Some Wisdom From Libanius


It is a pleasant thing to discover pearls of wisdom buried in the tomes of forgotten writers.  We are reminded of the persistence of human wisdom, and its ability to persist down the arches of the years in all conditions and environments, whether favorable and unfavorable.

The works of the rhetorician Libanius (A.D. 314-392) present one such example.  He was an influential writer, orator, and teacher of rhetoric in the eastern Roman Empire, and was prominent enough at one point to enjoy proximity to the court of the emperor Julian the Apostate.  He wrote one of the first true autobiographies, and has left us a ream of letters, speeches, panegyrics, and orations.  His works give us a window on the times, and remain one of the best sources for information on social and political conditions in the fourth century.

I like to read the letters of famous figures, as these offer us a true measure of the man.  Here are a few morsels, culled from his correspondence. (As Libanius wrote exclusively in Greek, I am reliant here on the translations of A.F. Norman in Libanius:  Autobiography and Selected Letters (2 vol.), Cambridge:  Harvard Univ. Press, 1992).

Letter to Euagrius (An Ex-Pupil)

Euagrius was an ex-pupil of Libanius.  He was from the city of Antioch, and apparently a brother of one of Libanius’s friends.  The advice given here is excellent, and is applicable anyone embarking on a new enterprise.  

But it is also true that good advice is no assurance of success.  Euagrius apparently performed miserably in his job.  He was removed from office, convicted of some offense, fined, and flogged.  He was later able to clear his name, however.   

The fact that you ask me for rules whereby you may be an excellent governor, is itself an indication that you will be an excellent governor.  I make this one brief and explicit point, that you must be consistent with yourself, and maintain in more important matters the same attitude you hold on minor things.

But if I must go into details, then:  follow the laws, honor the good, hate wickedness, improve the cities, regard work as a pleasure, and think of your good reputation as pure gain.  If you keep to this–and you will, as you have done before–you will be a credit to yourself, your birthplace, your parents, and your brother.  [Vol. II, No. 135]

On The Reason For Unhappiness

This passage, taken from Libanius’s Autobiography, gives us an idea of what mattered to him.  It has the feel of a career teacher who is used to taking pride in the performance of his students.  (The reference in this quote below to Thrasybulus is from Herodotus V.92.)

I will now recount the chief reason why I should be thought unhappy.  Now, if a father is unhappy when he has consigned many sons to the tomb or followed the biers which bore their bodies to the grave, I too must be accounted unhappy, for my pupils who have died were not only many, but good.  Some I have buried myself, others, students from abroad, I have sent back to their homes in their coffins.

As Thrasybulus used to cut off the tallest ears of corn, so did Fortune leave me reft of the best of my pupils.  It has been the case, right from my teaching days in Bithynia up to the present time, that always she spares the second-rate, and removes those who had made a name for themselves or were beginning to do so.

Some persons think that they have a good case when they ask, “What orators has he turned out for us?”  My reply to them is that they would see plenty if they went down to the underworld…[Auto. 151]


An Amusing Tale About A Book

This story speaks for itself.  Books in antiquity were copied by hand, and no doubt some readers became very attached to their copies.  This volume survived theft, fire, and resale.  

Another occurrence deserves mention also.  Although a trivial matter, it is significant.  Some of you perhaps will regard me as a mere pendant, but I, smitten to my very heart, know that my emotion arose because of a calamity great indeed.

I had a copy of Thucydides’s History.  Its writing was fine and small, and the whole work was so easy to carry that I used to do so myself, while my slave followed behind:  the burden was my pleasure.  In it I used to read of the war between Athens and Sparta, and was affected as perhaps others have been before me.  Never again could I derive such pleasure from reading it in another copy.

I was loud in praise of my possession, and I had more joy in it than Polycrates did in his ring [Herod. III.40].  But by singing its praises, I invited the attention of thieves, some of whom I caught in the act.  The last of them, however, started a fire to prevent capture, and so I gave up the search but could not but grieve at the loss.  In fact, all the advantage I could have gained from Thucydides began to diminish, since I encountered him in different writing and with disappointment.

However for this discomfort Fortune provided the remedy, a tardy one, admittedly, but, none the less, the remedy.  I kept writing to my friends about it, so grieved was I, and I would describe its size and what it was like inside and out, and wonder where it was and who had it.  Then a student, a fellow citizen of mine, who had purchased it, came to read it.  The teacher of the class set up the cry of “That’s it!,” recognizing it by its tokens, and came to ask whether he was right.

So I took it and welcomed it like a long-lost child unexpectedly restored.  I went off rejoicing, and both then and now I owe my thanks to Fortune.

Let him who likes laugh at me for making a mountain out of a mole-hill.  I have no regard for the laughter of boors.



Read more in On Moral Ends, a number one new release: