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An essay by Plutarch

On Contentedness Of Mind

Title:     On Contentedness Of Mind
Author: Plutarch [More Titles by Plutarch]

On Contentedness of Mind.[711]


Sec. I. It was late when I received your letter, asking me to write to you something on contentedness of mind, and on those things in the Timaeus that require an accurate explanation. And it so fell out that at that very time our friend Eros was obliged to set sail at once for Rome, having received a letter from the excellent Fundanus, urging haste according to his wont. And not having as much time as I could have wished to meet your request, and yet not thinking for one moment of letting my messenger go to you entirely empty-handed, I copied out the notes that I had chanced to make on contentedness of mind. For I thought that you did not desire this discourse merely to be treated to a subject handled in fine style, but for the real business of life. And I congratulate you that, though you have friendships with princes, and have as much forensic reputation as anybody, yet you are not in the same plight as the tragic Merops, nor have you like him by the felicitations of the multitude been induced to forget the sufferings of humanity; but you remember, what you have often heard, that a patrician's slipper[712] is no cure for the gout, nor a costly ring for a whitlow, nor a diadem for the headache. For how can riches, or fame, or power at court help us to ease of mind or a calm life, unless we enjoy them when present, but are not for ever pining after them when absent? And what else causes this but the long exercise and practice of reason, which, when the unreasoning and emotional part of the soul breaks out of bounds, curbs it quickly, and does not allow it to be carried away headlong from its actual position? And as Xenophon[713] advised that we should remember and honour the gods most especially in prosperity, that so, when we should be in any strait, we might confidently call upon them as already our well-wishers and friends; so sensible men would do well before trouble comes to meditate on remedies how to bear it, that they may be the more efficacious from being ready for use long before. For as savage dogs are excited at every sound, and are only soothed by a familiar voice, so also it is not easy to quiet the wild passions of the soul, unless familiar and well-known arguments be at hand to check its excitement.

Sec. II. He then that said, that the man that wished to have an easy mind ought to have little to do either public or private, first of all makes ease of mind a very costly article for us, if it is to be bought at the price of doing nothing, as if he should advise every sick person,

"Lie still, poor wretch, in bed."[714]
And indeed stupor is a bad remedy for the body against despair,[715] nor is he any better physician of the soul who removes its trouble and anxiety by recommending a lazy and soft life and a leaving our friends and relations and country in the lurch. In the next place, it is false that those that have little to do are easy in mind. For then women would be easier in mind than men, since they mostly stay at home in inactivity, and even now-a-days it is as Hesiod says,[716]
"The North Wind comes not near a soft-skinned maiden;"
yet griefs and troubles and unrest, proceeding from jealousy or superstition or ambition or vanity, inundate the women's part of the house with unceasing flow. And Laertes, though he lived for twenty years a solitary life in the country,

"With an old woman to attend on him,
Who duly set on board his meat and drink,"[717]

and fled from his country and house and kingdom, yet had sorrow and dejection[718] as a perpetual companion with leisure. And some have been often thrown into sad unrest merely from inaction, as the following,

"But fleet Achilles, Zeus-sprung, son of Peleus,
Sat by the swiftly-sailing ships and fumed,
Nor ever did frequent th' ennobling council,
Nor ever join the war, but pined in heart,
Though in his tent abiding, for the fray."[719]

And full of emotion and distress at this state of things he himself says,

"A useless burden to the earth I sit
Beside the ships."[720]

So even Epicurus thinks that those who are desirous of honour and glory should not rust in inglorious ease, but use their natural talents in public life for the benefit of the community at large, seeing that they are by nature so constituted that they would be more likely to be troubled and afflicted at inaction, if they did not get what they desired. But he is absurd in that he does not urge men of ability to take part in public life, but only the restless. But we ought not to estimate ease or unrest of mind by our many or few actions, but by their fairness or foulness. For the omission of fair actions troubles and distresses us, as I have said before, quite as much as the actual doing of foul actions.

Sec. III. As for those who think that one kind of life is especially free from trouble, as some think that of farmers, others that of bachelors, others that of kings, Menander sufficiently exposes their error in the following lines:

"Phania, I thought those rich who need not borrow,
Nor groan at nights, nor cry out 'Woe is me,'
Kicked up and down in this untoward world,
But sweet and gentle sleep they may enjoy."

He then goes on to remark that he saw the rich suffering the same as the poor,

"Trouble and life are truly near akin.
With the luxurious or the glorious life
Trouble consorts, and in the life of poverty
Lasts with it to the end."

But just as people on the sea, timid and prone to sea-sickness, think they will suffer from it less on board a merchantman than on a boat, and for the same reason shift their quarters to a trireme, but do not attain anything by these changes, for they take with them their timidity and qualmishness, so changes of life do not remove the sorrows and troubles of the soul; which proceed from want of experience and reflection, and from inability or ignorance rightly to enjoy the present. These afflict the rich as well as the poor; these trouble the married as well as the unmarried; these make people shun the forum, but find no happiness in retirement; these make people eagerly desire introductions at court, though when got they straightway care no more about them.

