human lot, that he can view with unconcern pains and losses, sores and wounds, and nature’s great commotions as she rages all around him, can bear hardship calmly and prosperity soberly, neither yielding to the one nor trusting to the other; that he can remain wholly unchanged amid the diversities of fortune and count nothing but himself his own, and of this self, even, only its better part. See, here am I to prove to you this – that, though beneath the hand of that destroyer of so many cities fortifications shaken by the battering-ram may totter, and high towers undermined by tunnels and secret saps may sink in sudden downfall, and earthworks rise to match the loftiest citadel, yet no war-engines can be devised that will shake the firm-fixed soul. I crept just now from the ruins of my house, and while the conflagration blazed on every side, I fled from the flames through blood; what fate befalls my daughters, whether a worse one than their country’s own, I know not. Alone and old, and seeing the enemy in possession of everything around me, I, nevertheless, declare that my holdings are all intact and unharmed. I still possess them; whatever I have had as my own, I have. There is no reason for you to suppose me vanquished and yourself the victor; your fortune has vanquished my fortune. Where those things are that pass and change their owners, I know not; so far as my possessions are concerned they are with me, and ever will be with me. The losers are yonder rich men who have lost their estates – the libertines who have lost their loves – the prostitutes whom they cherished at a great expenditure of shame – politicians who have lost the senate-house, the forum, and the places appointed for the public exercise of their failings; the usurers have lost their records on which their avarice, rejoicing without warrant, based its dream of wealth. But I have still my all, untouched and undiminished. Do you, accordingly, put your question to those who weep and wail, who, in defence of their money, present their naked bodies to the point of the sword, who, when their pockets are loaded, flee from the enemy.” Know, therefore, Serenus, that this perfect man, full of virtues human and divine, can lose nothing. His goods are girt about by strong and insurmountable defences. Not Babylon’s walls, which an Alexander entered, are to be compared with these, not the ramparts of Carthage or Numantia, both captured by one man’s hand,\a not the Capitol or citadel of Rome – upon them the enemy has left his marks. The walls which guard the wise man are safe from both flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance, -are lofty, impregnable, godlike. There is no reason for you to say, Serenus, as your habit is, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found. He is not a fiction of us Stoics, a sort of phantom glory of human nature, nor is he a mere conception, the mighty semblance of a thing unreal, but we have shown him in the flesh just as we delineate him, and shall show him – though perchance not often, and after a long lapse of years only one. For greatness which transcends the limit of the ordinary and common type is produced but rarely. But this self-same Marcus Cato, the mention of whom started this discussion,\a I almost think surpasses even our exemplar. Again, that which injures must be more powerful than that which is injured; but wickedness is not stronger than righteousness; therefore it is impossible for the wise man to be injured. Only the bad attempt to injure the good; the good are at peace with each other, the bad are no less harmful to the good than they are to each other. But if only the weaker man can be injured, and if the bad man is weaker than the good man, and the good have to fear no injury except from one who is no match for them, then injury cannot befall the wise man. For by this time you do not need to be reminded of the fact that there is no good man except the wise man. “But,” some one says, “if Socrates was condemned unjustly, he received an injury.” At this point it is needful for us to understand that it is possible for some one to do me an injury and for me not to receive the injury. For example, if a man should steal something from my country-house and leave it in my town-house, he would have committed a theft, but I should have lost nothing. It is possible for one to become a wrong-doer, although he may not have done a wrong. If a man lies with his wife as if she were another man’s wife, he will be an adulterer, though she will not be an adulteress. Some one gave me poison, but the poison lost its efficacy by being mixed with food; the man, by giving the poison, became guilty of a crime, even if he did me no injury. A man is no less a murderer because his blow was foiled, intercepted by the victim’s dress. All crimes, so far as guilt is concerned, are completed even before the accomplishment of the deed. Certain acts are of such a character, and are linked together in such a relation, that while the first can take place without the second, the second cannot take place without the first. I shall endeavour to make clear what I mean. I can move my feet without running, but I cannot run without moving my feet. It is possible for me, though being in the water, not to swim; but if I swim, it is impossible for me not to be in the water. To the same category belongs the matter under (discussion. If I have received an injury, it must necessarily have been done. If an injury was done, I have not necessarily received it; for many things can happen to avert the injury. Just as, for example, some chance may strike down the hand while it takes aim and turn the speeding missile aside, so it is possible that some circumstance may ward off injuries of any sort and intercept them in mid-course, with the result that they may have been done, yet not received.
