Seneca's Morals of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger and Clemency is a work by Seneca. The author was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist who here presents his moral philosophy.
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It has been a long time my thought to turn Seneca into English; but whether as a translation or an abstract, was the question. A translation, I perceive, it must not be, at last, for several reasons. First, it is a thing already done to my hand, and of above sixty years’ standing; though with as little credit, perhaps, to the Author, as satisfaction to the Reader. Secondly, There is a great deal in him, that is wholly foreign to my business: as his philosophical treatises of Meteors, Earthquakes, the Original of Rivers, several frivolous disputes betwixt the Epicureans and the Stoics, etc., to say nothing of his frequent repetitions of the same thing again in other words, (wherein he very handsomely excuses himself, by saying, “That he does but inculcate over and over the same counsels to those that over and over commit the same faults.”)Thirdly, His excellency consists rather in a rhapsody of divine and extraordinary hints and notions, than in any regulated method of discourse; so that to take him as he lies, and so to go through with him, were utterly inconsistent with the order and brevity which I propound; my principal design, being only to digest, and commonplace his Morals, in such sort, that any man, upon occasion, may know where to find them. And I have kept myself so close to this proposition, that I have reduced all his scattered Ethics to their proper heads, without any additions of my own, more than of absolute necessity for the tacking of them together. Some other man in my place would perhaps make you twenty apologies for his want of skill and address, in governing this affair; but these are formal and pedantic fooleries, as if any man that first takes himself for a coxcomb in his own heart, would afterwards make himself one in print too. This Abstract, such as it is, you are extremely welcome to; and I am sorry it is no better, both for your sakes and my own, for if it were written up to the spirit of the original, it would be one of the most valuable presents that ever any private man bestowed upon the public; and this, too, even in the judgment of both parties, as well Christian as Heathen, of which in its due place.
Next to my choice of the Author and of the subject, together with the manner of handling it, I have likewise had some regard, in this publication, to the timing of it, and to the preference of this topic of Benefits above all others, for the groundwork of my first essay. We are fallen into an age of vain philosophy (as the holy apostle calls it) and so desperately overrun with Drolls and Sceptics, that there is hardly any thing so certain or so sacred, that is not exposed to question and contempt, insomuch, that betwixt the hypocrite and the Atheist, the very foundations of religion and good manners are shaken, and the two tables of the Decalogue dashed to pieces the one against the other; the laws of government are subjected to the fancies of the vulgar; public authority to the private passions and opinions of the people; and the supernatural motions of grace confounded with the common dictates of nature. In this state of corruption, who so fit as a good honest Christian Pagan for a moderator among Pagan Christians?
To pass now from the general scope of the whole work to the particular argument of the first part of it, I pitched upon the theme of Benefits, Gratitude, and Ingratitude, to begin withal, as an earnest of the rest, and a lecture expressly calculated for the unthankfulness of these times; the foulest undoubtedly, and the most execrable of all others, since the very apostasy of the angels: nay, if I durst but suppose a possibility of mercy for those damned spirits, and that they might ever be taken into favor again, my charity would hope even better for them than we have found from some of our revolters, and that they would so behave themselves as not to incur a second forfeiture. And to carry the resemblance yet one point farther, they do both of them agree in an implacable malice against those of their fellows that keep their stations. But, alas! what could Ingratitude do without Hypocrisy, the inseparable companion of it, and, in effect, the bolder and blacker devil of the two? for Lucifer himself never had the face to lift up his eyes to heaven, and talk to the Almighty at the familiar rate of our pretended patriots and zealots, and at the same time to make him party to a cheat. It is not for nothing that the Holy Ghost has denounced so many woes, and redoubled so many cautions against hypocrites; plainly intimating at once how dangerous a snare they are to mankind, and no less odious to God himself; which is sufficiently denoted in the force of that dreadful expression, And your portion shall be with hypocrites. You will find in the holy scriptures (as I have formerly observed) that God has given the grace of repentance to persecutors, idolaters, murderers, adulterers, etc., but I am mistaken if the whole Bible affords you any one instance of a converted hypocrite.
To descend now from truth itself to our own experience have we not seen, even in our days, a most pious (and almost faultless) Prince brought to the scaffold by his own subjects? The most glorious constitution upon the face of the earth, both ecclesiastical and civil, torn to pieces and dissolved? The happiest people under the sun enslaved? Our temples sacrilegiously profaned, and a license given to all sorts of heresy and outrage? And by whom but by a race of hypocrites? who had nothing in their mouths all this while but the purity of the gospel, the honor of the king, and the liberty of the people, assisted underhand with defamatory papers, which were levelled at the king himself through the sides of his most faithful ministers. This PROJECT succeeded so well against one government, that it is now again set afoot against another; and by some of the very actors too in that TRAGEDY, and after a most gracious pardon also, when Providence had laid their necks and their fortunes at his majesty’s feet. It is a wonderful thing that libels and libellers, the most infamous of practices and of men; the most unmanly sneaking methods and instruments of mischief; the very bane of human society, and the plague of all governments; it is a wonderful thing (I say) that these engines and engineers should ever find credit enough in the world to engage a party; but it would be still more wonderful if the same trick should pass twice upon the same people, in the same age, and from the sameIMPOSTORS. This contemplation has carried me a little out of my way, but it has at length brought me to my text again, for there is in the bottom of it the highest opposition imaginable of ingratitude and obligation.
