In this lesson, we begin our study of Stoic Philosophy. We begin with the study of Seneca’s essay “On Providence”. To complete the objectives of this lesson:
- Study the lesson for mastery.
- Complete the lesson assessment.
You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if a Providence rules the world, it still happens that many evils befall good men. This would be more fittingly answered in a coherent work designed to prove that a Providence does preside over the universe, and that God concerns himself with us. But since it is your wish that a part be severed from the whole, and that I refute a single objection while the main question is left untouched, I shall do so; the task is not difficult. I shall be pleading the cause of the gods.
For the present purpose it is unnecessary to show that this mighty structure of the world does not endure without some one to guard it, and that the assembling and the separate flight of the stars above are not due to the workings of chance; that while bodies which owe their motion to accident often fall into disorder and quickly collide, this swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law, goes on unhindered, producing so many things on land and sea, so many brilliant lights in the sky all shining in fixed array; that this regularity does not belong to matter moving at random, and that whatever combinations result from chance do not adjust themselves with that artistry whereby the earth, the heaviest in weight, abides immovable and beholds the flight of the sky as it whirls around it, and the seas, flooding a the valleys, soften the land, and feel no increase from the rivers, and whereby huge growths spring up from the tiniest seeds. Even the phenomena which seem irregular and undetermined – I mean showers and clouds, the stroke of crashing thunderbolts and the fires that belch from the riven peaks of mountains, tremors of the quaking ground, and the other disturbances which the turbulent element in nature sets in motion about the earth, these, no matter how suddenly they occur, do not happen without a reason; nay, they also are the result of special causes, and so, in like manner, are those things which seem miraculous by reason of the incongruous situations in which they are beheld, such as warm waters in the midst of the sea waves, and the expanses of new islands that spring up in the wide ocean. Moreover, if any one observes how the shore is laid bare as the sea withdraws into itself, and how within a short time the same stretch is covered over again, he will suppose that it is some blind fluctuation which causes the waves now to shrink and flow inwards, now to burst forth and in mighty sweep seek their former resting-place, whereas in fact they increase by degrees, and true to the hour and the day they approach in proportionately larger or smaller volume according as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, at whose bidding the ocean surges. But let such matters be kept for their fitting time, all the more so, indeed, because you do not lack faith in Providence, but complain of it. I shall reconcile you with the gods, who are ever best to those who are best. For Nature never permits good to be injured by good; between good men and the gods there exists a friendship brought about by virtue.
Friendship, do I say? Nay, rather there is a tie of relationship and a likeness, since, in truth, a good man differs from God in the element of time only; he is God’s pupil, his imitator, and true offspring, whom his all-glorious parent, being no mild taskmaster of virtues, rears, as strict fathers do, with much severity. And so, when you see that men who are good and acceptable to the gods labour and sweat and have a difficult road to climb, that the wicked, on the other hand, make merry and abound in pleasures, reflect that our children please us by their modesty, but slave-boys by their forwardness; that we hold in check the former by sterner discipline, while we encourage the latter to be bold. Be assured that the same is true of God. He does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his own service. You ask, “Why do many adversities come to good men?” No evil can befall a good man; opposites do not mingle. Just as the countless rivers, the vast fall of rain from the sky, and the huge volume of mineral springs do not change the taste of the sea, do not even modify it, so the assaults of adversity do not weaken the spirit of a brave man. It always maintains its poise, and it gives its own colour to everything that happens; for it is mightier than all external things. And yet I do not mean to say that the brave man is insensible to these, but that he overcomes them, and being in all else unmoved and calm rises to meet whatever assails him. All his adversities he counts mere training. Who, moreover, if he is a man and intent upon the right, is not eager for reasonable toil and ready for duties accompanied by danger? To what energetic man is not idleness a punishment? Wrestlers, who make strength of body their chief concern, we see pitting themselves against none but the strongest, and they require of those who are preparing them for the arena that they use against them all their strength; they submit to blows and hurts, and if they do not find their match in single opponents, they engage with several at a time. Without an adversary, prowess shrivels. We see how great and how efficient it really is, only when it shows by endurance what it is capable of. Be assured that good men ought to act likewise; they should not shrink from hardships and difficulties, nor complain against fate; they should take in good part whatever happens, and should turn it to good. Not what you endure, but how you endure, is important.
