Plutarch - Peace of Mind

Saturday, May 28, 2005

PLUTARCH to Paccius, greeting:

It was late when I received your letter, asking me to write you something on peace of mind, and the passages in the Timaeus which require fuller explanation. And about that very time our friend Erotus felt he must take ship quickly for Rome. He had received a letter from the powerful Fundanus, urging haste, as is his wont. So I had not the time I would have wished to do what you wanted, and yet I could not bear to have you see a man just come from us with wholly empty hands. Accordingly I gathered up from my notes some I had happened to make for myself on peace of mind, for I thought you did not want this to be merely an essay to be listened to as an exhibit of fine writing, but as something helpful for use.

The man who said that anyone who expected to get peace of mind must have little to do either in public or in private life, first of all makes that peace a costly article, if we must buy it at the price of doing nothing. It sounds like advice to sick people,

Lie still, poor wretch in your bed,

though really the stupor induced by idleness is a bad remedy for the body. And it is a poor physician for the soul who would free it of trouble and anxiety by prescribing a soft and lazy life, leaving our friends and relatives and country in the lurch. Besides, it is not true that persons with little to do are peaceful in their minds. If it were, women would be serener than men, since they mostly lead lives of inactivity, and nowadays as Hesiad says, the north wind

Comes not near a soft-skinned maiden;
[Works and Days]

yet griefs and troubles and petty spites, more than one could describe, springing from jealousy or superstition or ambition or empty vanity, inundate the women's part of the house. And Laertes, who had lived for twenty years alone in the country,

With but an old woman to serve as his handmaid,
To set on his board his meat and his drink,
[Homer, Odyssey]

and who was in exile from his country, his house, and his kingdom, had sorrow and despondency as companions in his leisure. So even Epicurus thinks that men who love honor and glory should not idle their lives away, but use their natural talents in politics and public service, since they are likely to be more fretted and harmed by inaction than by not getting everything they work for.

There are some people quite certain that there is a kind of life which is carefree. Some of them think the farmer's life is, others the bachelor's life, others the king's. Menander reminds us of them when he says,

Phania, I thought they were rich
Who never were forced to borrow,
Nor groan at night, nor toss up and down,
Sighing "Alas" but sweetly and gently
Slept the whole night through.

But then he goes on to say that he sees the rich suffering the same as the poor.

Trouble and life, he says, are akin.
In luxurious lives or in lives of great honor
Trouble is there, and in lives that are poor
Stays with them to the end.

But we are like people at sea, timid and seasick, who think they will find it easier if they change from a sailboat to a galley, and then if they change again to a trireme, but gain nothing thereby, for they take their fears and their qualms with them. So changes in manner of life do not cure the sorrows and disturbances of the soul, which come from lack of experience and reflection or from inability or ignorace of how rightly to enjoy the present. These are afflictions of both rich and poor; they trouble both the married and unmarried. They make some men shun the forum, but find retirement unbearable; they make others work for introductions at court, and on their arrival straightway discover they care nothing for it.

The sick are peevish in their helplessness,
[Euripides, Orestes]

for the wife bothers them, and they blame the doctor, and they find the bed uncomfortable, and as Ion says,

The friend who visits them is tiring,
And yet they do not like his going.

However, when the illness is over, and the man in better shape, sweet health returns and makes all things pleasant and acceptable. He that yesterday loathed eggs and fine meal loaves and sesame cakes will today today eat eagerly and with appetite coarse bread with olives and watercress.

But reason, if inbred in us, creates contentment and a readiness to accept vicissitudes in every kind of life. It was a burden to Agamemnon to be king over so many subjects,

Here you see Atreus' son Agamemnon, on whom forever
Zeus has sent cares without end.
[Homer, Iliad]

On the other hand, Diogenes, when he was being sold, sat down and kept jeering at the auctioneer, and would not stand up when bidden, but said jokingly with a laugh, Suppose it were a fish you were selling? And Socrates in prison talked philosophy with his friends. But Phaethon, after ascending to heaven, wept because nobody gave his his father's horses and chariot. As, then, the foot shapes the shoe, and not the shoe the foot, so does the disposition make the life similar to itself.