The reader will, in some measure, be able to judge by this taste what he is farther to expect; that is to say, as to the cast of my design, and the simplicity of the style and dress; for that will still be the same, only accompanied with variety of matter. Whether it pleases the world or no, the care is taken; and yet I could wish that it might be as delightful to others upon the perusal, as it has been to me in the speculation. Next to the gospel itself, I do look upon it as the most sovereign remedy against the miseries of human nature: and I have ever found it so, in all the injuries and distresses of an unfortunate life. You may read more of him, if you please, in the Appendix, which I have here subjoined to this Preface, concerning the authority of his writings, and the circumstances of his life; as I have extracted them out of Lipsius.
It appears that our author had among the ancients three professed enemies. In the first place Caligula, who called his writings, sand without lime; alluding to the starts of his fancy, and the incoherence of his sentences. But Seneca was never the worse for the censure of a person that propounded even the suppressing of Homer himself; and of casting Virgil and Livy out of all public libraries. The next was Fabius, who taxes him for being too bold with the eloquence of former times, and failing in that point himself; and likewise for being too quaint and finical in his expressions; which Tacitus imputes, in part to the freedom of his own particular inclination, and partly to the humor of the times. He is also charged by Fabius as no profound philosopher; but with all this, he allows him to be a man very studious and learned, of great wit and invention, and well read in all sorts of literature; a severe reprover of vice; most divinely sententious; and well worth the reading, if it were only for his morals; adding, that if his judgment had been answerable to his wit, it had been much the more for his reputation; but he wrote whatever came next; so that I would advise the reader (says he) to distinguish where he himself did not, for there are many things in him, not only to be approved, but admired; and it was great pity that he that could do what he would, should not always make the best choice. His third adversary is Agellius, who falls upon him for his style, and a kind of tinkling in his sentences, but yet commends him for his piety and good counsels. On the other side, Columela calls him a man of excellent wit and learning; Pliny, the prince of erudition; Tacitus gives him the character of a wise man, and a fit tutor for a prince; Dio reports him to have been the greatest man of his age.
Of those pieces of his that are extant, we shall not need to give any particular account: and of those that are lost, we cannot, any farther than by lights to them from other authors, as we find them cited much to his honor; and we may reasonably compute them to be the greater part of his works. That he wrote several poems in his banishment, may be gathered partly from himself, but more expressly out of Tacitus, who says, “that he was reproached with his applying himself to poetry, after he saw that Nero took pleasure in it, out of a design to curry favor.” St. Jerome refers to a discourse of his concerning matrimony. Lactantius takes notice of his history, and his books of Moralities: St. Augustine quotes some passages of his out of a book of Superstition; some references we meet with to his books of Exhortations: Fabius makes mention of his Dialogues: and he himself speaks of a treatise of his own concerning Earthquakes, which he wrote in his youth, but the opinion of an epistolary correspondence that he had with St. Paul, does not seem to have much color for it.
Some few fragments, however, of those books of his that are wanting, are yet preserved in the writings of other eminent authors, sufficient to show the world how great a treasure they have lost by the excellency of that little that is left.
Seneca, says Lactantius, that was the sharpest of all the Stoics, how great a veneration has he for the Almighty! as for instance, discoursing of a violent death; “Do you not understand?” says he, “the majesty and the authority of your Judge; he is the supreme Governor of heaven and earth, and the God of all your gods; and it is upon him that all those powers depend which we worship for deities.” Moreover, in his Exhortations, “This God,” says he, “when he laid the foundations of the universe, and entered upon the greatest and the best work in nature, in the ordering of the government of the world, though he was himself All in all, yet he substituted other subordinate ministers, as the servants of his commands.” And how many other things does this Heathen speak of God like one of us!
Which the acute Seneca, says Lactantius again, saw in his Exhortations. “We,” says he, “have our dependence elsewhere, and should look up to that power, to which we are indebted for all that we can pretend to that is good.”
And again, Seneca says very well in his Morals, “They worship the images of the God,” says he, “kneel to them, and adore them, they are hardly ever from them, either plying them with offerings or sacrifices, and yet, after all this reverence to the image, they have no regard at all to the workman that made it.”