Do you not see how fathers show their love in one way, and mothers in another? The father orders his children to be aroused from sleep in order that they may start early upon their pursuits, even on holidays he does not permit them to be idle, and he draws from them sweat and sometimes tears. But the mother fondles them in her lap, wishes to keep them out of the sun, wishes them never to be unhappy, never to cry, never to toil. Toward good men God has the mind of a father, he cherishes for them a manly love, and he says, “Let them be harassed by toil, by suffering, by losses, in order that they may gather true strength.” Bodies grown fat through sloth are weak, and not only labour, but even movement and their very weight cause them to break down. Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering; and yields to no misfortune; nay, even if he falls, he still fights upon his knees. Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity. We men at times are stirred with pleasure if a youth of steady courage meets with his spear an onrushing wild beast, if unterrified he sustains the charge of a lion. And the more honourable the youth who does this, the more pleasing this spectacle becomes. But these are not the things to draw down the gaze of the gods upon us – they are childish, the pas-times of man’s frivolity. But lo! here is a spectacle worthy of the regard of God as he contemplates his work; lo! here a contest worthy of God, – a brave man matched against ill-fortune, and doubly so if his also was the challenge. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of Heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect amid the ruins of the commonwealth. “Although,” said he, “all the world has fallen under one man’s sway, although Caesar’s legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar’s troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato! Essay, my soul, the task long planned; deliver yourself from human affairs. Already Petreius and Juba have met and lie fallen, each slain by the other’s hand. Their compact with Fate was brave and noble, but for my greatness such would be unfit. For Cato it were as ignoble to beg death from any man as to beg life.” I am sure that the gods looked on with exceeding joy while that hero, most ruthless in avenging himself, took thought for the safety of others and arranged the escape of his departing followers; while even on his last night he pursued his studies; while he drove the sword into his sacred breast; while he scattered his vitals, and drew forth by his hand that holiest spirit, too noble to be defiled by the steel. I should like to believe that this is why the wound was not well-aimed and efficacious it was not enough for the immortal gods to look but once on Cato. His virtue was held in check and called back that it might display itself in a harder role; for to seek death needs not so great a soul as to re-seek it. Surely the gods looked with pleasure upon their pupil as he made his escape by so glorious and memorable an end! Death consecrates those whose end even those who fear must praise. But as the discussion progresses, I shall show how the things that seem to be evils are not really so. This much I now say that those things which you call hardships, which you call adversities and accursed, are, in the first place, for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come; in the second place, that they are for the good of the whole human family, for which the gods have a greater concern than for single persons; again, I say that good men are willing that these things should happen and, if they are unwilling, that they deserve misfortune. I shall add, further, that these things happen thus by destiny, and that they rightly befall good men by the same law which makes them good. I shall induce you, in fine, never to commiserate a good man. For he can be called miserable, but he cannot be so.