Plato [in the Republic], compared life to a game of dice; we ought to throw in whatever way promises gain, but having thrown, make the best of whatever turn up. It is not in our power to decide what the throw will be, and it is our duty, if we are wise, to take in a right spirit what fortune sends, and adjust the situation to everyone participating, so that what was not may do them the least harm.

So we ought first to cultivate and practice a habit of adapting ourselves to circumstances, like the man who threw a stone at his dog, and missed it but hit his stepmother and cried out Not so bad! In that way we may put a different face on fortune when things turn wrong. Diogenes was sentenced to banishment. Not so bad, for it was after his banishment that he began to be a philosopher. What keeps us from imitating men like them? Have you failed to win an office? You can live in the country and manage your own affairs. Did you court the friendship of a great men and meet with rebuff? You can live now free from risks and exertions. Or have you been involved in business that kept you busy and anxious? Even warm water will not make the limbs so soft, according to Pindar [Nemean Ode], as glory and honor, with some power, make labor sweet, and toil no toil. [Euripides, Bacchae] Or have you met with bad luck or opprobium because of some other man's slander and envy? The breeze is favorable to waft you to the Muses and the Academy, as it did Plato when he was suffering from the break in his friendship with Dionysius.

It does indeed help one in keeping a quiet mind to observe how famous men have borne unflinchingly the same troubles that you have. Is your childlessness a grief to you? Look at the kings of the Romans, not one of whom left a son to inherit his kingdom. Do you find your poverty painful? But what Boeotian would you rather be than Epaminondas? What Roman than Fabricus? But my wife has been seduced! Have you never read that inscription at Delphi,

Agis, king of land and sea, created me;

and have you not heard that his wife Timaea was seduced by Alcibiades, and in whispers to her handmaidens called the child she bore Alcibiades? But this ill fortune did not prevent Agis from being the most renowned and greatest Greek of his time. Nor did the licentiousness of his daughter prevent Stilpo from leading the merriest life of all contemporary philosophers.

Many people are irritated and exasperated both by what is wrong in their friends and intimates, and by the misdeeds of their enemies. Back-biting and anger and envy and malice and jealousy and ill-will are characteristics of persons destined to some disaster, and foolish men are troubled and worried by them. Take, for instance, the quarrels of neighbors, the peevishness of friends, and the wickedness of those in charge of the state. You seem to me considerably upset by them, like the doctors in Sophocles, who

With bitter physic would purge the bitter bile.

So indignant and bitter are you at people's weaknesses and infirmities, which is not reasonable of you.

But if you accept things as they are, and, as the surgeon does with his forceps and bandages, as far as possible show yourself cheerful and calm. Your happiness in your own state of mind will be greater than your distress at the other people's disagreeable shortcomings, for you will think of them simply as barking dogs, doing what is natural for them to do. Look, it is not unreasonable to allow ourselves to be so annoyed and vexed because everyone who has dealings with us and comes near us is not good and charming? Let us see to it, dear Paccius, that we are not, unaware, really criticizing and fearing, instead of the general faultiness of the people we meet, just as in them which touches ourselves, our motive then being selfishness, not a hatred of evil.

Let us resume our argument.

When we are in a fever everything tastes sour and unpleasant, but when we see others eating and enjoying the same things, we no longer blame our food and drink but our disease. And so we shall stop blaming and worrying over the state of the country, if we see others cheerfully and happily putting up with it.