Lactantius again. “An invective,” says Seneca in his Exhortations, “is the masterpiece of most of our philosophers; and if they fall upon the subject of avarice, lust, ambition, they lash out into such excess of bitterness, as if railing were a mark of their profession. They make me think of gallipots in an apothecary’s shop, that have remedies without and poison within.”
Lactantius still. “He that would know all things, let him read Seneca; the most lively describer of public vices and manners, and the smartest reprehender of them.”
And again; as Seneca has it in the books of Moral Philosophy, “He is the brave man, whose splendor and authority is the least part of his greatness, that can look death in the face without trouble or surprise; who, if his body were to be broken upon the wheel, or melted lead to be poured down his throat, would be less concerned for the pain itself, than for the dignity of bearing it.”
Let no man, says Lactantius, think himself the safer in his wickedness for want of a witness; for God is omniscient, and to him nothing can be a secret. It is an admirable sentence that Seneca concludes his Exhortations withal: “God,” says he, “is a great, (I know not what), an incomprehensible Power; it is to him that we live, and to him that we must approve ourselves. What does it avail us that our consciences are hidden from men, when our souls lie open to God?” What could a Christian have spoken more to the purpose in this case than this divine Pagan? And in the beginning of the same work, says Seneca, “What is it that we do? to what end is it to stand contriving, and to hide ourselves? We are under a guard, and there is no escaping from our keeper. One man may be parted from another by travel, death, sickness; but there is no dividing us from ourselves. It is to no purpose to creep into a corner where nobody shall see us. Ridiculous madness! Make it the case, that no mortal eye could find us out, he that has a conscience gives evidence against himself.”
It is truly and excellently spoken of Seneca, says Lactantius, once again; “Consider,” says he “the majesty, the goodness, and the venerable mercies of the Almighty; a friend that is always at hand. What delight can it be to him the slaughter of innocent creatures or the worship of bloody sacrifices? Let us purge our minds, and lead virtuous and honest lives. His pleasure lies not in the magnificence of temples made with stone, but in the pity and devotion of consecrated hearts.”
In the book that Seneca wrote against Superstitions, treating of images, says St. Austin, he writes thus: “They represent the holy, the immortal, and the inviolable gods in the basest matter, and without life or motion; in the forms of men, beasts, fishes, some of mixed bodies, and those figures they call deities, which, if they were but animated, would affright a man, and pass for monsters.” And then, a little farther, treating of Natural Theology, after citing the opinions of philosophers, he supposes an objection against himself: “Somebody will perhaps ask me, would you have me then to believe the heavens and the earth to be gods, and some of them above the moon, and some below it? Shall I ever be brought to the opinion of Plato, or of Strabo the Peripatetic? the one of which would have God to be without a body, and the other without a mind.” To which he replies, “And do you give more credit then to the dreams of T. Tatius, Romulus, Hostilius, who caused, among other deities, even Fear and Paleness to be worshipped? the vilest of human affections; the one being the motion of an affrighted mind, and the other not so much the disease as the color of a disordered body. Are these the deities that you will rather put your faith in, and place in the heavens?” And speaking afterward of their abominable customs, with what liberty does he write! “One,” says he, “out of zeal, makes himself an eunuch, another lances his arms; if this be the way to please their gods, what should a man do if he had a mind to anger them? or, if this be the way to please them, they do certainly deserve not to be worshipped at all. What a frenzy is this to imagine that the gods can be delighted with such cruelties, as even the worst of men would make a conscience to inflict! The most barbarous and notorious of tyrants, some of them have perhaps done it themselves, or ordered the tearing of men to pieces by others; but they never went so far as to command any man to torment himself. We have heard of those that have suffered castration to gratify the lust of their imperious masters, but never any man that was forced to act it upon himself. They murder themselves in their very temples, and their prayers are offered up in blood. Whosoever shall but observe what they do, and what they suffer, will find it so misbecoming an honest man, so unworthy of a freeman, and so inconsistent with the action of a man in his wits, that he must conclude them all to be mad, if it were not that there are so many of them; for only their number is their justification and their protection.”
When he comes to reflect, says St. Augustine, upon those passages which he himself had seen in the Capitol, he censures them with liberty and resolution; and no man will believe that such things would be done unless in mockery or frenzy. What lamentation is there in the Egyptian sacrifices for the loss of Osiris? and then what joy for the finding of him again? Which he makes himself sport with; for in truth it is all a fiction; and yet those people that neither lost any thing nor found any thing, must express their sorrows and their rejoicings to the highest degree. “But there is only a certain time,” says he, “for this freak, and once in a year people may be allowed to be mad. I came into the Capitol,” says Seneca, “where the several deities had their several servants and attendants, their lictors, their dressers, and all in posture and action, as if they were executing their offices; some to hold the glass, others to comb out Juno’s and Minerva’s hair; one to tell Jupiter what o’clock it is; some lasses there are that sit gazing upon the image, and fancy Jupiter has a kindness for them. All these things,” says Seneca, a while after, “a wise man will observe for the law’s sake more than for the gods; and all this rabble of deities, which the superstition of many ages has gathered together, we are in such manner to adore, as to consider the worship to be rather matter of custom than of conscience.” Whereupon St. Augustine observes, that this illustrious senator worshipped what he reproved, acted what he disliked, and adored what he condemned.