Of all the propositions which I have advanced, the most difficult seems to be the one stated first, that those things which we all shudder and tremble at are for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come. “Is it,” you ask, “for their own good that men are driven into exile, reduced to want, that they bear to the grave wife or children, that they suffer public disgrace, and are broken in health?” If you are surprised that these things are for any man’s good, you must also be surprised that by means of surgery and cautery, and also by fasting and thirst, the sick are sometimes made well. But if you will reflect that for the sake of being cured the sick sometimes have their bones scraped and removed, and their veins pulled out, and that sometimes members are amputated which could not be left without causing destruction to the whole body, you will allow yourself to be convinced of this as well, that ills are sometimes for the good of those to whom they come; just as much so, my word for it, as that things which are lauded and sought after are sometimes to the hurt of those who delight in them, being very much like over-eating, drunkenness, and the other indulgences which kill by giving pleasure. Among the many fine sayings of one friend Demetrius there is this one, which I have just heard; it still rings in my ears. “No man,” said he, ” seems to me more unhappy than one who has never met with adversity.” For such a man has never had an opportunity to test himself. Though all things have flowed to him according to his prayer, though even before his prayer, nevertheless the gods have passed an adverse judgement upon him. He was deemed unworthy ever to gain the victory over Fortune, who draws back from all cowards, as if she said, “Why should I choose that fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power; he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face. Let me look around for another with whom to join in combat. I am ashamed to meet a man who is ready to be beaten.” A gladiator counts it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory. The same is true of Fortune. She seeks out the bravest men to match with her; some she passes by in disdain. Those that are most stubborn and unbending she assails, men against whom she may exert all her strength. Mucius she tries by fire, Fabricius by poverty, Rutilius by exile, Regulus by torture, Socrates by poison, Cato by death. It is only evil fortune that discovers a great exemplar.
Is Mucius unfortunate because he grasps the flames of the enemy with his right hand and forces himself to pay the penalty of his mistake? because with his charred hand he routs the king whom with his armed hand he could not rout? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he were warming his hand in his mistress’s bosom?
Is Fabricius unfortunate because, whenever he has leisure from affairs of state, he tills his fields? because he wages war not less on riches than on Pyrrhus? because the roots and herbs on which he dines beside his hearth are those that he himself, an old man and honoured by a triumph, grubbed up in cleaning off his land? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he loaded his belly with fish from a distant shore and with birds from foreign parts? if he aroused the sluggishness of his loathing stomach with shell-fish from the eastern and the western sea? if he had game of the first order, which had been captured at the cost of many a hunter’s life, served with fruit piled high around?
Is Rutilius unfortunate because those who condemned him will have to plead their cause through all the ages? because he was more content to endure that his country should be robbed of him than that he should be robbed of exile? because he was the only one who refused anything to the dictator Sulla, and when recalled from exile all but drew back and fled farther away? “Let those,” says he, “whom your I ‘happy’ era/a has caught at Rome, behold it. Let them see the forum streaming with blood, and the heads of senators placed above the pool of Servilius, for there the victims of Sulla’s proscriptions are stripped, and bands of assassins roaming at large throughout the city, and many thousands of Roman citizens butchered in one spot after, nay, by reason of, a promise of security, let those who cannot go into exile behold these things!” Is Lucius Sulla happy because his way is cleared by the sword when he descends to the forum? because he suffers the heads of consulars to be shown him and has the treasurer pay the price of their assassination out of the public funds? And these all are the deeds of that man, that man who proposed the Cornelian Law! Let us come now to Regulus: what injury did Fortune do to him because she made him a pattern of loyalty, a pattern of endurance? Nails pierce his skin, and wherever he rests his wearied body he lies upon a wound; his eyes are stark in eternal sleeplessness. But the greater his torture is, the greater shall be his glory. Would you like to know how little he regrets that he rated virtue at such a price? Make him whole again and send him back to the senate; he will express the same opinion. Do you, then, think Maecenas a happier man, who, distressed by love and grieving over the daily repulses of his wayward wife, courted slumber by means of harmonious music, echoing faintly from a distance? Although he drugs himself with wine, and diverts his worried mind with the sound of rippling waters, and beguiles it with a thousand pleasures, yet he, upon his bed of down, will no more close his eyes than that other upon his cross. But while the one, consoled by the thought that he is suffering hardship for the sake of right, turns his eyes from his suffering to its cause, the other, jaded with pleasures and struggling with too much good fortune, is harassed less by what he suffers than by the reason for his suffering. Surely the human race has not come so completely under the sway of vice as to cause a doubt whether, if Fate should give the choice, more men would rather be born a Regulus than a Maecenas; or if there should be one bold enough to say that he would rather have been born a Maecenas than a Regulus, the fellow, although he may not admit it, would rather have been born a Terentia! Do you consider that Socrates was ill-used because he drank down that drought/b which the state had brewed as if it were an elixir of immortal life, and up to the point of death discoursed on death? Was he ill-treated because his blood grew cold, and, as the chill spread, gradually the beating of his pulses stopped? How much more should we envy him than those who are served in cups of precious stone, whose wine a catamite – a tool for anything, an unsexed or sexless creature – dilutes with snow held above in a golden vessel! They will measure out afresh all their drink in vomit, with wry faces tasting in its stead their own bile; but he will quaff the poison gladly and with good cheer. Touching Cato, enough has been said, and it will be granted by the consensus of mankind that that great man reached the pinnacle of happiness, he whom Nature chose to be the one with whom her dread power should clash. “The enmity of the powerful,” said she, “is a hardship; then let him match himself at one and the same time against Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. It is a hardship to be outstripped by an inferior in the candidacy for office; then let him be defeated by Vatinius. It is a hardship to engage in civil war; then let him fight the whole world over for a just cause, ever with ill success but with equal stubbornness. It is a hardship to lay hand upon oneself then let him do it. And what shall I gain thereby that all may know that these things of which I have deemed Cato worthy are not real ills.”