Moreover, justice can suffer no injustice, because opposites do not meet. But no injury can be done without injustice; therefore no injury can be done to the wise man. And you need not be surprised; if no one can do him an injury, no one can do him a service either. The wise man, on the one hand, lacks nothing that he can receive as a gift; the evil man, on the other, can bestow nothing good enough for the wise man to have. For a man must have before he can give; the evil man, however, has nothing that the wise man would be glad to have transferred to himself. It is impossible, therefore, for any one either to injure or to benefit the wise man, since that which is divine does not need to be helped, and cannot be hurt; and the wise man is next-door neighbour to the gods and like a god in all save his mortality. As he struggles and presses on towards those things that are lofty, well-ordered, undaunted, that flow on with even and harmonious current, that are untroubled, kindly, adapted to the public good, beneficial both to himself and to others, the wise man will covet nothing low, will never repine. The man who, relying on reason, marches through mortal vicissitudes with the spirit of a god, has no vulnerable spot where he can receive an injury. From man only do you think I mean? No, not even from Fortune, who, whenever she has encountered virtue, has always left the field outmatched. If that supreme event, beyond which outraged laws and the most cruel masters have nothing with which to threaten us, and in which Fortune uses up all her power, is met with calm and unruffled mind, and if it is realized that death is not an evil and therefore not an injury either, we shall much more easily bear all other things – losses and pains, disgrace, changes of abode, *bereavements, and separations. These things cannot overwhelm the wise man, even though they all encompass him at once; still less does he grieve when they assault him singly. And if he bears composedly the injuries of Fortune, how much the more will he bear those of powerful men, whom he knows to be merely the instruments of Fortune!
All such things, therefore, he endures in the same way that he submits to the rigours of winter and to inclement weather, to fevers and disease, and the other accidents of chance; nor does he form so high an estimate of any man as to think that he has done anything with the good judgement that is found only in the wise man./a All others are actuated, not by judgement, but by delusions and deceptions and ill-formed impulses of the mind, which the wise men sets down to the account of chance; but every power of Fortune rages round about us and strikes what counts for naught!
Consider, further, that the most extensive opportunity for injury is found in those things through which some danger is contrived for us, as, for example, the suborning of an accuser, or the bringing of a false accusation, or the stirring up of the hatred of the powerful against us, and all the other forms of robbery that exist among civilians. Another common type of injury arises when a man has his profits or a long-chased prize torn from his grasp, as when a legacy which he has made great effort to secure is turned aside, or the goodwill of a lucrative house is withdrawn. All this the wise man escapes, for he knows nothing of directing his life either towards hope or towards fear. Add, further, that no man receives an injury without some mental disturbance, yea more, he is perturbed even by the thought of it; but the man who has been saved from error, who is self- controlled and has deep and calm repose, is free from such perturbation. For if an injury reaches him, it does stir and incite him; yet, if he is a wise man, he is free from that anger which is aroused by the mere appearance of injury, and in no other way could he be free from the anger than by being free also from the injury, knowing that an injury can never be done to him. For this reason he is so resolute and cheerful, for this reason he is elate with constant joy. So far, moreover, is he from shrinking from the buffetings of circumstances or of men, that he counts even injury profitable, for through it he finds a means of putting himself to the proof and makes trial of his virtue. Let us, I beseech you, be silent\a in the presence of this proposition, and with impartial minds and ears give heed while the wise man is made exempt from injury! Nor because of it is aught diminished from your wantonness, or from your greediest lusts, or from your blind presumption and pride! You may keep your vices – it is the wise man for whom this liberty is being sought. Our aim is not that you may be prevented from doing injury, but that the wise man may cast all injuries far from him, and by his endurance and his greatness of soul protect himself from them. Just so in the sacred games many have won the victory by wearing out the hands of their assailants through stubborn endurance. Do you, then, reckon the wise man in this class of men – the men who by long and faithful training have attained the strength to endure and tire out any assault of the enemy. Having touched upon the first part of the discussion, let us now pass to the second, in which by arguments – some of them our own, most of them, however, common to our school – we shall disprove the possibility of insult. It is a slighter offence than