It has been an ancient custom to record the actions and the writings of eminent men, with all their circumstances, and it is but a right that we owe to the memory of our famous author. Seneca was by birth a Spaniard of Cordova, (a Roman colony of great fame and antiquity.) He was of the family of Annæus, of the order of knights; and the father, Lucius Annæus Seneca, was distinguished from the son, by the name of the Orator. His mother’s name was Helvia, a woman of excellent qualities. His father came to Rome in the time of Augustus, and his wife and children soon followed him, our Seneca yet being in his infancy. There were three brothers of them, and never a sister. Marcus Annæus Novatus, Lucius Annæus Seneca, and Lucius Annæus Mela; the first of these changed his name for Junius Gallio, who adopted him; to him it was that he dedicated his treatise of Anger, whom he calls Novatus too; and he also dedicated his discourse of a Happy Life to his brother Gallio. The youngest brother (Annæus Mela) was Lucan’s father. Seneca was about twenty years of age in the fifth year of Tiberius, when the Jews were expelled from Rome. His father trained him up to rhetoric, but his genius led him rather to philosophy; and he applied his wit to morality and virtue. He was a great hearer of the celebrated men of those times; as Attalus, Sotion, Papirius, Fabianus, (of whom he makes often mention,) and he was much an admirer also of Demetrius the Cynic, whose conversation he had afterwards in the Court, and both at home also and abroad, for they often travelled together. His father was not at all pleased with his humor of philosophy, but forced him upon the law, and for a while he practiced pleading. After which he would needs put him upon public employment: and he came first to be quæstor, then prætor, and some will have it that he was chosen consul; but this is doubtful.
Seneca finding that he had ill offices done him at court, and that Nero’s favor began to cool, he went directly and resolutely to Nero, with an offer to refund all that he had gotten, which Nero would not receive; but however, from that time he changed his course of life, received few visits, shunned company, went little abroad; still pretending to be kept at home, either by indisposition or by his study. Being Nero’s tutor and governor, all things were well so long as Nero followed his counsel. His two chief favorites were Burrhus and Seneca, who were both of them excellent in their ways: Burrhus, in his care of military affairs, and severity of discipline; Seneca for his precepts and good advice in the matter of eloquence, and the gentleness of an honest mind; assisting one another, in that slippery age of the prince (says Tacitus) to invite him, by the allowance of lawful pleasures, to the love of virtue. Seneca had two wives; the name of the first is not mentioned; his second was Paulina, whom he often speaks of with great passion. By the former he had his son Marcus.
In the first year of Claudius he was banished into Corsica, when Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, was accused by Messalina of adultery and banished too, Seneca being charged as one of the adulterers. After a matter of eight years or upwards in exile, he was called back, and as much in favor again as ever. His estate was partly patrimonial, but the greatest part of it was the bounty of his prince. His gardens, villas, lands, possessions, and incredible sums of money, are agreed upon at all hands; which drew an envy upon him. Dio reports him to have had 250,000l. sterling at interest in Britanny alone, which he called in all at a sum. The Court itself could not bring him to flattery; and for his piety, submission, and virtue, the practice of his whole life witnesses for him. “So soon,” says he, “as the candle is taken away, my wife, that knows my custom, lies still, without a word speaking, and then do I recollect all that I have said or done that day, and take myself to shrift. And why should I conceal or reserve anything, or make any scruple of inquiring into my errors, when I can say to myself, Do so no more, and for this once I will forgive thee?” And again, what can be more pious and self-denying than this passage, in one of his epistles? “Believe me now, when I tell you the very bottom of my soul: in all the difficulties and crosses of my life, this is my consideration—since it is God’s will, I do not only obey, but assent to it; nor do I comply out of necessity, but inclination.”
“Here follows now,” says Tacitus, “the death of Seneca, to Nero’s great satisfaction; not so much for any pregnant proof against him that he was of Piso’s conspiracy; but Nero was resolved to do that by the sword which he could not effect by poison. For it is reported, that Nero had corrupted Cleonicus (a freeman of Seneca’s) to give his master poison, which did not succeed. Whether that the servant had discovered it to his master, or that Seneca, by his own caution and jealousy, had avoided it; for he lived only upon a simple diet, as the fruits of the earth, and his drink was most commonly river water.