It is good too for our peace of mind, in the midst of disturbing events, not to overlook all our advantages and comforts, and to lessen our troubles by mixing them with our blessings. When our eyes now are dazzled by things too bright, we turn them away and ease them by looking at fresh green grass, but our minds we keep strained over painful things, and compel them to brood on unhappy ideas, wrenching them by force away from what is more pleasant. Yet we might aptly apply here what was said to the meddlesome man,

Malign intruder, why so keen to spy a neighbor's fault, while not seeing your own?

It is folly to go on grieving over things we have lost, without rejoicing over what we have left. But like small children, who, if one of their many playthings is taken away by anyone, cry and scream and throw the rest away too, so we, when fortune robs us of a treasure, wail and mourn and treat everything else as worthless to us.

Well, what blessings have we? someone might say. Well, what have we not? One has a reputation, another a house, another a wife, another a lover. When Antipater of Tarsus before his death was reckoning up his pieces of good fortune, he did not omit event he delightful voyage he had taken from Cilicia to Athens. So we too should not overlook common pleasures but take account even of them, be glad that we live and are well well and see the sun, that there is no war going on or civil strife, that the earth is open to the farmer's tilling and that whoever wills may fearlessly sail the sea, that we are free to speak and act or be silent and idle. We shall get more contentment from the possession of these blessings, if we imagine ourselves without them and remind ourselves often how people who are ill long for health, and people at war for peace, and an unknown stranger in a great city for names and friends, and how miserable it is to be deprived of what we once had. Then all these good things will not seem great and precious to us only when they are gone and nothing while we have them. For absence of a thing does not actually add anything to its value.

Nor should we go about acquiring things we regard as valuable, and always be trembling for rear of losing them because they are valuable, and yet, while we have them, neglect and think little of them. We should use them constantly for our pleasure and enjoy them, so that we may bear their loss, if that happens, with more equanimity. Most people, however, as Arcesilaus said, think they must be looking closely and in every detail at other people's poems and paintings and statues, studying them with the eyes of the body and the mind, but never glance at their own lives, which contain much to give them joy. They are forever gazing abroad and admiring other people's reputations and fortunes, as adulterers admire other men's wives and despise their own. But it is a great help towards peace of mind to look for the most part at home and at things around us, or if not, to turn our thoughts to people worse off than ourselves and not, as many do, compare ourselves only with those who are better off. As for example, men in chains think their fellows are happy who are released, and released prisoners think freemen are, and freemen citizens, and citizens the rich, and the rich satraps, and satraps kings, and kings the gods, for by then they want to hurl thunderbolts and flash lightning. So always yearning for something above them, men are never thankful for what they have. But one whose mind thinks of a whole does not sit down despondent and miserable if he is less renowned or less rich than some of the myriads of humankind the sun looks down upon, who feed on the fruits of the whole world [Simonides], but goes on his way singing praises of his divinity and his life, because it is in so many ways fairer than that of countless thousands.

Whenever, then, you are brimful of admiration for someone carried by in his litter, who seems a greater man than yourself, lower your eyes and look at his bearers. And when you think, as the man from Hellespont did, that Xerxes was a marvel for crossing the straits on his bridge of boats, look at the men who dug through Mount Arthos under the lash, and at those whose ears were cut off because the bridge was broken by the waves. Consider their state of mind too, how they think your life and your position marvelous. When Socrates heard one of his friends saying how expensive Athens was, how Chian wine costs a mina, a purple robe three minas, a half pint of honey five drachmas, he took him to the bread shops. Half a peck of barley meal for an obol? Athens is cheap! Then to the vest maker. A sleeveless vest for only ten drachmas? Athens is cheap! So when we hear anyone saying of us that we live in a small way and are terribly unfortunate because we are not consuls or governors, we may answer, We live in a grand way and our lot is enviable. We do not beg, we bear no heavy burdens, we toady to no one.

