An essay by Plutarch
On Contentedness Of Mind
Title: On Contentedness Of Mind
Author: Plutarch [More Titles by Plutarch]
On Contentedness of Mind.
PLUTARCH SENDS GREETING TO PACCIUS.
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."And indeed stupor is a bad remedy for the body against despair, 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,
"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,
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:
"The sick are peevish in their straits and needs."For the wife bothers them, and they grumble at the doctor, and they find the bed uneasy, and, as Ion says,
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,
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, 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." 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, as glory and honour and power make "labour sweet, and toil to be no toil." 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,"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, 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 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,
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 never had or envy or desire
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, 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.
"Old man, I think your lot one to be envied,
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,
"Yet in the council hall
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, 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." 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," and a little Maltese lap-dog 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:
"Potter is wroth with potter, smith with smith."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, 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 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,
Sec. XVI. And as 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,
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,
"Which the Achaeans ne'er could rob us of."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,"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 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,"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 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: 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.
 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."
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