“Natalis, it seems, was sent upon a visit to him (being indisposed) with a complaint that he would not let Piso come at him; and advising him to the continuance of their friendship and acquaintance as formerly. To whom Seneca made answer, that frequent meetings and conferences betwixt them could do neither of them any good; but that he had a great interest in Piso’s welfare. Hereupon Granius Silvanus (a captain of the guard) was sent to examine Seneca upon the discourse that passed betwixt him and Natalis, and to return his answer. Seneca, either by chance or upon purpose, came that day from Campania, to a villa of his own, within four miles of the city; and thither the officer went the next evening, and beset the place. He found Seneca at supper with his wife Paulina, and two of his friends; and gave him immediately an account of his commission. Seneca told him, that it was true that Natalis had been with him in Piso’s name, with a complaint that Piso could not be admitted to see him; and that he excused himself by reason of his want of health, and his desires to be quiet and private; and that he had no reason to prefer another man’s welfare before his own. Cæsar himself, he said, knew very well that he was not a man of compliment, having received more proofs of his freedom than of his flattery. This answer of Seneca’s was delivered to Cæsar in the presence of Poppæa, and Tigellinus, the intimate confidants of this barbarous prince: and Nero asked him whether he could gather anything from Seneca as if he intended to make himself away? The tribune’s answer was, that he did not find him one jot moved with the message: but that he went on roundly with his tale, and never so much as changed countenance for the matter. Go back to him then, says Nero, and tell him, that he is condemned to die. Fabius Rusticus delivers it, that the tribune did not return the same way he came, but went aside to Fenius (a captain of that name) and told him Cæsar’s orders, asking his advice whether he should obey them or not; who bade him by all means to do as he was ordered. Which want of resolution was fatal to them all; for Silvanus also, that was one of the conspirators, assisted now to serve and to increase those crimes, which he had before complotted to revenge. And yet he did not think fit to appear himself in the business, but sent a centurion to Seneca to tell him his doom.
“Seneca, without any surprise or disorder, calls for his will; which being refused him by the officer, he turned to his friends, and told them that since he was not permitted to requite them as they deserved, he was yet at liberty to bequeath them the thing of all others that he esteemed the most, that is, the image of his life; which should give them the reputation both of constancy and friendship, if they would but imitate it; exhorting them to a firmness of mind, sometimes by good counsel, otherwhile by reprehension, as the occasion required. Where, says he, is all your philosophy now? all your premeditated resolutions against the violences of Fortune? Is there any man so ignorant of Nero’s cruelty, as to expect, after the murder of his mother and his brother, that he should ever spare the life of his governor and tutor? After some general expressions to this purpose, he took his wife in his arms, and having somewhat fortified her against the present calamity, he besought and conjured her to moderate her sorrows, and betake herself to the contemplations and comforts of a virtuous life; which would be a fair and ample consolation to her for the loss of her husband. Paulina, on the other side, tells him her determination to bear him company, and wills the executioner to do his office. Well, says Seneca, if after the sweetness of life, as I have represented it to thee, thou hadst rather entertain an honorable death, I shall not envy thy example; consulting, at the same time, the fame of the person he loved, and his own tenderness, for fear of the injuries that might attend her when he was gone. Our resolution, says he, in this generous act, may be equal, but thine will be the greater reputation. After this the veins of both their arms were opened at the same time. Seneca did not bleed so freely, his spirits being wasted with age and a thin diet; so that he was forced to cut the veins of his thighs and elsewhere, to hasten his dispatch. When he was far spent, and almost sinking under his torments, he desired his wife to remove into another chamber, lest the agonies of the one might work upon the courage of the other. His eloquence continued to the last, as appears by the excellent things he delivered at his death; which being taken in writing from his own mouth, and published in his own words, I shall not presume to deliver them in any other. Nero, in the meantime, who had no particular spite to Paulina, gave orders to prevent her death, for fear his cruelty should grow more and more insupportable and odious. Whereupon the soldiers gave all freedom and encouragement to her servants to bind up her wounds, and stop the blood, which they did accordingly; but whether she was sensible of it or not is a question. For among the common people, who are apt to judge the worst, there were some of opinion, that as long as she despaired of Nero’s mercy, she seemed to court the glory of dying with her husband for company; but that upon the likelihood of better quarter she was prevailed upon to outlive him; and so for some years she did survive him, with all piety and respect to his memory; but so miserably pale and wan, that everybody might read the loss of her blood and spirits in her very countenance.
“Seneca finding his death slow and lingering, desires Statius Annæus (his old friend and physician) to give him a dose of poison, which he had provided beforehand, being the same preparation which was appointed for capital offenders in Athens. This was brought him, and he drank it up, but to little purpose; for his body was already chilled, and bound up against the force of it. He went at last into a hot bath, and sprinkling some of his servants that were next him, this, says he, is an oblation to Jupiter the deliverer. The fume of the bath soon dispatched him, and his body was burnt, without any funeral solemnity, as he had directed in his testament: though this will of his was made in the height of his prosperity and power. There was a rumor that Subrius Flavius, in a private consultation with the centurions, had taken up this following resolution, (and that Seneca himself was no stranger to it) that is to say, that after Nero should have been slain by the help of Piso, Piso himself should have been killed too; and the empire delivered up to Seneca, as one that well deserved it, for his integrity and virtue.”