But since in our folly we are accustomed to living more with an eye to other people than to ourselves, and human nature is so jealous and covetous that it rejoices less in its own blessings than it is pained by those of others, do not only look at the much-vaunted splendor of the men you envy and admire, but open and draw, as it were, the gaudy curtain of their pomp and show and step inside. You will see that they have much to vex and distress them. The well-known Pittacus renowned for his fortitude, wisdom and justice, was once entertaining some guests, when his wife came in in a rage and upset the table. The guests were in consternation, but he said, Every one of you has some trouble, and he who only has mine is very well off. There are many such cases, unknown to the public, among the rich and the famous and even among kings, for pride throws a veil over them.

O happy son of Atreus, child of fate, blest is thy lot.
[Homer, Iliad]

Congratulations like this come from outside, through a halo of arms and horses and war, but the inward voice of suffering testifies against such vainglory.

A heavy doom is laid on me by Zeus, the son of Cronos.
[Homer, Iliad]

By reflections like these one may wean oneself from the discontent with one's own lot and the belittlement and disparagement of one's own possessions which come from too much admiring one's neighbor.

Another thing which is a serious hindrance to our peace of mind is failure to proportion our desires to our means, and spread of too much sail, as it were, in hopes of great things. Then, when unsuccessful, we blame Heaven and Fortune and not our own folly. For a man is not unfortunate who tries to shoot an arrow with a plow, or to hunt a hare with an ox, nor has he an evil spirit opposing him if he fails to catch deer with fishing nets and seines, but in his silly stupidity he has attempted the impossible. Self-love is mainly to blame, making people desire to be first, ambitious in all they do, and insatiably eager to snatch hold of everything. They want no only to be rich and learned and strong and convivial and attractive, and friends of kings and governors of cities, all at the same time, but they are dissatisfied if their dogs and horses and quails and cocks are not the finest and the best. Dionysus the Elder was not content with being the most powerful tyrant of his time, but because he could not sing better than Philoxenus the poet, or beat Plato in dialectics, he was so angry and exasperated that he sent theone to labor in his stone quarries, and the other as a slave to Aegina. Yet even among the gods one has one function and another another. One is called the god of war, another the god of prophecy, another the god of wealth, and Aphrodite, since she takes no part in feats of war, is dispatched by Zeus to marriages and bridals.

There are some pursuits which cannot be carried on together, but are by their very nature exclusive of one another. For instance, training in oratory and the study of mathematics require time and leisure, whereas political influence and the friendship of kings are not won without activity in public affairs and constant work. Wine and much eating of meat make the body strong and vigorous, but blunt the intellect. Continuous attention to the making and saving of money increases one's wealth, but disdain and scorn of riches are a great help to philosophy. All things, therefore, are not in everyone's power, and we should heed the maxim inscribed in Apollo's temple, Know thyself, and act so as to carry out our natural bent, and not let ambition drag us and force our nature into some other kind of life.

He who chafes and frets because he is not at the same time a lion reared on the mountains, exulting in his strength [Homer, Odyssey], and a little Maltese dog cherished in the lap of a rich widow, is out of his senses. Not a bit wiser is the man who would like to be an Empedocles, or a Plato, or a Democritus, writing about the universe and the true nature of things, at the same time married like Euphorion to a rich old woman, and to revel and drink like Medius with Alexander, and who is sore and hurt if he is not also admired for his wealth, like Ismenias, and for his valor like Epaminodes. Yet runners in a race are not upset because they do not carry off the wrestlers'crowns, but are delighted with their own.

Men who have such respect for their own walk of life will not be envious of their neighbors'. We do not nowadays expect a vine to bear figs nor an olive grapes, yet if we have not at one and the same time the distinction of being both rich and learned, both generals and philosophers, both flatterers and outspoken, both thrifty and extravagant, we blame and scold and despise ourselves for living a maimed and imperfect life. We see, however, that nature teaches us the same lesson. She has provided that different animals eat different kinds of food, and has not made all carnivorous or seed-gatherers or root-diggers. So too she has given to humankind various means of getting a livelihood, one by keeping sheep, another by plowing, another by fowling, while another is fed from the sea. [Pindar, Isthmian Odes] We ought therefore to select the calling appropriate for ourselves and work hard at it, and leave other people to theirs.