Success comes to the common man, and even to commonplace ability; but to triumph over the calamities and terrors of mortal life is the part of a great man only. Truly, to be always happy and to pass through life without a mental pang is to be ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how do I know it if Fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your worth? You have entered as a contestant at the Olympic games, but none other besides you; you gain the crown, the victory you do not gain. You have my congratulations, not as a brave man, but as if you had obtained the consulship or praetorship; you have enhanced your prestige. In like manner, also, I may say to a good man, if no harder circumstance has given him the opportunity whereby alone he might show the strength of his mind, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate; you have passed through life without an antagonist; no one will know what you can do; not even yourself.” For if a man is to know himself, he must be tested; no one finds out what be can do except by trying, and so some men have presented themselves voluntarily to laggard misfortune, and have sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was but to pass into obscurity. Great men, I say, rejoice oft-times in adversity, as do brave soldiers in warfare. I once heard Triumphus, a gladiator in the time of Tiberius Caesar, complaining of the scarcity of shows. “How fair an age,” he said, “has passed away!”
True worth is eager for danger and thinks rather of its goal than of what it may have to suffer, since even what it will have to suffer is a part of its glory. Warriors glory in their wounds and rejoice to display the blood spilled with luckier fortune. Those who return from the battle unhurt may have fought as well, but the man who returns with a wound wins the greater regard. God, I say, is showing favour to those whom he wills shall achieve the highest possible virtue whenever he gives them the means of doing a courageous and brave deed, and to this end they must encounter some difficulty in life. You learn to know a pilot in a storm, a soldier in the battle-line. How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace, ill fame, and public hatred, if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause, if a popularity attends you that is irresistible, and flows to you from a certain leaning of men’s minds? How do I know with what equanimity you would bear the loss of children, if you see around you all that you have fathered? I have heard you offering consolation to others. If you had been offering it to yourself, if you had been telling yourself not to grieve, then I might have seen your true character. Do not, I beg of you, shrink in fear from those things which the immortal gods apply like spurs, as it were, to, our souls. Disaster is Virtue’s opportunity. Justly may those be termed unhappy who are dulled by an excess of good fortune, who rest, as it were, in dead calm upon a quiet sea; whatever happens will come to them as a change.
Cruel fortune bears hardest upon the inexperienced; to the tender neck the yoke is heavy. The raw recruit turns pale at the thought of a wound, but the veteran looks undaunted upon his own gore, knowing that blood has often been the price of his victory.