"The sick are peevish in their straits and needs."[721]
For the wife bothers them, and they grumble at the doctor, and they find the bed uneasy, and, as Ion says,

"The friend that visits them tires their patience,
And yet they do not like him to depart."

But afterwards, when the illness is over, and a sounder condition supervenes, health returns and makes all things pleasant and acceptable. He that yesterday loathed eggs and cakes of finest meal and purest bread will to-day eat eagerly and with appetite coarsest bread with a few olives and cress.

Sec. IV. Such contentedness and change of view in regard to every kind of life does the infusion of reason bring about. When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept, and when his friends asked him what was the matter, he replied, "Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?" But Crates, who had only a wallet and threadbare cloak, passed all his life jesting and laughing as if at a festival. Agamemnon was troubled with his rule over so many subjects,

"You look on Agamemnon, Atreus' son,
Whom Zeus has plunged for ever in a mass
Of never-ending cares."[722]

But Diogenes when he was being sold sat down and kept jeering at the auctioneer, and would not stand up when he bade him, but said joking and laughing, "Would you tell a fish you were selling to stand up?" And Socrates in prison played the philosopher and discoursed with his friends. But Phaeethon,[723] when he got up to heaven, wept because nobody gave to him his father's horses and chariot. As therefore the shoe is shaped by the foot, and not the foot by the shoe, so does the disposition make the life similar to itself. For it is not, as one said, custom that makes the best life seem sweet to those that choose it, but it is sense that makes that very life at once the best and sweetest. Let us cleanse therefore the fountain of contentedness, which is within us, that so external things may turn out for our good, through our putting the best face on them.

"Events will take their course, it is no good
Our being angry at them, he is happiest
Who wisely turns them to the best account."[724]

Sec. V. Plato compared human life to a game at dice, wherein we ought to throw according to our requirements, and, having thrown, to make the best use of whatever turns up. It is not in our power indeed to determine what the throw will be, but it is our part, if we are wise, to accept in a right spirit whatever fortune sends, and so to contrive matters that what we wish should do us most good, and what we do not wish should do us least harm. For those who live at random and without judgement, like those sickly people who can stand neither heat nor cold, are unduly elated by prosperity, and cast down by adversity; and in either case suffer from unrest, but 'tis their own fault, and perhaps they suffer most in what are called good circumstances. Theodorus, who was surnamed the Atheist, used to say that he held out arguments with his right hand, but his hearers received them with their left; so awkward people frequently take in a clumsy manner the favours of fortune; but men of sense, as bees extract honey from thyme which is the strongest and driest of herbs,[725] so from the least auspicious circumstances frequently derive advantage and profit.

Sec. VI. We ought then to cultivate such a habit as this, like the man who threw a stone at his dog, and missed it, but hit his step-mother, and cried out, "Not so bad." Thus we may often turn the edge of fortune when things turn not out as we wish. Diogenes was driven into exile; "not so bad;" for his exile made him turn philosopher. And Zeno of Cittium,[726] when he heard that the only merchantman he had was wrecked, cargo and all, said, "Fortune, you treat me handsomely, since you reduce me to my threadbare cloak and piazza."[727] What prevents our imitating such men as these? Have you failed to get some office? You will be able to live in the country henceforth, and manage your own affairs. Did you court the friendship of some great man, and meet with a rebuff? You will live free from danger and cares. Have you again had matters to deal with that required labour and thought? "Warm water will not so much make the limbs soft by soaking," to quote Pindar,[728] as glory and honour and power make "labour sweet, and toil to be no toil."[729] Or has any bad luck or contumely fallen on you in consequence of some calumny or from envy? The breeze is favourable that will waft you to the Muses and the Academy, as it did Plato when his friendship with Dionysius came to an end. It does indeed greatly conduce to contentedness of mind to see how famous men have borne the same troubles with an unruffled mind. For example, does childlessness trouble you? Consider those kings of the Romans, none of whom left his kingdom to a son. Are you distressed at the pinch of poverty? Who of the Boeotians would you rather prefer to be than Epaminondas, or of the Romans than Fabricius? Has your wife been seduced? Have you never read that inscription at Delphi,

"Agis the king of land and sea erected me;"
and have you not heard that his wife Timaea was seduced by Alcibiades, and in her whispers to her handmaidens called the child that was born Alcibiades? Yet this did not prevent Agis from being the most famous and greatest of the Greeks. Neither again did the licentiousness of his daughter prevent Stilpo from leading the merriest life of all the philosophers that were his contemporaries. And when Metrocles reproached him with her life, he said, "Is it my fault or hers?" And when Metrocles answered, "Her fault, but your misfortune," he rejoined, "How say you? Are not faults also slips?" "Certainly," said he. "And are not slips mischances in those matters wherein we slip?" Metrocles assented. "And are not mischances misfortunes in those matters wherein we mischance?" By this gentle and philosophical argument he demonstrated the Cynic's reproach to be an idle bark.