ON FIRMNESS, x. i-4
injury, something to be complained of rather than avenged, something which even the laws have not deemed worthy of punishment. This feeling is stirred by a sense of humiliation as the spirit shrinks before an uncomplimentary word or act. “So- andso did not give me an audience today, though he gave it to others”; “he haughtily repulsed or openly laughed at my conversation”; “he did not give me the seat of honour, but placed me at the foot of the table.” These and similar reproaches – what shall I call them but the complainings of a squeamish temper? And it is generally the pampered and prosperous who indulge in them; for if a man is pressed by worse ills, he has not time to notice such things. By reason of too much leisure natures which are naturally weak and effeminate and, from the dearth of real injury, have grown spoiled, are disturbed by these slights, the greater number of which are due to some fault in the one who so interprets them. Therefore any man who is troubled by an insult shows himself lacking in both insight and belief in himself; for he decides without hesitation that he has been slighted, and the accompanying sting is the inevitable result of a certain abjectness of spirit, a spirit which depreciates itself and bows down to another. But no one can slight the wise man, for he knows his own greatness and assures himself that no one is accorded so much power over him, and all these feelings, which I prefer to call rather annoyances than distresses of the mind, he does not have to overcome – nay, he does not even have them. Quite different are the things that do buffet the wise man, even though they do not overthrow him, such as bodily pain and infirmity, or the loss of friends and children, and the ruin that befalls his country amid the flames of war. I do not deny that the wise man feels these things; for we do not claim for him the hardness of stone or of steel. There is no virtue that fails to realize that it does endure. What, then, is the case? The wise man does receive some wounds, but those that he recieves he binds up, arrests, and heals; these lesser things he does not even feel, nor does he employ against them his accustomed virtue of bearing hardship, but he either fails to notice them, or counts them worthy of a smile.
Moreover, since, in large measure, insults come from the proud and arrogant and from those who bear prosperity ill, the wise man possesses that which enables him to scorn their puffed- up attitude – the noblest of all the virtues, magnanimity. This passes over everything of that sort as of no more consequence than the delusive shapes of dreams and the apparitions of the night, which have nothing in them that is substantial and real. At the same time he remembers this, – that all others are so much his own inferiors that they would not presume to despise what is so far above them. The word “contumely” is derived from the word “contempt,” for no one outrages another by so grave a wrong unless he has contempt for him; but no man can be contemptuous of one who is greater and better than himself, even if his action is of a kind to which the contemptuous are prone. For children will strike their parents in the face, and the infant tumbles and tears his mother’s hair and slobbers upon her, or exposes to the gaze of the family parts that were better covered over, and a child does not shrink from foul language. Yet we do not count any of these things an insult, and why? because he who does them is incapable of being contemptuous. For the same reason the waggery of slaves, insulting to their masters, amuses us, and their boldness at the expense of guests has license only because they begin with their master himself; and the more contemptible and even ridiculous any slave is, the more freedom of tongue he has. For this purpose some people buy young slaves because they are pert, and they whet their impudence and keep them under an instructor in order that they may be practised in pouring forth streams of abuse; and yet we call this smartness, not insult. But what madness it is at one time to be amused, at another to be affronted, by the same things, and to call something, if spoken by a friend, a slander; if spoken by a slave, a playful taunt!
