Among the many problems that we are faced with today is the lack of restraint, the lack of moderation, that is actively supported and encouraged by our culture. If you have something, you are told that you deserve more. If you want something, you are told that you deserve to have it. If something stands in the way of your getting something you think you deserve, you are told how to obtain that thing you desire. Few people pause to think that what they crave may carry a heavy burden in the long run.
A sensible person has to resist getting swept up by this current. It is not easy to do. You are surrounded by choices, by temptations, and by voices prodding you ever forward in the quest for permanent satisfaction. But knowing how to restrain oneself, and knowing when to stop: this is the safer course in the long run. Wise men have understood this, and have tried to put it into practice. There is an anecdote told about Scipio Africanus the Younger that relates to this point; it is found in the historian Valerius Maximus (Memorable Doings and Sayings IV.10).
When Scipio was serving in the office of censor, he was responsible for handling the details of one of the public religious ceremonies. As part of this ritual, an attendant was supposed to recite a formulaic prayer from the official register. It was an invocation in which the gods were asked both to increase the size of the Roman empire and to keep the state safe. Scipio did not like the tenor of this official prayer. He felt that its tone was greedy and grasping, and that it sent the wrong message to the people. He disapproved of an official prayer that asked the gods to increase the size of the empire.
He said, “Our holdings are good and great enough; I pray only that the gods keep them safe in perpetuity.” Scipio also ordered that the official prayer in the books should be changed in accordance with his new formula. Valerius tells us that from that time forward, Scipio’s changes became permanent. The people agreed with him that it would be greedy to ask for more when the empire that they had was already so large; so from that point, the prayer only asked for the gods to keep the state safe.
Another example of how moderation was imposed on a people is provided by King Theophrastus of Sparta in the 8th century B.C. This anecdote is found in Valerius Maximus IV.15. The historian says that Theophrastus created the ephors as a way to check the power of the monarchy. When people told him that by creating this institution he was limiting the amount of power he could pass on to his own sons, he responded in the affirmative: he said that even though he would be passing on less power, that power would be more permanent and stable. He chose moderation, knowing that it would promote stability. Valerius says,
This was very well done, for power is only safe when it places limits on the men who wield it.
In our own day, the political elites and politicians pay little attention to these things, if any at all. They see no reason why any limit should be placed on their appetites; this is why we have military bases in nearly every country across the globe. This is why conspicuous expenditure is hailed as a virtue, and moderation seen as the mark of timidity. In due course, the price of all this will be paid. We cannot know exactly when or how, but there will surely be some kind of reckoning. Greed and avarice create their own momentum; it is not easy to stop the mad rush for physical or material pleasures once the sickness has taken hold of the mind. To sustain the momentum of greed, one has to become more and more aggressive, and more and more violent. It is a cycle of futility that leaves men and nations exhausted and broken; for as Petrarch said, in a letter to Paganino of Milan:
Nothing violent lasts a long time [Nihil violentum, diuturnum]. Modest boundaries of a kingdom are easy to protect; an immense empire is difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to hold on to.
The only way to retain one’s sanity is to impose some sense of moderation on ourselves. Insisting on more is the surest and shortest way to a man’s ruin.
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