Sec. VII. But most people are troubled and exasperated not only at the bad in their friends and intimates, but also in their enemies. For railing and anger and envy and malignity and jealousy and ill-will are the bane of those that suffer from those infirmities, and trouble and exasperate the foolish: as for example the quarrels of neighbours, and peevishness of acquaintances, and the want of ability in those that manage state affairs. By these things you yourself seem to me to be put out not a little, as the doctors in Sophocles, who

"With bitter physic purge the bitter bile,"[730]
so vexed and bitter are you at people's weaknesses and infirmities, which is not reasonable in you. Even your own private affairs are not always managed by simple and good and suitable instruments, so to speak, but very frequently by sharp and crooked ones. Do not think it then either your business, or an easy matter either, to set all these things to rights. But if you take people as they are, as the surgeon uses his bandages and instruments for drawing teeth, and with cheerfulness and serenity welcome all that happens, as you would look upon barking dogs as only following their nature, you will be happier in the disposition you will then have than you will be distressed at other people's disagreeableness and shortcomings. For you will forget to make a collection of disagreeable things,[731] which now inundate, as some hollow and low-lying ground, your littleness of mind and weakness, which fills itself with other people's bad points. For seeing that some of the philosophers censure compassion to the unfortunate (on the ground that it is good to help our neighbours, and not to give way to sentimental sympathy in connection with them), and, what is of more importance, do not allow those that are conscious of their errors and bad moral disposition to be dejected and grieved at them, but bid them cure their defects without grief at once, is it not altogether unreasonable, look you, to allow ourselves to be peevish and vexed, because all those who have dealings with us and come near us are not good and clever? Let us see to it, dear Paccius, that we do not, whether we are aware of it or not, play a part, really looking[732] not at the universal defects of those that approach us, but at our own interests through our selfishness, and not through our hatred of evil. For excessive excitement about things, and an undue appetite and desire for them, or on the other hand aversion and dislike to them, engender suspiciousness and peevishness against persons, who were, we think, the cause of our being deprived of some things, and of being troubled with others. But he that is accustomed to adapt himself to things easily and calmly is most cheerful and gentle in his dealings with people.

Sec. VIII. Wherefore let us resume our argument. As in a fever everything seems bitter and unpleasant to the taste, but when we see others not loathing but fancying the very same eatables and drinkables, we no longer find the fault to be in them but in ourselves and our disease, so we shall cease to blame and be discontented with the state of affairs, if we see others cheerfully and without grief enduring the same. It also makes for contentedness, when things happen against our wish, not to overlook our many advantages and comforts, but by looking at both good and bad to feel that the good preponderate. When our eyes are dazzled with things too bright we turn them away, and ease them by looking at flowers or grass, while we keep the eyes of our mind strained on disagreeable things, and force them to dwell on bitter ideas, well-nigh tearing them away by force from the consideration of pleasanter things. And yet one might apply here, not unaptly, what was said to the man of curiosity,[733]

"Malignant wretch, why art so keen to mark
Thy neighbour's fault, and seest not thine own?"

Why on earth, my good sir, do you confine your view to your troubles, making them so vivid and acute, while you do not let your mind dwell at all on your present comforts? But as cupping-glasses draw the worst blood from the flesh, so you force upon your attention the worst things in your lot: acting not a whit more wisely than that Chian, who, selling much choice wine to others, asked for some sour wine for his own supper; and one of his slaves being asked by another, what he had left his master doing, replied, "Asking for bad when good was by." For most people overlook the advantages and pleasures of their individual lives, and run to their difficulties and grievances. Aristippus, however, was not such a one, for he cleverly knew as in a scale to make the better preponderate over the worse. So having lost a good farm, he asked one of those who made a great show of condolence and sympathy, "Have you not only one little piece of ground, while I have three fields left?" And when he admitted that it was so, he went on to say, "Ought I not then to condole with you rather than you with me?" For it is the act of a madman to distress oneself over what is lost, and not to rejoice at what is left; but like little children, if one of their many playthings be taken away by anyone, throw the rest away and weep and cry out, so we, if we are assailed by fortune in some one point, wail and mourn and make all other things seem unprofitable in our eyes.

Sec. IX. Suppose someone should say, What blessings have we? I would reply, What have we not? One has reputation, another a house, another a wife, another a good friend. When Antipater of Tarsus was reckoning up on his death-bed his various pieces of good fortune, he did not even pass over his favourable voyage from Cilicia to Athens. So we should not overlook, but take account of everyday blessings, and rejoice that we live, and are well, and see the sun, and that no war or sedition plagues our country, but that the earth is open to cultivation, the sea secure to mariners, and that we can speak or be silent, lead a busy or an idle life, as we choose. We shall get more contentedness from the presence of all these blessings, if we fancy them as absent, and remember from time to time how people ill yearn for health, and people in war for peace, and strangers and unknown in a great city for reputation and friends, and how painful it is to be deprived of all these when one has once had them. For then each of these blessings will not appear to us only great and valuable when it is lost, and of no value while we have it. For not having it cannot add value to anything. Nor ought we to amass things we regard as valuable, and always be on the tremble and afraid of losing them as valuable things, and yet, when we have them, ignore them and think little of them; but we ought to use them for our pleasure and enjoyment, that we may bear their loss, if that should happen, with more equanimity. But most people, as Arcesilaus said, think it right to inspect minutely and in every detail, perusing them alike with the eyes of the body and mind, other people's poems and paintings and statues, while they neglect to study their own lives, which have often many not unpleasing subjects for contemplation, looking abroad and ever admiring other people's reputations and fortunes, as adulterers admire other men's wives, and think cheap of their own.