The same attitude that we have toward young slaves, the wise man has toward all men whose childhood endures even beyond middle age and the period of grey hairs. Or has age brought any profit at all to men of this sort, who have the faults of a childish mind with its defects augmented, who differ from children only in the size and shape of their bodies, but are not less wayward and unsteady, who are undiscriminating in their passion for pleasure, timorous, and peaceable, not from inclination, but from fear? Therefore no one may say that they differ in any way from children. For while children are greedy for knuckle-bones, nuts, and coppers, these are greedy for gold and silver, and cities; while children play among themselves at being magistrates, and in make-believe have their bordered toga, lictors’ rods and tribunal, thine play in earnest at the same things in the Campus Martius and the forum and the senate; while children rear their toy houses on the sea-shore with heaps of sand, these, as though engaged in a mighty enterprise, are busied in piling up stones and walls and roofs, and convert what was intended as a protection to the body into a menace.\a Therefore children and those who are farther advanced in life are alike deceived, but the latter in different and more serious things. And so the wise man not improperly considers insult from such men as a farce, and sometimes, just as if they were children, he will admonish them and inflict suffering and punishment, not because he has received an injury, but because they have committed one, and in order that they may desist from so doing. For thus also we break in animals by using the lash, and we do not get angry at them when they will not submit to a rider, but we curb them in order that by pain we may overcome their obstinacy. Now, therefore, you will know the answer to the question with which we are confronted: “Why, if the wise man cannot receive either injury or insult, does he punish those who have offered them?” For he is not avenging himself, but correcting them. But why is it that you refuse to believe that the wise man is granted such firmness of mind, when you may observe that others have the same, although for a different reason? What physician gets angry with a lunatic? Who takes in ill part the abuse of a man stricken with fever and yet denied cold water? The wise man’s feeling towards all men is that of the physician towards his patients: he does not scorn to touch their privy parts if they need treatment, or to view the body’s refuse and discharges, or to endure violent words from those who rage in delirium.
The wise man knows that all who strut about in togas and in purple, as if they were well and strong, are, for all their bright colour, quite unsound, and in his eyes they differ in no way from the sick who are bereft of self-control. And so he is not even irritated if in their sick condition they venture to be somewhat impertinent to their physician, and in the same spirit in which he sets no value on the honours they have, he sets no value on the lack of honour they show. Just as he will not be flattered if a beggar shows him respect, nor count it an insult if a man from the dregs of the people, on being greeted, fails to return his greeting, so, too, he will not even look up if many rich men look up at him. For he knows that they differ not a whit from beggars, yea, that they are even more wretched; since the beggar wants little, the rich man much. And, on the other hand, he will not be disturbed if the King of the Medes or King Attalus of Asia, ignoring his greeting, passes him by in silence and with a look of disdain. He knows that the position of such a man is no more to be envied than that of the slave in a large household whose duty it is to keep under constraint the sick and the insane. The men who traffic in wretched human chattels, buying and selling near the temple of Castor, whose shops are packed with a throng of the meanest slaves – if some one of these does not call me by name, shall I take umbrage? No, I think not. For of what good is a man who has under him none but the bad? Therefore, just as the wise man disregards this one’s courtesy or discourtesy, so will he likewise disregard the king’s: “You, O king, have under you Parthians and Medes and Bactrians, but you hold them in cheek by fear; they never allow you to relax your bow; they are your bitterest enemies, open to bribes, and eager for a new master.” Consequently the wise man will not be moved by any man’s insult. For men may all differ one from another, yet the wise man regards them as all alike because they are all equally foolish; since if he should once so far condescend as to be moved either by insult or injury, he could never be unconcerned. Unconcern, however, is the peculiar blessing of the wise man, and he will never allow himself to pay to the one who offered him an insult the compliment of admitting that it was offered. For, necessarily, whoever is troubled by another’s scorn, is pleased by his admiration.