In like manner God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, whom he loves. Those, however, whom he seems to favour, whom he seems to spare, he is really keeping soft against ills to come. For you are wrong if you suppose that any one is exempt from ill. Even the man who has prospered long will have his share some day; whoever seems to have been released has only been reprieved. Why is it that God afflicts the best men with ill health, or sorrow, or some other misfortune? For the same reason that in the army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks; it is the picked soldier that a general sends to surprise the enemy by a night attack, or to reconnoitre the road, or to dislodge a garrison. Not a man of these will say as he goes, “My commander has done me an ill turn,” but instead, “He has paid me a compliment.” In like manner, all those who are called to suffer what would make cowards and poltroons weep may say, “God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.”
Flee luxury, flee enfeebling good fortune, from which men’s minds grow sodden, and if nothing intervenes to remind them of the common lot, they sink, as it were, into the stupor of unending drunkenness. The man who has always had glazed windows to shield him from a drought, whose feet have been kept warm by hot applications renewed from time to time, whose dining-halls have been tempered by hot air passing beneath the floor and circulating round the walls, – this man will run great risk if he is brushed by a gentle breeze. While all excesses are hurtful, the most dangerous is unlimited good fortune. It excites the brain, it evokes vain fancies in the mind, and clouds in deep fog the boundary between falsehood and truth. Would it not be better, summoning virtue’s help, to endure everlasting ill fortune than to be bursting with unlimited and immoderate blessings? Death from starvation comes very gently, but from gorging men explode. And so, in the case of good men the gods follow the same rule that teachers follow with their pupils; they require most effort from those of whom they have the surest hopes. Do you imagine that the Lacedaemonians hate their children when they test their mettle by lashing them in public? Their own fathers call upon them to endure bravely the blows of the whip, and ask them, though mangled and half-dead, to keep offering their wounded bodies to further wounds. Why, then, is it strange if God tries noble spirits with severity? No proof of virtue is ever mild. If we are lashed and torn by Fortune, let us bear it; it is not cruelty but a struggle, and the oftener we engage in it, the stronger we shall be. The staunchest member of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We should offer ourselves to Fortune in order that, struggling with her, we may be hardened by her. Gradually she will make us a match for herself. Familiarity with exposure to danger will give contempt for danger. So the bodies of sailors are hardy from buffeting the sea, the hands of farmers are callous, the soldier’s muscles have the strength to hurl weapons, and the legs of a runner are nimble. In each, his staunchest member is the one that he has exercised. By enduring ills the mind attains contempt for the endurance of them; you will know what this can accomplish in our own case, if you will observe how much the peoples that are destitute and, by reason of their want, more sturdy, secure by toil. Consider all the tribes whom Roman civilization does not reach, I mean the Germans and all the nomad tribes that assail us along the Danube. They are oppressed by eternal winter and a gloomy sky, the barren soil grudges them support, they keep off the rain with thatch or leaves, they range over ice-bound marshes, and hunt wild beasts for food. Are they unhappy, do you think? There is no unhappiness for those whom habit has brought back to nature. For what they begin from necessity becomes gradually a pleasure. They have no homes and no resting-places except those which weariness allots for the day; their food is mean and must be got by the hand; terrible harshness of climate, bodies unclothed, such for countless tribes is the life which seems to you so calamitous! Why, then, do you wonder that good men are shaken in order that they may grow strong? No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.