Sec. X. And yet it makes much for contentedness of mind to look for the most part at home and to our own condition, or if not, to look at the case of people worse off than ourselves, and not, as most people do, to compare ourselves with those who are better off. For example, those who are in chains think those happy who are freed from their chains, and they again freemen, and freemen citizens, and they again the rich, and the rich satraps, and satraps kings, and kings the gods, content with hardly anything short of hurling thunderbolts and lightning. And so they ever want something above them, and are never thankful for what they have.

"I care not for the wealth of golden Gyges,"


"I never had or envy or desire
To be a god, or love for mighty empire,
Far distant from my eyes are all such things."

But this, you will say, was the language of a Thasian. But you will find others, Chians or Galatians or Bithynians, not content with the share of glory or power they have among their fellow-citizens, but weeping because they do not wear senators' shoes; or, if they have them, that they cannot be praetors at Rome; or, if they get that office, that they are not consuls; or, if they are consuls, that they are only proclaimed second and not first. What is all this but seeking out excuses for being unthankful to fortune, only to torment and punish oneself? But he that has a mind in sound condition, does not sit down in sorrow and dejection if he is less renowned or rich than some of the countless myriads of mankind that the sun looks upon, "who feed on the produce of the wide world,"[734] but goes on his way rejoicing at his fortune and life, as far fairer and happier than that of myriads of others. In the Olympian games it is not possible to be the victor by choosing one's competitors. But in the race of life circumstances allow us to plume ourselves on surpassing many, and to be objects of envy rather than to have to envy others, unless we pit ourselves against a Briareus or a Hercules. Whenever then you admire anyone carried by in his litter as a greater man than yourself, lower your eyes and look at those that bear the litter. And when you think the famous Xerxes happy for his passage over the Hellespont, as a native of those parts[735] did, look too at those who dug through Mount Athos under the lash, and at those whose ears and noses were cut off because the bridge was broken by the waves, consider their state of mind also, for they think your life and fortunes happy. Socrates, when he heard one of his friends saying, "How dear this city is! Chian wine costs one mina,[736] a purple robe three, and half a pint of honey five drachmae," took him to the meal market, and showed him half a peck of meal for an obol, then took him to the olive market, and showed him a peck of olives for two coppers, and lastly showed him that a sleeveless vest[737] was only ten drachmae. At each place Socrates' friend exclaimed, "How cheap this city is!" So also we, when we hear anyone saying that our affairs are bad and in a woful plight, because we are not consuls or governors, may reply, "Our affairs are in an admirable condition, and our life an enviable one, seeing that we do not beg, nor carry burdens, nor live by flattery."

Sec. XI. But since through our folly we are accustomed to live more with an eye to others than ourselves, and since nature is so jealous and envious that it rejoices not so much in its own blessings as it is pained by those of others, do not look only at the much-cried-up splendour of those whom you envy and admire, but open and draw, as it were, the gaudy curtain of their pomp and show, and peep within, you will see that they have much to trouble them, and many things to annoy them. The well-known Pittacus,[738] whose fame was so great for fortitude and wisdom and uprightness, was once entertaining some guests, and his wife came in in a rage and upset the table, and as the guests were dismayed he said, Every one of you has some trouble, and he who has mine only is not so bad off.

"Happy is he accounted at the forum,
But when he opens the door of his own house
Thrice miserable; for his wife rules all,
Still lords it over him, and is ever quarrelling.
Many griefs has he that I wot not of."

Many such cases are there, unknown to the public, for family pride casts a veil over them, to be found in wealth and glory and even in royalty.

"O happy son of Atreus, child of destiny,
Blessed thy lot;"[739]

congratulation like this comes from an external view, from a halo of arms and horses and the pomp of war, but the inward voice of emotion testifies against all this vain glory;

"A heavy fate is laid on me by Zeus
The son of Cronos."[740]


"Old man, I think your lot one to be envied,
As that of any man who free from danger
Passes his life unknown and in obscurity."[741]

By such reflections as these one may wean oneself from that discontent with one's fortune, which makes one's own condition look low and mean from too much admiring one's neighbour's.

Sec. XII. Another thing, which is a great hindrance to peace of mind, is not to proportion our desires to our means, but to carry too much sail, as it were, in our hopes of great things and then, if unsuccessful, to blame destiny and fortune, and not our own folly. For he is not unfortunate who wishes to shoot with a plough, or hunt the hare with an ox; nor has he an evil genius opposed to him, who does not catch deer with fishing nets, but merely is the dupe of his own stupidity and folly in attempting impossibilities. Self-love is mainly to blame, making people fond of being first and aspiring in all matters, and insatiably desirous to engage in everything. For people not only wish at one and the same time to be rich, and learned, and strong, and boon-companions, and agreeable, and friends of kings, and governors of cities, but they are also discontented if they have not dogs and horses and quails and cocks of the first quality. Dionysius the elder was not content with being the most powerful monarch of his times, but because he could not beat Philoxenus the poet in singing, or surpass Plato in dialectics, was so angry and exasperated that he put the one to work in his stone quarries, and sent the other to AEgina and sold him there. Alexander was of a different spirit, for when Crisso the famous runner ran a race with him, and seemed to let the king outrun him on purpose, he was greatly displeased. Good also was the spirit of Achilles in Homer, who, when he said,