It is, perhaps, one of the most pernicious errors of a rash and inconsiderate life, the common ignorance of the world in the matter of exchanging benefits. And this arises from a mistake, partly in the person that we would oblige, and partly in the thing itself. To begin with the latter: “A benefit is a good office, done with intention and judgment;” that is to say, with a due regard to all the circumstances of what, how, why, when, where, to whom, how much, and the like; or otherwise: “It is a voluntary and benevolent action that delights the giver in the comfort it brings to the receiver.” It will be hard to draw this subject, either into method or compass: the one, because of the infinite variety and complication of cases; the other, by reason of the large extent of it: for the whole business (almost) of mankind in society falls under this head; the duties of kings and subjects, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, natives and strangers, high and low, rich and poor, strong and weak, friends and enemies. The very meditation of it breeds good blood and generous thoughts; and instructs us in honor, humanity, friendship, piety, gratitude, prudence, and justice. In short, the art and skill of conferring benefits is, of all human duties, the most absolutely necessary to the well-being, both of reasonable nature, and of every individual; as the very cement of all communities, and the blessing of particulars. He that does good to another man does good also to himself; not only in the consequence, but in the very act of doing it; for the conscience of well-doing is an ample reward.
Of benefits in general, there are several sorts; as necessary, profitable, and delightful. Some things there are, without which we cannot live; others without which we ought not to live; and some, again, without which we will not live. In the first rank are those which deliver us from capital dangers, or apprehensions of death: and the favor is rated according to the hazard; for the greater the extremity, the greater seems the obligation. The next is a case wherein we may indeed live, but we had better die; as in the question of liberty, modesty, and a good conscience. In the third place, follow those things which custom, use, affinity, and acquaintance, have made dear to us; as husbands, wives, children, friends, etc., which an honest man will preserve at his utmost peril. Of things profitable there is a large field, as money, honor, etc., to which might be added, matters of superfluity and pleasure. But we shall open a way to the circumstances of a benefit by some previous and more general deliberations upon the thing itself.
We shall divide benefits into absolute and vulgar; the one appertaining to good life, the other is only matter of commerce. The former are the more excellent, because they can never be made void; whereas all material benefits are tossed back and forward, and change their master. There are some offices that look like benefits, but are only desirable conveniences, as wealth, etc., and these a wicked man may receive from a good, or a good man from an evil. Others, again, that bear the face of injuries, which are only benefits ill taken; as cutting, lancing, burning, under the hand of a surgeon. The greatest benefits of all are those of good education, which we receive from our parents, either in the state of ignorance or perverseness; as, their care and tenderness in our infancy; their discipline in our childhood, to keep us to our duties by fear; and, if fair means will not do, their proceeding afterwards to severity and punishment, without which we should never have come to good. There are matters of great value, many times, that are but of small price; as instructions from a tutor, medicine from a physician, etc. And there are small matters again, which are of great consideration to us: the gift is small, and the consequence great; as a cup of cold water in a time of need may save a man’s life. Some things are of great moment to the giver, others to the receiver: one man gives me a house; another snatches me out when it is falling upon my head; one gives me an estate; another takes me out of the fire, or casts me out a rope when I am sinking. Some good offices we do to friends, others to strangers; but those are the noblest that we do without pre-desert. There is an obligation of bounty, and an obligation of charity; this in case of necessity, and that in point of convenience. Some benefits are common, others are personal; as if a prince (out of pure grace) grant a privilege to a city, the obligation lies upon the community, and only upon every individual as a part of the whole; but if it be done particularly for my sake, then am I singly the debtor for it. The cherishing of strangers is one of the duties of hospitality, and exercises itself in the relief and protection of the distressed. There are benefits of good counsel, reputation, life, fortune, liberty, health, nay, and of superfluity and pleasure. One man obliges me out of his pocket; another gives me matter of ornament and curiosity; a third, consolation. To say nothing of negative benefits; for there are that reckon it an obligation if they do a body no hurt; and place it to account, as if they saved a man, when they do not undo him. To shut up all in one word; as benevolence is the most sociable of all virtues, so it is of the largest extent; for there is not any man, either so great or so little, but he is yet capable of giving and of receiving benefits.