Some men are mad enough to suppose that even a woman can offer them an insult. What matters it how they regard her, how many lackeys she has for her litter, how heavily weighted her ears, how roomy her sedan? She is just the same unthinking creature – wild, and unrestrained in her passions – unless she has gained knowledge and had much instruction. Some are affronted if a hairdresser jostles them, and some call the rudeness of a houseporter, an usher’s arrogance, or a valet’s loftiness an insult. O what laughter should such things draw! With what satisfaction should a man’s mind be filled when he contrasts his own repose with the unrest into which others blunder! “What then?” you say, “will the wise man not approach a door that is guarded by a surly keeper?” Assuredly, if some necessary business summons him he will make the venture, and placate the keeper, be he what he may, as one quiets a dog by tossing him food, and he will not deem it improper to pay something in order that he may pass the threshold, remembering that even on some bridges one has to pay to cross. And so to the fellow, be he what he may, who plies this source of revenue at receptions, he will pay his fee; he knows that money will buy whatever is for sale. The man has a small mind who is pleased with himself because he spoke his mind to a porter, because he broke his staff on him, made his way to his master and demanded the fellow’s hide. Whoever enters a contest becomes the antagonist of another, and, for the sake of victory, is on the same level. “But,” you ask, “if a wise man receives a blow, what shall he do?” What Cato did when he was struck in the face. He did not flare up, he did not avenge the wrong, he did not even forgive it, but he said that no wrong had been done. He showed finer spirit in not acknowledging it than if he had pardoned it. But we shall not linger long upon this point. For who is not aware that none of the things reputed to be goods or ills appear to the wise man as they do to men at large? He does not regard what men consider base or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd, but as the planets make their way against the whirl of heaven,\a so he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. Therefore leave off saying: “Will the wise man, then, receive no injury if he is given a lashing, if he has an eye gouged out? Will he receive no insult if he is hooted through the forum by the vile words of a foul-mouthed crowd? If at a king’s banquet he is ordered to take a place beneath the table and to eat with the slaves assigned to the most disreputable service? If he is foreed to bear whatever else can be thought of that will offend his native self-respect?”
No matter how great these things may come to be, whether in number or in size, their nature will remain the same. If small things do not move him, neither will the greater ones; if a few do not move him, neither will more. But from the measure of your own weakness you form your idea of an heroic spirit, and, having pictured how much you think that you can endure, you set the limit of the wise man’s endurance a little farther on. But his virtue has placed him in another region of the universe; he has nothing in common with you. Therefore search out the hard things and whatever is grievous to bear – things from which the ear and the eye must shrink. The whole mass of them will not crush him and as he withstands them singly, so will he withstand them united. He who says that one thing is tolerable for the wise man, another intolerable, and restricts the greatness of his soul to definite bounds, does him wrong; Fortune conquers us, unless we wholly conquer her. Do not suppose that such austerity is Stoic only. Epicurus, whom you claim as the advocate of your policy of inaction,\a who, as you think, enjoins the course that is soft and indolent and conducive to pleasure, has said, “Rarely does Fortune block the path of the wise man.”\b How near he came to uttering a manly sentiment! Will you speak more heroically and clear Fortune from his path altogether? This house of the wise man is cramped, without adornment, without bustle, without pomp, is guarded by no doormen who, with venal fastidiousness, discriminate between the visitors; but over its threshold, empty and devoid of keepers, Fortune does not pass. She knows that she has no place there, where nothing is her own.