"None of the Achaean warriors is a match
For me in war,"


"Yet in the council hall
Others there are who better are than me."[742]

And when Megabyzus the Persian visited the studio of Apelles, and began to chatter about art, Apelles stopped him and said, "While you kept silence you seemed to be somebody from your gold and purple, but now these lads that are grinding colours are laughing at your nonsense." But some who think the Stoics only talk idly, in styling their wise man not only prudent and just and brave but also orator and general and poet and rich man and king, yet claim for themselves all those titles, and are indignant if they do not get them. And yet even among the gods different functions are assigned to different personages; thus one is called the god of war, another the god of oracles, another the god of gain, and Aphrodite, as she has nothing to do with warlike affairs, is despatched by Zeus to marriages and bridals.

Sec. XIII. And indeed there are some pursuits which cannot exist together, but are by their very nature opposed. For example oratory and the study of the mathematics require ease and leisure; whereas political ability and the friendship of kings cannot be attained without mixing in affairs and in public life. Moreover wine and indulgence in meat make the body indeed strong and vigorous, but blunt the intellect; and though unremitting attention to making and saving money will heap up wealth, yet despising and contemning riches is a great help to philosophy. So that all things are not within any one's power, and we must obey that saying inscribed in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Know thyself,[743] and adapt ourselves to our natural bent, and not drag and force nature to some other kind of life or pursuit. "The horse to the chariot, and the ox to the plough, and swiftly alongside the ship scuds the dolphin, while he that meditates destruction for the boar must find a staunch hound."[744] But he that chafes and is grieved that he is not at one and the same time "a lion reared on the mountains, exulting in his strength,"[745] and a little Maltese lap-dog[746] reared in the lap of a rich widow, is out of his senses. And not a whit wiser is he who wishes to be an Empedocles, or Plato, or Democritus, and write about the world and the real nature of things, and at the same time to be married like Euphorion to a rich wife, or to revel and drink with Alexander like Medius; and is grieved and vexed if he is not also admired for his wealth like Ismenias, and for his virtue like Epaminondas. But runners are not discontented because they do not carry off the crowns of wrestlers, but rejoice and delight in their own crowns. "You are a citizen of Sparta: see you make the most of her." So too said Solon:

"We will not change our virtue for their wealth,
For virtue never dies, but wealth has wings,
And flies about from one man to another."

And Strato the natural philosopher, when he heard that Menedemus had many more pupils than he had, said, "Is it wonderful at all that more wish to wash than to be anointed?" And Aristotle, writing to Antipater, said, "Not only has Alexander a right to plume himself on his rule over many subjects, but no less legitimate is satisfaction at entertaining right opinions about the gods." For those that think so highly of their own walk in life will not be so envious about their neighbours'. We do not expect a vine to bear figs, nor an olive grapes, yet now-a-days, with regard to ourselves, if we have not at one and the same time the privilege of being accounted rich and learned, generals and philosophers, flatterers and outspoken, stingy and extravagant, we slander ourselves and are dissatisfied, and despise ourselves as living a maimed and imperfect life. Furthermore, we see that nature teaches us the same lesson.[747] For as she provides different kinds of beasts with different kinds of food, and has not made all carnivorous, or seed-pickers, or root-diggers, so she has given to mankind various means of getting a livelihood, "one by keeping sheep, another by ploughing, another by fowling,"[748] and another by catching the fish of the sea. We ought each therefore to select the calling appropriate for ourselves and labour energetically in it, and leave other people to theirs, and not demonstrate Hesiod as coming short of the real state of things when he said,

"Potter is wroth with potter, smith with smith."[749]
For not only do people envy those of the same trade and manner of life, but the rich envy the learned, and the famous the rich, and advocates sophists, aye, and freemen and patricians admire and think happy comedians starring it at the theatres, and dancers, and the attendants at kings' courts, and by all this envy give themselves no small trouble and annoyance.

Sec.XIV. But that every man has in himself the magazines of content or discontent, and that the jars containing blessings and evils are not on the threshold of Zeus,[750] but lie stored in the mind, is plain from the differences of men's passions. For the foolish overlook and neglect present blessings, through their thoughts being ever intent on the future; but the wise make the past clearly present to them through memory. For the present giving only a moment of time to the touch, and then evading our grasp, does not seem to the foolish to be ours or to belong to us at all. And like that person[751] painted as rope-making in Hades and permitting an ass feeding by to eat up the rope as fast as he makes it, so the stupid and thankless forgetfulness of most people comes upon them and takes possession of them, and obliterates from their mind every past action, whether success, or pleasant leisure, or society, or enjoyment, and breaks the unity of life which arises from the past being blended with the present; for detaching to-day from both yesterday and to-morrow, it soon makes every event as if it had never happened from lack of memory. For as those in the schools, who deny the growth of our bodies by reason of the continual flux of substance, make each of us in theory different from himself and another man, so those who do not keep or recall to their memory former things, but let them drift, actually empty themselves daily, and hang upon the morrow, as if what happened a year ago, or even yesterday and the day before yesterday, had nothing to do with them, and had hardly occurred at all.