Every man has in himself stores of content and discontent, and the jars containing blessings and evils do not stand on the threshold of Zeus, but are here in our own minds, as may be seen from the differences in our attitudes. For foolish men overlook and disregard their present blessings, because their thoughts are always intent on the future, but the wise keep the past clearly in mind through memory. To foolish people the present, which allows us but the briefest instant to touch it and then slips from our grasp, does not seem to be ours or belong to us at all. Like the rope-maker depicted in Hades who permits an ass to eat up his rope as fast as he plaits it, so with most people, a stupid and ungrateful forgetfulness has possession of them, and wipes from their minds every past accomplishment, success, pleasant holiday, piece of good luck or happiness, breaking the unity of life, which comes from weaving of the past into the present. For by separating yesterday from today, as if it were something different, and tomorrow, likewise, as if it were not the same as today, it soon makes what is now happening into what has never taken place, by not recalling it. Those in the schools who deny the growth of bodies on grounds of the continual flux of substance, make each of us in theory different from himself, and, therefore, a different man. So those who do not keep or store in memory things that are past, but let them float away, actually leave themselves vacant and empty daily, while they cling to tomorrow, as if what happened last year or day before yesterday mattered nothing to them, or had not happened to them at all..

This habit, then, is one interference with peace of mind, and another still worse is the way in which, like flies that slide down the smooth surface in mirrors, and stick fast in rough spots and cracks, men glide over the cheerful and agreeable things in their lives, and snarl themselves up in memories of unpleasant things. As Euripides says,

There may no separate good and ill be here,
But only mixture of the two, and rightly.

And we ought not to be disenheartened or despondent at what is wrong, but, like musicians who always elide over their worse playing with their better and drown what is poor in what is excellent, we should make our checkered life into something harmonious and congenial to us.

At our birth...

we received the mingled seeds of every experience and for that reason lead lives that are very uneven. The sensible man prays for good things, but expects the contrary, and makes the most of either, avoiding too much of anything. For we may not only admire but imitate the attitude of Anaxagoras, which made him exclaim at the death of his son, I knew I had begotten a mortal. We may apply it too to every contingency. I know that my wealth is ephemeral and insecure. I know that those who gave me my office can take it away. I know that my wife is good but still a woman, and that my friend is only a man.

An animal is by its nature changeable, as Plato said [Letters]. For such a prepared frame of mind, if anything desirable happens, it is not unexpected. It does not meet trouble with I would not have thought it! or I was looking for something different! or This I was not expecting! It stops the throbbings and palpitations of the heart, and puts a prompt quietus on anything frantic or hysterical.

Carneades [the founder of the New Academy at Athens] suggests that in time of great calamities the thing that produces shock and despair is wholly and entirely the unexpected. The poet [Homer, Odyssey] has shown us graphically how powerful may be something unexpected. For Odysseus broke into tears when his old dog wagged his tail, but was nothing so moved when he sat by his weeping wife, for to her he had come with his emotions under control of his reason and fully prepared, whereas he had not expected the dog and came on him suddenly, without looking for him.

As for the things which seem to pain us by their very nature, such as sickness, anxieties, and the deaths of friends and children, there is that line of Euripides,

Alas--yet why alas? We but suffer what comest to mortals. [Bellerophon]

And no reasoning is of such help, when sorrow suddenly descends on us, as that which reminds uf of the common and natural neccesity to which man through his body is exposed. But that is the only handle he gives to fate, since in the chief and most important things he stands secure. For fortune can afflict us with disease, take away our money, caluminate us to the people of the tyrant, but it cannot make a good and brave and high-souled man bad and cowardly and ignoble and malicious, nor deprive him of the disposition which, as long as he keeps it, is of more value to him in the conduct of his life than is a pilot to a ship at sea. For a pilot cannot calm the wild wind and wave, nor can he in his need find a harbor wherever he wants it, nor can he await events boldly, without trembling, though as long as he has not despaired, he uses his skill,