The question is (in the first place) whether it may not be possible for a father to owe more to a son, in other respects, than the son owes to his father for his being? That many sons are both greater and better than their fathers, there is no question; as there are many other things that derive their beings from others, which yet are far greater than their original. Is not the tree larger than the seed? the river than the fountain? The foundation of all things lies hid, and the superstructure obscures it. If I owe all to my father, because he gives me life, I may owe as much to a physician that saved his life; for if my father had not been cured, I had never been begotten: or, if I stand indebted for all that I am to my beginning, my acknowledgment must run back to the very original of all human beings. My father gave me the benefit of life: which he had never done, if his father had not first given it to him. He gave me life, not knowing to whom; and when I was in a condition neither to feel death nor to fear it. That is the great benefit, to give life to one that knows how to use it, and that is capable of the apprehension of death. It is true, that without a father I could never have had a being; and so, without a nurse, that being had never been improved: but I do not therefore owe my virtue either to my nativity or to her that gave me suck. The generation of me was the last part of the benefit: for to live is common with brutes; but to live well is the main business; and that virtue is all my own, saving what I drew from my education. It does not follow that the first benefit must be the greatest, because without the first the greatest could never have been. The father gives life to the son but once; but if the son save the father’s life often, though he do but his duty, it is yet a greater benefit. And again, the benefit that a man receives is the greater, the more he needs it; but the living has more need of life than he that is not yet born; so that the father receives a greater benefit in the continuance of his life than the son in the beginning of it. What if a son deliver his father from the rack; or, which is more, lay himself down in his place? The giving of him a being was but the office of a father; a simple act, a benefit given at a venture: beside that, he had a participant in it, and a regard to his family. He gave only a single life, and he received a happy one. My mother brought me into the world naked, exposed, and void of reason; but my reputation and my fortune are advanced by my virtue. Scipio (as yet in his minority) rescued his father in a battle with Hannibal, and afterward from the practices and persecution of a powerful faction; covering him with consulary honors, and the spoils of public enemies. He made himself as eminent for his moderation as for his piety and military knowledge: he was the defender and the establisher of his country: he left the empire without a competitor, and made himself as well the ornament of Rome as the security of it: and did not Scipio, in all this, more than requite his father barely for begetting of him? Whether did Anchises more for Æneas, in dandling the child in his arms; or Æneas for his father, when he carried him upon his back through the flames of Troy, and made his name famous to future ages among the founders of the Roman Empire? T. Manlius was the son of a sour and imperious father, who banished him his house as a blockhead, and a scandal to the family. This Manlius, hearing that his father’s life was in question, and a day set for his trial, went to the tribune that was concerned in his cause, and discoursed with him about it: the tribune told him the appointed time, and withal (as an obligation upon the young man) that his cruelty to his son would be part of his accusation. Manlius, upon this, takes the tribune aside, and presenting a poniard to his breast, “Swear,” says he, “that you will let this cause fall, or you shall have this dagger in the heart of you; and now it is at your choice which way you will deliver my father.” The tribune swore and kept his word, and made a fair report of the whole matter to the council. He that makes himself famous by his eloquence, justice, or arms, illustrates his extraction, let it be never so mean; and gives inestimable reputation to his parents. We should never have heard of Sophroniscus, but for his son Socrates; nor for Aristo and Gryllus, if it had not been for Xenophon and Plato.
This is not to discountenance the veneration we owe to parents; nor to make children the worse, but the better; and to stir up generous emulations: for, in contests of good offices, both parties are happy; as well the vanquished as those that overcome. It is the only honorable dispute that can arise betwixt a father and son, which of the two shall have the better of the other in the point of benefits.
In the question betwixt a master and a servant, we must distinguish betwixt benefits, duties, and actions ministerial. By benefits, we understand those good offices that we receive from strangers, which are voluntary, and may be forborne without blame. Duties are the parts of a son and wife, and incumbent upon kindred and relations. Offices ministerial belong to the part of a servant. Now, since it is the mind, and not the condition of a person, that prints the value upon the benefit, a servant may oblige his master, and so may a subject his sovereign, or a common soldier his general, by doing more than he is expressly bound to do. Some things there are, which the law neither commands nor forbids; and here the servant is free. It would be very hard for a servant to be chastised for doing less than his duty, and not thanked for it when he does more. His body, it is true, is his master’s, but his mind is his own: and there are many commands which a servant ought no more to obey than a master to impose. There is no man so great, but he may both need the help and service, and stand in fear of the power and unkindness, even of the meanest of mortals. One servant kills his master; another saves him, nay, preserves his master’s life, perhaps, with the loss of his own: he exposes himself to torment and death; he stands firm against all threats and batteries: which is not only a benefit in a servant, but much the greater for his being so.
When Domitius was besieged in Corfinium, and the place brought to great extremity, he pressed his servant so earnestly to poison him, that at last he was prevailed upon to give him a potion; which, it seems, was an innocent opiate, and Domitius outlived it: Cæsar took the town, and gave Domitius his life, but it was his servant that gave it him first.