Sec. XV. This is one great hindrance to contentedness of mind, and another still greater is whenever, like flies that slide down smooth places in mirrors, but stick fast in rough places or where there are cracks, men let pleasant and agreeable things glide from their memory, and pin themselves down to the remembrance of unpleasant things; or rather, as at Olynthus they say beetles, when they get into a certain place called Destruction-to-beetles, cannot get out, but fly round and round till they die, so men will glide into the remembrance of their woes, and will not give themselves a respite from sorrow. But, as we use our brightest colours in a picture, so in the mind we ought to look at the cheerful and bright side of things, and hide and keep down the gloomy, for we cannot altogether obliterate or get rid of it. For, as the strings of the bow and lyre are alternately tightened and relaxed, so is it with the order of the world; in human affairs there is nothing pure and without alloy. But as in music there are high and low notes, and in grammar vowels and mutes, but neither the musician nor grammarian decline to use either kinds, but know how to blend and employ them both for their purpose, so in human affairs which are balanced one against another,--for, as Euripides says,

"There is no good without ill in the world,
But everything is mixed in due proportion,"--

we ought not to be disheartened or despondent; but as musicians drown their worst music with the best, so should we take good and bad together, and make our chequered life one of convenience and harmony. For it is not, as Menander says,

"Directly any man is born, a genius
Befriends him, a good guide to him for life,"

but it is rather, as Empedocles states, two fates or genii take hold of each of us when we are born and govern us. "There were Chthonia and far-seeing Heliope, and cruel Deris, and grave Harmonia, and Callisto, and AEschra, and Thoosa, and Denaea, and charming Nemertes, and Asaphea with the black fruit."

Sec. XVI. And as[752] at our birth we received the mingled seeds of each of these passions, which is the cause of much irregularity, the sensible person hopes for better things, but expects worse, and makes the most of either, remembering that wise maxim, Not too much of anything. For not only will he who is least solicitous about to-morrow best enjoy it when it comes, as Epicurus says, but also wealth, and renown, and power and rule, gladden most of all the hearts of those who are least afraid of the contrary. For the immoderate desire for each, implanting a most immoderate fear of losing them, makes the enjoyment of them weak and wavering, like a flame under the influence of a wind. But he whom reason enables to say to fortune without fear or trembling,

"If you bring any good I gladly welcome it,
But if you fail me little does it trouble me,"

he can enjoy the present with most zest through his confidence, and absence of fear of the loss of what he has, which would be unbearable. For we may not only admire but also imitate the behaviour of Anaxagoras, which made him cry out at the death of his son, "I knew I had begot a mortal," and apply it to every contingency. For example, "I know that wealth is ephemeral and insecure; I know that those who gave power can take it away again; I know that my wife is good, but still a woman; and that my friend, since a human being, is by nature a changeable animal, to use Plato's expression." For such a prepared frame of mind, if anything happens unwished for but not unexpected, not admitting of such phrases as "I shouldn't have dreamed of it," or "I expected quite a different lot," or "I didn't look for this," abates the violent[753] beatings and palpitations of the heart, and quickly causes wild unrest to subside. Carneades indeed reminds us that in great matters the unexpected makes the sum total of grief and dejection. Certainly the kingdom of Macedonia was many times smaller than the Roman Empire, but when Perseus lost Macedonia, he not only himself bewailed his wretched fate, but seemed to all men the most unfortunate and unlucky of mankind; yet AEmilius who conquered him, though he had to give up to another the command both by land and sea, yet was crowned, and offered sacrifice, and was justly esteemed happy. For he knew that he had taken a command which he would have to give up, but Perseus lost his kingdom without expecting it. Well also has the poet[754] shown the power of anything that happens unexpectedly. For Odysseus wept bitterly at the death of his dog, but was not so moved when he sat by his wife who wept, for in the latter case he had come fully determined to keep his emotion under the control of reason, whereas in the former it was against his expectation, and therefore fell upon him as a sudden blow.

Sec. XVII. And since generally speaking some things which happen against our will pain and trouble us by their very nature, while in the case of most we accustom ourselves and learn to be disgusted with them from fancy, it is not unprofitable to counteract this to have ever ready that line of Menander,

"You suffer no dread thing but in your fancy."
For what, if they touch you neither in soul nor body, are such things to you as the low birth of your father, or the adultery of your wife, or the loss of some prize or precedence, since even by their absence a man is not prevented from being in excellent condition both of body and soul. And with respect to the things that seem to pain us by their very nature, as sickness, and anxieties, and the deaths of friends and children, we should remember, that line of Euripides,

"Alas! and why alas? we only suffer
What mortals must expect."