Scudding on with his great sail lowered to the shorter mast,
Above a sea as dark as Erebus.
[Homer, Odyssey]

and while it still rises above the billows, he sits there shivering and quaking, But a wise man's mind keeps him calm, for the most part, even in the face of bodily ailments, for he cuts out the causes of disease by his temperance and sober living and labor in moderation, and if some trouble starts to appear from outside, he sails around it as though it were a rock. Prompt to act he passes by it with nimble helm, as Asclepiades puts it. And if some unexpected and tremendous gale sweeps down on him and proves too much for him, the harbor is near, and he can swim away from his body, as from a leaky boat.

For it is fear of death, and not desire of life, that makes the foolish man hang on to his body, clinging to it, as Odysseus did to the fig-tree in terror of Charybdis that lay below.

Where the wind neither let him stay nor sail on,

and he was indignant at one, and afraid of the other. But a man who has some understanding of the nature of the soul, and who reflects that the change it undergoes at death is either to something better or at least to nothing worse, has in his fearlessness of death a great help to peace of mind in life.

He who said, I have anticipated you, O fortune, and shut off every way by which you can creep in on me, was not trusting to bolts or keys or walls, but to convictions and reasons which are within grasp of all who want them. Nor should we despair or disbelieve those who tell us these things, but admire and emulate them and be inspired by them, and observe and test ourselves in trivial matters with a view to those that are serious. We should not avoid or refuse that self-examination, or try to evade it by saying, Nothing probably can be more difficult. An unexercised inertia and softness are the results of that spirit of self-indulgence which occupies itself always with the easier task, and sheers away from the disagreeable to what is pleasant. But the soul that is compelled by reason to train itself to face steadily sickness and grief and exile will find in what appears hard and dreadful much that is deceitful and empty and hollow, as reason will show in each case.

Yet many may shudder at that line of Menander,

No man can say, "I shall not suffer that,"

for anyone can say, I will not do that. I will not lie. I will not be a sluggard. I will not cheat. I will not be a schemer. And that which is in our power is not a small but a great aid to peace of mind. So, on the contrary,

The consciousness that I have done terrible deeds,

is like a sore in the flesh, leaves in the mind a regret which is forever wounding and piercing it. Neither a costly house, nor a heap of gold, nor pride of race, nor high office, nor charm nor eloquence of speech, make life so peaceful and serene as a soul pure of evil acts and desires, having as its spring of life a nature steadfast and undefiled. From it flow noble deeds, bringing with them an inspired and joyful energy, together with loftiness of thought and a memory sweeter and more lasting than the hope which Pindar says is the support of age.

I am much taken with Diogenes' remark to the stranger whom he saw at Sparta dressing himself ostentatiously for a feast, Does not a good man think of every day as a feast? And a very splendid feast, if we see it rightly. For the world is a most holy and divinely beautiful a temple, into which man is introduced at his birth, not to behold motionless images made by hands, but things which the minds of the gods have prepared as visible copies of things of the mind, as Plato says, and which have innate in them the principle of life and motion--sun, moon, and stars, and rivers gushing fresh waters, and the earth the sustainer of plants and animals. Life is an initiation into all these things, and as the most revealing of initiations it should be full of peacefulness and delight.

But men shame the festivals which the gods have provided for us and the mysteries to which they lead us and pass their time chiefly in lamentation and heaviness of heart and carking cares. They will not listen when other men call on them with reasoning that would enable them to endure the present without repining, remember the past with gratitude, and go forward to the future fearlessly and without suspicion, in glad and radiant hope.

--Translated from the Greek by Louise Ropes Loomis