There was another town besieged, and when it was upon the last pinch, two servants made their escape, and went over to the enemy: upon the Romans entering the town, and in the heat of the soldiers’ fury, these two fellows ran directly home, took their mistress out of her house, and drove her before them, telling every body how barbarously she had used them formerly, and that they would now have their revenge; when they had her without the gates, they kept her close till the danger was over; by which means they gave their mistress her life, and she gave them their freedom. This was not the action of a servile mind, to do so glorious a thing, under an appearance of so great a villainy; for if they had not passed for deserters and parricides, they could not have gained their end.
With one instance more (and that a very brave one) I shall conclude this chapter.
In the civil wars of Rome, a party coming to search for a person of quality that was proscribed, a servant put on his master’s clothes, and delivered himself up to the soldiers as the master of the house; he was taken into custody, and put to death, without discovering the mistake. What could be more glorious, than for a servant to die for his master, in that age, when there were not many servants that would not betray their masters? So generous a tenderness in a public cruelty; so invincible a faith in a general corruption; what could be more glorious, I say, than so exalted a virtue, as rather to choose death for the reward of his fidelity, than the greatest advantages he might otherwise have had for the violation of it?
The good-will of the benefactor is the fountain of all benefits; nay it is the benefit itself, or, at least, the stamp that makes it valuable and current. Some there are, I know, that take the matter for the benefit, and tax the obligation by weight and measure. When anything is given them, they presently cast it up; “What may such a house be worth? such an office? such an estate?” as if that were the benefit which is only the sign and mark of it: for the obligation rests in the mind, not in the matter; and all those advantages which we see, handle, or hold in actual possession by the courtesy of another, are but several modes or ways of explaining and putting the good-will in execution. There needs no great subtlety to prove, that both benefits and injuries receive their value from the intention, when even brutes themselves are able to decide this question. Tread upon a dog by chance, or put him to pain upon the dressing of a wound; the one he passes by as an accident; and the other, in his fashion, he acknowledges as a kindness: but, offer to strike at him, though you do him no hurt at all, he flies yet in the face of you, even for the mischief that you barely meant him.
It is further to be observed, that all benefits are good; and (like the distributions of Providence) made up of wisdom and bounty; whereas the gift itself is neither good nor bad, but may indifferently be applied, either to the one or to the other. The benefit is immortal, the gift perishable: for the benefit itself continues when we have no longer either the use or the matter of it. He that is dead was alive; he that has lost his eyes, did see; and, whatsoever is done, cannot be rendered undone. My friend (for instance) is taken by pirates; I redeem him; and after that he falls into other pirates’ hands; his obligation to me is the same still as if he had preserved his freedom. And so, if I save a man from any misfortune, and he falls into another; if I give him a sum of money, which is afterwards taken away by thieves; it comes to the same case. Fortune may deprive us of the matter of a benefit, but the benefit itself remains inviolable. If the benefit resided in the matter, that which is good for one man would be so for another; whereas many times the very same thing, given to several persons, work contrary effects, even to the difference of life or death; and that which is one body’s cure proves another body’s poison. Beside that, the timing of it alters the value; and a crust of bread, upon a pinch, is a greater present than an imperial crown. What is more familiar than in a battle to shoot at an enemy and kill a friend? or, instead of a friend, to save an enemy? But yet this disappointment, in the event, does not at all operate upon the intention. What if a man cures me of a wen with a stroke that was designed to cut off my head? or, with a malicious blow upon my stomach, breaks an imposthume? or, what if he saves my life with a draught that was prepared to poison me? The providence of the issue does not at all discharge the obliquity of the intent. And the same reason holds good even in religion itself. It is not the incense, or the offering, that is acceptable to God, but the purity and devotion of the worshipper: neither is the bare will, without action, sufficient, that is, where we have the means of acting; for, in that case, it signifies as little to wish well, without well-doing, as to do good without willing it. There must be effect as well as intention, to make me owe a benefit; but, to will against it, does wholly discharge it. In fine, the conscience alone is the judge, both of benefits and injuries.
It does not follow now, because the benefit rests in the good-will, that therefore the good-will should be always a benefit; for if it be not accompanied with government and discretion, those offices, which we call benefits, are but the works of passion, or of chance; and many times, the greatest of all injuries. One man does me good by mistake; another ignorantly; a third upon force: but none of these cases do I take to be an obligation; for they were neither directed to me, nor was there any kindness of intention; we do not thank the seas for the advantages we receive by navigation; or the rivers with supplying us with fish and flowing of our grounds; we do not thank the trees either for their fruits or shades, or the winds for a fair gale; and what is the difference betwixt a reasonable creature that does not know and an inanimate that cannot? A good horse saves one man’s life; a good suit of arms another’s; and a man, perhaps, that never intended it, saves a third. Where is the difference now betwixt the obligation of one and of the other? A man falls into a river, and the fright cures him of the ague; we may call this a kind of lucky mischance, but not a remedy. And so it is with the good we receive, either without, or beside, or contrary to intention. It is the mind, and not the event, that distinguishes a benefit from an injury.
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