Consider, too, that it is for the common good to have the best men become soldiers, so to speak, and do service. It is God’s purpose, and the wise man’s as well, to show that those things which the ordinary man desires and those which he dreads are really neither goods nor evils./a It will appear, however, that there are goods, if these are bestowed only on good men, and that there are evils, if these are inflicted only on the evil. Blindness will be a curse if no one loses his eyes but the man who deserves to have them torn out; therefore let an Appius and a Metellus be deprived of the light. Riches are not a good; therefore let even the panderer Elius possess them in order that men, though they hallow wealth in temples, may see it also in a brothel. In no better way can God discredit what we covet than by bestowing those things on the basest men while withholding them from the best. “But,” you say, “it is unjust that a good man be broken in health or transfixed or fettered, while the wicked are pampered and stalk at large with whole skins.” What then? Is it not unjust that brave men should take up arms, and stay all night in camp, and stand with bandaged wounds before the rampart, while perverts and professional profligates rest secure within the city? What then? Is it not unjust that the noblest maidens should be aroused from sleep to perform sacrifices at night, while others stained with sin enjoy soundest slumber? Toil summons the best men. The senate is often kept in session the whole day long, though all the while every worthless fellow is either amusing himself at the recreation ground, or lurking in an eating house, or wasting his time in some gathering. The same is true in this great commonwealth of the world. Good men labour, spend, and are spent, and withal willingly. Fortune does not drag them; they follow her, and match her pace. If they had known how, they would have outstripped her. Here is another spirited utterance which, I remember, I heard that most valiant man, Demetrius, make: “Immortal gods,” he said, “I have this one complaint to make against you, that you did not earlier make known your will to me; for I should have reached the sooner that condition in which, after being summoned, I now am. Do you wish to take my children? It was for you that I fathered them. Do you wish to take some member of my body? Take it; no great thing am I offering you; very soon I shall leave the whole. Do you wish to take my life? Why not? I shall make no protest against your taking back what once you gave. With my free consent you shall have whatever you may ask of me. What, then, is my trouble? I should have preferred to offer than to relinquish. What was the need to take by force? You might have had it as a gift. Yet even now you will not take it by force, because nothing can be wrenched away from a man unless he withholds it.”
I am under no compulsion, I suffer nothing against my will, and I am not God’s slave but his follower, and the more so, indeed, because I know that everything proceeds according to law that is fixed and enacted for all time. Fate guides us, and it was settled at the first hour of birth what length of time remains for each. Cause is linked with cause, and all public and private issues are directed by a long sequence of events. Therefore everything should be endured with fortitude, since things do not, as we suppose, simply happen; they all come. Long ago it was determined what would make you rejoice, what would make you weep, and although the lives of individuals seem to be marked by great dissimilarity, yet is the end one. We receive what is perishable and shall ourselves perish. Why, therefore, do we chafe? why complain? For this were we born. Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes.
What then, is the part of a good man? To offer himself to Fate. It is a great consolation that it is together with the universe we are swept along; whatever it is that has ordained us so to live, so to die, by the same necessity it binds also the gods. One unchangeable course bears along the affairs of men and gods alike. Although the great creator and ruler of the universe himself wrote the decrees of Fate, yet he follows them. He obeys for ever, he decreed but once. “Why, however,” do you ask, “was God so unjust in his allotment of destiny as to assign to good men poverty, wounds, and painful death?” It is impossible for the moulder to alter matter; to this law it has submitted. Certain qualities cannot be separated from certain others; they cling together, are indivisible. Natures that are listless, that are prone to sleep, or to a kind of wakefulness that closely resembles sleep, are composed of sluggish elements. It takes sterner stuff to make a man who deserves to be mentioned with consideration. His course will not be the level way; uphill and downhill must he go, be tossed about, and guide his bark through stormy waters; he must keep his course in spite of fortune. Much that is hard, much that is rough will befall him, but he himself will soften the one, and make the other smooth. Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men. See to what a height virtue must climb! you will find that it has no safe road to tread:
The way is steep at first, and the coursers strainOvid, Phaeton
To climb it, fresh in the early morn. They gain
The crest of heaven at noon; from here I gaze
Adown on land and sea with dread amaze,
And of my heart will beat in panic fear.
The roadway ends in sharp descent – keep here
A sure control; ’twill happen even so
That Tethys, stretching out her waves below,
Will often, while she welcomes, be affright
To see me speeding downward from the height.
Having heard the words, that noble youth replied, I like the road, I shall mount; even though I fall, it will be worth while to travel through such sights.” But the other did not cease from trying to strike his bold heart with fear:
And though you may not miss the beaten track,
Nor, led to wander, leave the zodiac,
Yet through the Bull’s fierce horns, the Centaur’s bow
And raging Lion’s jaws you still must go.
In reply to this he said, “Harness the chariot you offered; the very things that you think affright me urge me on. I long to stand aloft where even the Sun-god quakes with fear.” The groveller and the coward will follow the safe path: virtue seeks the heights.