For no argument has so much weight with emotion when it is borne down with grief, as that which reminds it of the common and natural necessity to which man is exposed owing to the body, the only handle which he gives to fortune, for in his most important and influential part[755] he is secure against external things. When Demetrius captured Megara, he asked Stilpo if any of his things had been plundered, and Stilpo answered, "I saw nobody carrying off anything of mine."[756] And so when fortune has plundered us and stripped us of everything else, we have that within ourselves

"Which the Achaeans ne'er could rob us of."[757]
So that we ought not altogether to abase and lower nature, as if she had no strength or stability against fortune; but on the contrary, knowing that the rotten and perishable part of man, wherein alone he lies open to fortune, is small, while we ourselves are masters of the better part, wherein are situated our greatest blessings, as good opinions and teaching and virtuous precepts, all which things cannot be abstracted from us or perish, we ought to look on the future with invincible courage, and say to fortune, as Socrates is supposed to have said to his accusers Anytus and Melitus before the jury, "Anytus and Melitus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me." For fortune can afflict us with disease, take away our money, calumniate us to the people or king, but cannot make a good and brave and high-souled man bad and cowardly and low and ignoble and envious, nor take away that disposition of mind, whose constant presence is of more use for the conduct of life than the presence of a pilot at sea. For the pilot cannot make calm the wild wave or wind, nor can he find a haven at his need wherever he wishes, nor can he await his fate with confidence and without trembling, but as long as he has not despaired, but uses his skill, he scuds before the gale, "lowering his big sail, till his lower mast is only just above the sea dark as Erebus," and sits at the helm trembling and quaking. But the disposition of a wise man gives calm even to the body, mostly cutting off the causes of diseases by temperance and plain living and moderate exercise; but if some beginning of trouble arise from without, as we avoid a sunken rock, so he passes by it with furled sail, as Asclepiades puts it; but if some unexpected and tremendous gale come upon him and prove too much for him, the harbour is at hand, and he can swim away from the body, as from a leaky boat.

Sec. XVIII. For it is the fear of death, and not the desire of life, that makes the foolish person to hang to the body, clinging to it, as Odysseus did to the fig-tree from fear of Charybdis that lay below,

"Where the wind neither let him stay, or sail,"
so that he was displeased at this, and afraid of that. But he who understands somehow or other the nature of the soul, and reflects that the change it will undergo at death will be either to something better or at least not worse, he has in his fearlessness of death no small help to ease of mind in life. For to one who can enjoy life when virtue and what is congenial to him have the upper hand, and that can fearlessly depart from life, when uncongenial and unnatural things are in the ascendant, with the words on his lips,
"The deity shall free me, when I will,"[758]
what can we imagine could befall such a man as this that would vex him and wear him and harass him? For he who said, "I have anticipated you, O fortune, and cut off all your loopholes to get at me," did not trust to bolts or keys or walls, but to determination and reason, which are within the power of all persons that choose. And we ought not to despair or disbelieve any of these sayings, but admiring them and emulating them and being enthusiastic about them, we ought to try and test ourselves in smaller matters with a view to greater, not avoiding or rejecting that self-examination, nor sheltering ourselves under the remark, "Perhaps nothing will be more difficult." For inertia[759] and softness are generated by that self-indulgence which ever occupies itself only with the easiest tasks, and flees from the disagreeable to what is most pleasant. But the soul that accustoms itself to face steadily sickness and grief and exile, and calls in reason to its help in each case, will find in what appears so sore and dreadful much that is false, empty, and rotten, as reason will show in each case.

Sec. XIX. And yet many shudder at that line of Menander,

"No one can say, I shall not suffer this or that,"
being ignorant how much it helps us to freedom from grief to practise to be able to look fortune in the face with our eyes open, and not to entertain fine and soft fancies, like one reared in the shade on many hopes that always yield and never resist. We can, however, answer Menander's line,
"No one can say, I shall not suffer this or that,"
for a man can say, "I will not do this or that, I will not lie, I will not play the rogue, I will not cheat, I will not scheme." For this is in our power, and is no small but great help to ease of mind. As on the contrary
"The consciousness of having done ill deeds,"[760]
like a sore in the flesh, leaves in the mind a regret which ever wounds it and pricks it. For reason banishes all other griefs, but itself creates regret when the soul is vexed with shame and self-tormented. For as those who shudder in ague-fits or burn in fevers feel more trouble and distress than those who externally suffer the same from cold or heat, so the grief is lighter which comes externally from chance, but that lament,
"None is to blame for this but I myself,"
coming from within on one's own misdeeds, intensifies one's bitterness by the shame felt. And so neither costly house, nor quantity of gold, nor pride of race, nor weighty office, nor grace of language, nor eloquence, impart so much calm and serenity to life, as a soul pure from evil acts and desires, having an imperturbable and undefiled character as the source of its life; whence good actions flow, producing an enthusiastic and cheerful energy accompanied by loftiness of thought, and a memory sweeter and more lasting than that hope which Pindar says is the support of old age. Censers do not, as Carneades said, after they are emptied, long retain their sweet smell; but in the mind of the wise man good actions always leave a fresh and fragrant memory, by which joy is watered and flourishes, and despises those who wail over life and abuse it as a region of ills, or as a place of exile for souls in this world.