But if even Epicurus, who most of all indulged the flesh, is up in arms against injury, how can such an attitude on our part seem incredible or to be beyond the bounds of human nature? He says that injuries are tolerable for the wise man; we say that injuries do not exist for him. Nor, indeed, is there any reason why you should claim that this wars against nature. We do not deny that it is an unpleasant thing to be beaten and hit, to lose some bodily member, but we deny that all such things are injuries. We do not divest them of the sensation of pain, but of the name of injury, which is not allowable so long as virtue is unharmed. Which of the two speaks more truly we will consider: as to contempt, at any rate, for injury both think alike. Do you ask, then, what is the difference between the two? The same difference that distinguishes two gladiators, both very brave, one of whom stops his wound and stands his ground, the other, turning to the shouting crowd, makes a sign that he has no wound, and permits no interference. There is no need for you to suppose that our difference is great; as to the point, and it is the only one that concerns you, both schools urge you to scorn injuries and, what I may call the shadows and suggestions of injuries, insults. And one does not need to be a wise man to despise these, but merely a man of sense – one who can say to himself: “Do I, or do I not, deserve that these things befall me? If I do deserve them, there is no insult – it is justice; if I do not deserve them, he who does the injustice is the one to blush.” And this insult, so called, what is it? Some jest at the baldness of my head, the weakness of my eyes, the thinness of my legs, my build. But why is it an insult to be told what is self- evident?
Something is said in the presence of only one person and we laugh; if several are present, we become indignant, and we do not allow others the liberty of saying the very things that we are in the habit of saying about ourselves. Jests, if restrained, amuse us; if unrestrained, they make us angry. Chrysippus says that a certain man grew indignant because someone had called him “a sea-wether.”\a We saw Fidus Cornelius, the son-in-law of Ovidius Naso, shed tears in the senate, when Corbulo called him a plucked ostrich. In the face of other charges, damaging to his character and standing, the composure of his countenance was unruffled, but at one thus absurd out burst his tears! Such is the weakness of the mind when reason flees. Why are we offended if any one imitates our talk or walk, or mimimics some defect of body or speech? Just as if these would become more notorious by another’s imitating them than by our doing them! Some dislike to hear old age spoken of and grey hairs and other things which men pray to come to. The curse of poverty galls some, but a man makes it a reproach to himself if he tries to hide it. And so sneerers and those who point their wit with insult are robbed of an excuse if you anticipate it with a move on your part. No one becomes a laughing-stock who laughs at himself. It is common knowledge that Vatinius, a man born to be a butt for ridicule and hate, was a graceful and witty jester. He uttered many a jest at the expense of his own feet and his scarred jowls.\b So he escaped the wit of his enemies – they outnumbered his afflictions – and, above all, Cicero’s. If the man who, through constant abuse, had forgotten how to blush, was able, by reason of his brazen face, to do this, why should any one be unable to do so, who, thanks to the liberal studies and the training of philosophy, has attained to some growth? Besides, it is a sort of revenge to rob the man who has sought to inflict an insult of the pleasure of having done so. “Oh dear me!” he will say, “I suppose he didn’t understand.” Thus the success of an insult depends upon the sensitiveness and the indignation of the victim. The offender, too, will one day meet his match; some one will be found who will avenge you also.
Gaius Caesar, who amid the multitude of his other vices had a bent for insult, was moved by the strange desire to brand every one with some stigma, while he himself was a most fruitful source of ridicule; such was the ugliness of his pale face bespeaking his madness, such the wildness of his eyes lurking beneath the brow of an old hag, such the hideousness of his bald bead with its sprinkling of beggarly hairs. And he had, besides, a neck overgrown with bristles, spindle shanks, and enormous feet. It would be an endless task were I to attempt to mention the separate acts by which he cast insult upon his parents and grandparents and upon men of every class; I shall, therefore, mention only those which brought him to his destruction.