“But why,” you ask, does God sometimes allow evil to befall good men? Assuredly he does not. Evil of every sort he keeps far from them – sin and crime, evil counsel and schemes for greed, blind lust and avarice intent upon another’s goods. The good man himself he protects and delivers: does any one require of God that he should also guard the good man’s luggage? Nay, the good man himself relieves God of this concern; he despises externals. Democritus, considering riches to be a burden to the virtuous mind, renounced them. Why, then, do you wonder if God suffers that to be the good man’s lot which the good man himself sometimes chooses should be his lot? Good men lose their sons; why not, since sometimes they even slay them? They are sent into exile; why not, since sometimes they voluntarily leave their native land, never to return? They are slain; why not, since sometimes they voluntarily lay hand upon themselves? Why do they suffer certain hardships? It is that they may teach others to endure them they were born to be a pattern. Think, then, of God as saying: “What possible reason have you to complain of me, you who have chosen righteousness? Others I have surrounded with unreal goods, and have mocked their empty minds, as it were, with a long, deceptive dream. I have bedecked them with gold, and silver, and ivory, but within there is nothing good. The creatures whom you regard as fortunate, if you could see them, not as they appear to the eye, but as they are in their hearts, are wretched, filthy, base–like their own house walls, adorned only on the outside. Sound and genuine such good fortune is not; it is a veneer, and that a thin one. So long, therefore, as they can stand firm and make the show that they desire, they glitter and deceive; when, however, something occurs to overthrow and uncover them, then you see what deep-set and genuine ugliness their borrowed splendour hid. But to you I have given the true and enduring goods, which are greater and better the more any one turns them over and views them from every side. I have permitted you to scorn all that dismays and to disdain desires. Outwardly you do not shine; your goods are directed inward. Even so the cosmos, rejoicing in the spectacle of itself, scorns everything outside. Within I have bestowed upon you every good; your good fortune is not to need good fortune.
“Yet,” you say, “many sorrows, things dreadful and hard to bear, do befall us.” Yes, because I could not withdraw you from their path, I have armed your minds to withstand them all; endure with fortitude. In this you may outstrip God; he is exempt from enduring evil, while you are superior to it. Scorn poverty; no one lives as poor as he was born. Scorn pain; it will either be relieved or relieve you. Scorn death, which either ends you or transfers you. Scorn Fortune; I have given her no weapon with which she may strike your soul. Above all, I have taken pains that nothing should keep you here against your will; the way out lies open. If you do not choose to fight, you may run away. Therefore of all things that I have deemed necessary for you, I have made nothing easier than dying. I have set life on a downward slope: if it is prolonged, only observe and you will see what a short and easy path leads to liberty. I have not imposed upon you at your exit the wearisome delay you had at entrance. Otherwise, if death came to a man as slowly as his birth, Fortune would have kept her great dominion over you. Let every season, every place, teach you how easy it is to renounce Nature and fling her gift back in her face. In the very presence of the altars and the solemn rites of sacrifice, while you pray for life, learn well concerning death. The fatted bodies of bulls fall from a paltry wound, and creatures of mighty strength are felled by one stroke of a man’s hand; a tiny blade will sever the sutures of the neck, and when that joint, which binds together head and neck, is cut, the body’s mighty mass crumples in a heap. No deep retreat conceals the soul, you need no knife at all to root it out, no deeply driven wound to find the vital parts; death lies near at hand. For these mortal strokes I have set no definite spot; anywhere vou wish, the way is open. Even that which we call dying, the moment when the breath forsakes the body, is so brief that its fleetness cannot come within the ken. Whether the throat is strangled by a knot, or water stops the breathing, or the hard ground crushes in the skull of one falling headlong to its surface, or flame inhaled cuts off the course of respiration, be it what it may, the end is swift. Do you not blush for shame? You dread so long what comes so quickly!
Source: Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Moral Essays. Translated by John W. Basore. Loeb Classical Library. (1928)
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