Sec. XX. I am very taken with Diogenes' remark to a stranger at Lacedaemon, who was dressing with much display for a feast, "Does not a good man consider every day a feast?" And a very great feast too, if we live soberly. For the world is a most holy and divine temple, into which man is introduced at his birth, not to behold motionless images made by hands, but those things (to use the language of Plato) which the divine mind has exhibited as the visible representations of invisible things, having innate in them the principle of life and motion, as the sun moon and stars, and rivers ever flowing with fresh water, and the earth affording maintenance to plants and animals. Seeing then that life is the most complete initiation into all these things, it ought to be full of ease of mind and joy; not as most people wait for the festivals of Cronos[761] and Dionysus and the Panathenaea and other similar days, that they may joy and refresh themselves with bought laughter, paying actors and dancers for the same. On such occasions indeed we sit silently and decorously, for no one wails when he is initiated, or groans when he beholds the Pythian games, or when he is drinking at the festival of Cronos:[761] but men shame the festivals which the deity supplies us with and initiates us in, passing most of their time in lamentation and heaviness of heart and distressing anxiety. And though men delight in the pleasing notes of musical instruments, and in the songs of birds, and behold with joy the animals playing and frisking, and on the contrary are distressed when they roar and howl and look savage; yet in regard to their own life, when they see it without smiles and dejected, and ever oppressed and afflicted by the most wretched sorrows and toils and unending cares, they do not think of trying to procure alleviation and ease. How is this? Nay, they will not even listen to others' exhortation, which would enable them to acquiesce in the present without repining, and to remember the past with thankfulness, and to meet the future hopefully and cheerfully without fear or suspicion.


[711] Or cheerfulness, or tranquillity of mind. Jeremy Taylor has largely borrowed again from this treatise in his "Holy Living," ch. ii. Sec. 6, "Of Contentedness in all Estates and Accidents."

[712] Reading with Salmasius [Greek: kaltios patrikios].

[713] "Locus Xenophontis est Cyropaed.," l. i. p. 52.--Reiske.

[714] Euripides, "Orestes," 258.

[715] So Wyttenbach, Duebner. Vulgo [Greek: anaisthesias--aponia.]

[716] "Works and Days," 519.

[717] "Odyssey," i. 191, 192.

[718] I read [Greek: katepheian].

[719] "Iliad," i. 488-492.

[720] "Iliad," xviii. 104.

[721] Euripides, "Orestes," 232.

[722] Homer, "Iliad," x. 88, 89.

[723] The story of Phaeethon is a very well-known one, and is recorded very fully by Ovid in the "Metamorphoses," Book ii.

[724] Euripides, "Bellerophon." Fragm. 298.

[725] Supplying [Greek: phyton] with Reiske.

[726] In Cyprus. Zeno was the founder of the Stoics.

[727] Zeno and his successors taught in the Piazza at Athens called the Painted Piazza. See Pausanias, i. 15.

[728] Pindar, Nem. iv. 6.

[729] Euripides, "Bacchae," 66.

[730] Quoted again by our author "On Restraining Anger," Sec. xvi.

[731] As will be seen, I follow Wyttenbach's guidance in this very corrupt passage, which is a true crux.

[732] Reading [Greek: dedorkotes].

[733] See "On Curiosity," Sec. i.

[734] Simonides.

[735] See Herodotus, vii. 56.

[736] A mina was 100 drachmae (i.e. L4. 1s. 3d.), and 600 obols.

[737] A slave's ordinary dress.

[738] One of the Seven Wise Men.

[739] Homer, "Iliad," iii. 182.

[740] Homer, "Iliad," ii. 111.

[741] Words of Agamemnon to the House Porter. Euripides, "Iphigenia in Aulis," 17-19.

[742] "Iliad," xviii. 105, 106.

[743] See Pausanias, x. 24.

[744] Pindar, Fragm., 258. Quoted "On Moral Virtue," Sec. xii.

[745] Homer, "Iliad," xvii. 61; "Odyssey," vi. 130.

[746] A famous breed of dogs from the island Melita, near Dalmatia. See Pliny, "Hist. Nat.," iii. 26, extr. Sec. 30; xxx. 5, extr. Sec. 14.

[747] That Non omnia possumus omnes.

[748] Pindar, "Isthm.," i. 65-70.

[749] Hesiod, "Works and Days," 25. Our "two of a trade seldom agree."

[750] An allusion to "Iliad," xxiv. 527-533.

[751] Ocnus. See Pausanias, x. 29.

[752] So Wyttenbach, who reads [Greek: Hos de touton].

[753] Reading [Greek: oia] with Reiske.

[754] Homer to wit.

[755] The soul.

[756] The reading here is rather doubtful. That I have adopted is Reiske's and Wyttenbach's.

[757] "Iliad," v. 484.

[758] Euripides, "Bacchae," 498. Compare Horace, "Epistles," i. xvi. 78, 79.

[759] Reading with Duebner [Greek: argian]. Reiske has [Greek: atonian].

[760] Euripides, "Orestes," 396.

[761] The Saturnalia (as the Romans called this feast) was well known as a festival of merriment and license.

[The end]
Plutarch's essay: On Contentedness Of Mind