On Virtue And Vice by Plutarch

Story type: Essay

Sec. I. Clothes seem to warm a man, not by throwing out heat themselves (for in itself every garment is cold, whence in great heat or in fevers people frequently change and shift them), but the heat which a man throws out from his own body is retained and wrapped in by a dress fitting close to the body, which does not admit of the heat being dissipated when once it has got firm hold. A somewhat similar case is the idea that deceives the mass of mankind, that if they could live in big houses, and get together a quantity of slaves and money, they would have a happy life. But a happy and cheerful life is not from without, on the contrary, a man adds the pleasure and gratification to the things that surround him, his temperament being as it were the source of his feelings.[213]

“But when the fire blazes the house is brighter to look at.”[214]

So, too, wealth is pleasanter, and fame and power more splendid, when a man has joy in his heart, seeing that men can bear easily and quietly poverty and exile and old age if their character is a contented and mild one.

Sec. II. For as perfumes make threadbare coats and rags to smell sweet, while the body of Anchises sent forth a fetid discharge, “distilling from his back on to his linen robe,” so every kind of life with virtue is painless and pleasurable, whereas vice if infused into it makes splendour and wealth and magnificence painful, and sickening, and unwelcome to its possessors.

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“He is deemed happy in the market-place,
But when he gets him home, thrice miserable,
His wife rules all, quarrels, and domineers.”[215]

And yet there would be no great difficulty in getting rid of a bad wife, if one was a man and not a slave. But a man cannot by writing a bill of divorce to his vice get rid of all trouble at once, and enjoy tranquillity by living apart: for it is ever present in his vitals, and sticks to him night and day, “and burns without a torch, and consigns him to gloomy old age,”[216] being a disagreeable fellow-traveller owing to its arrogance, and a costly companion at table owing to its daintiness, and an unpleasant bed-fellow, disturbing and marring sleep by anxiety and care and envy. For during such a one’s sleep the body indeed gets rest, but the mind has terrors, and dreams, and perturbations, owing to superstition,

“For when my trouble catches me asleep,
I am undone by the most fearful dreams,”

as one says. For thus envy, and fear, and anger, and lust affect one. During the daytime, indeed, vice looks abroad and imitates the behaviour of others, is shy and conceals its evil desires, and does not altogether give way to its propensities, but often even resists and fights stoutly against them; but in sleep it escapes the observation of people and the law, and, being as far as possible removed from fear or modesty, gives every passion play, and excites its depravity and licentiousness, for, to borrow Plato’s expression,[217] “it attempts incest with its mother, and procures for itself unlawful meats, and abstains from no action whatever,” and enjoys lawlessness as far as is practicable in visions and phantasies, that end in no complete pleasure or satisfaction, but can only stir up and inflame the passions and morbid emotions.

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Sec. III. Where then is the pleasure of vice, if there is nowhere in it freedom from anxiety and pain, or independence, or tranquillity, or rest?[218] A healthy and sound constitution does indeed augment the pleasures of the body, but for the soul there can be no lasting joy or gratification, unless cheerfulness and fearlessness and courage supply a calm serenity free from storms; for otherwise, even if hope or delight smile on the soul, it is soon confused and disturbed by care lifting up its head again, so that it is but the calm of a sunken rock.

Sec. IV. Pile up gold, heap up silver, build covered walks, fill your house with slaves and the town with debtors, unless you lay to rest the passions of the soul, and put a curb on your insatiable desires, and rid yourself of fear and anxiety, you are but pouring out wine for a man in a fever, and giving honey to a man who is bilious, and laying out a sumptuous banquet for people who are suffering from dysentery, and can neither retain their food nor get any benefit from it, but are made even worse by it. Have you never observed how sick persons turn against and spit out and refuse the daintiest and most costly viands, though people offer them and almost force them down their throats, but on another occasion, when their condition is different, their respiration good, their blood in a healthy state, and their natural warmth restored, they get up, and enjoy and make a good meal of simple bread and cheese and cress? Such, also, is the effect of reason on the mind. You will be contented, if you have learned what is good and honourable. You will live daintily and be a king in poverty, and enjoy a quiet and private life as much as the public life of general or statesman. By the aid of philosophy you will live not unpleasantly, for you will learn to extract pleasure from all places and things: wealth will make you happy, because it will enable you to benefit many; and poverty, as you will not then have many anxieties; and glory, for it will make you honoured; and obscurity, for you will then be safe from envy.

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[213] Happiness comes from within, not from without. The true seat of happiness is the mind. Compare Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book i. 254, 255:–

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

[214] Homeric Epigrammata, xiii. 5.

[215] Wyttenbach thinks these lines are by Menander. Plutarch quotes them again “On Contentedness of Mind,” Sec. xi.

[216] Hesiod, “Works and Days,” 705.

[217] Plato, “Republic,” ix. p. 571, D. Quoted again, “How one may be aware of one’s Progress in Virtue,” Sec. xii.

[218] And so Dr. Young truly says,–

“A man of pleasure is a man of pains.”

Night Thoughts.

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