Among his especial friends there was a certain Asiaticus Valerius, a proud-spirited man who was hardly to be expected to bear with equanimity another’s insults. At a banquet, that is at a public gathering, using his loudest voice, Gaius taunted this man with the way his wife behaved in sexual intercourse. Ye gods! what a tale for the ears of a husband! what a fact for an emperor to know! and what indecency that an emperor should go so far as to report his adultery and his dissatisfaction in it to the woman’s very husband -to say nothing of his being a consular, to say nothing of his being a friend! On the other hand, Chaerea, a tribune of the soldiers, had a way of talking that ill-accorded with Ms prowess; his voice was feeble and, unless you knew his deeds, was apt to stir distrust. When he asked for the watchword, Gaius would give him sometimes “Venus,” sometimes “Priapus,” seeking to taunt the man of arms, in one way or another, with wantonness. He himself, all the while, was in shining apparel, shod with sandals,\a and decked with gold. And so Chaerea was driven to use the sword in order to avoid having to ask for the watchword any more! Among the conspirators he was the first to lift his hand; it was he who with one blow severed the emperor’s neck. After that from all sides blades showered upon him, avenging public and private wrongs, but the first hero was Chaerea, who least appeared one. Yet this same Gaius would interpret everything as an insult, as is the way of those who, being most eager to offer an affront, are least able to endure one. He became angry at Herennius Macer because he addressed him as Gaius, while a centurion of the first maniple\b got into trouble because he said “Caligula.” For in the camp, where he was born and had been the pet of the troops, this was the name by which he was commonly called, nor was there ever any other by which he was so well known to the soldiers. But now, having attained to boots, he considered “Little Boots”\c a reproach and disgrace. This, then, will be our comfort: even if by reason of tolerance we omit revenge, some one will arise to bring the impertinent, arrogant, and injurious man to punishment; for his offences are never exhausted upon one individual or in one insult. Let us turn now to the examples of those whose endurance we commend -for instance to that of Socrates, who took in good part the published and acted gibes directed against him in comedies,\a and laughed as heartily as when his wife Xanthippe drenched him with foul water. Antisthenes was taunted with having a barbarian, a Thracian woman, for his mother; his retort was that even the mother of the gods was from Mount Ida.
Strife and wrangling we must not come near. We should flee far from these things, and all the provocations thereto of unthinking people – which only the unthinking can give – should be ignored, and the honours and the injuries of the common herd be valued both alike. We must neither grieve over the one, nor rejoice over the other. Otherwise, from the fear of insults or from weariness of them, we shall fall short in the doing of many needful things, and, suffering from a womanish distaste for hearing anything not to our mind, we shall refuse to face both public and private duties, sometimes even when they are for our wellbeing. At times, also, enraged against powerful men, we shall reveal our feelings with unrestrained liberty. But not to put up with anything is not liberty; we deceive ourselves. Liberty is having a mind that rises superior to injury, that makes itself the only source from which its pleasures spring, that separates itself from all external things in order that man may not have to live his life in disquietude, fearing everybody’s laughter, everybody’s tongue. For if any man can offer insult, who is there who cannot? But the truly wise man and the aspirant to wisdom will use different remedies. For those who are not perfected and still conduct themselves in accordance with public opinion must bear in mind that they have to dwell in the midst of injury and insult; all misfortune will fall more lightly on those who expect it. The more honourable a man is by birth, reputation, and patrimony, the more heroically he should bear himself, remembering that the tallest ranks stand in the front battle- line. Let him bear insults, shameful words, civil disgrace, and all other degradation as he would the enemy’s war-cry, and the darts and stones from afar that rattle around a soldier’s helmet but cause no wound. Let him endure injuries, in sooth, as he would wounds though some blows pierce his armour, others his breast, never overthrown, nor even moved from his ground. Even if you are hard pressed and beset with fierce violence, yet it is a disgrace to retreat; maintain the post that Nature has assigned yoou. Do you ask what this may be? The post of a hero. The wise man’s succour is of another sort, the opposite of this; for while you are in the heat of action, he has won the victory. Do not war against your own good; keep alive this hope in your breasts until you arrive at truth, and gladly give ear to the better doctrine and help it on by your belief and prayer. That there should be something unconquerable, some man against whom Fortune has no power, works for the good of the commonwealth of mankind.
Source: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Moral Essays. Translated by John W. Basore. Loeb Classical Library. (1928)
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