The Man Of Action Should Not Expect Gratitude From Others

We have recently discussed ways of handling a lack of appreciation.  A certain independence of spirit–a soaring greatness of soul–is one of the main ways we can limit our expectations of appreciation from others.  Consider again, if you need to, the verses of Ibn Munir on this subject, which capture perfectly this spiritual independence.  As I see it, no more powerful statement of this ethic has ever been put into poetic form.

This theme–the theme of ingratitude–presents itself in the lives of many historical figures. And this is predictably so, because we all know that human nature has not changed down through the centuries.  The man of action, the man of achievement and ability, who seeks to rise above his immediate surroundings, will more often earn the antagonism of his peers than their warm considerations.  Men do not like to be reminded of their shortcomings and faults; and truth, although it may be beautiful, is seldom popular.

The humanist Biondo Flavio, when he was composing his survey of Italy in the early 1450s, read in the  naturalist Pliny that the mineral water springs near Liternum were especially redemptive.  Biondo says that Liternum was located “on the part of the River Volturno facing Cumae.”  Pliny actually calls the springs “slightly acidic” (Historia Naturalis II.230), and gives the name of the springs as Lyncestis.  In any case, Biondo actually visited this place, which is located in Italy’s Campania region.  He talked to locals there who told him that the water was good for curing all kinds of maladies.  The water, he tells us, is so plentiful that it even seeps up among the ruins of buildings there.

Tasting it, he acknowledged that while it did indeed taste good, he could not really detect any benefit from it (Italia Illustrata VIII.25).  It did not live up to the expectations generated by its reputation.  So much for the legend of the marvelous waters, he thought to himself.  Perhaps this is what the praise of others is like:  desired in theory, but somehow unsatisfying when finally received.  We may think we want or need the gratitude of others, but its acquisition brings us no real benefit in practice.

Another purpose Biondo had in Campania was to locate the tomb of Scipio Africanus.  Scipio had supposedly spent his voluntary exile in or near Liternum.  Even in antiquity, the precise location of his tomb had somehow become lost.  Seneca (Epistulae 86.1) claims to have spent time in the villa once owned by Scipio himself; and he seemed to think an altar there was actually Scipio’s grave.  The historian Livy, who lived less than one hundred years after Scipio’s death, was also ready to believe that Scipio’s tomb was located near Liternum.

Notice that I said here that Livy was “ready to believe” the grave was in Liternum.  Patriotic historian that he was, he was uncomfortable admitting that he did not know with certainty where the tomb was located.  How could it be that a general and statesman as famous as Scipio–a man who had accomplished so much–had also been so neglected that his countrymen did not even know where he was buried?  But this is in the nature of things.  This is the fate of some great men.  Even the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great, who conquered a good part of the known world, is lost today.  With regard to Scipio, Livy says:

Some say that Scipio died and was interred in Rome, and other say at Liternum; in both places, monuments and statues are on display.  [XXXVIII.56]

He did not know the precise location, and neither did anyone else.  What an insult to a man who had done so much and sacrificed so much for his people!  But there may have been specific reasons for the forgetfulness of Scipio’s peers.  To excel too much is to invite the resentments of others.  Scipio turned his back on his peers, because they had turned their backs on him.  They were unable to rise to the level of public responsibility and leadership that he felt was required for the health of the republic.  The historian Valerius Maximus (V.3.2) tells us this:

Repaying Scipio’s great achievements with insults, his fellow citizens made him the tenant of a pathetic village and an empty swamp [Cuius clarissima opera iniuriis pensando cives vici ignobilis eum ac desertae paludis accolam fecerunt].

This was how they treated the man who had decisively defeated Carthage and brought Hannibal to heel.  But Scipio was a fighter to the end, and he knew how to return a favor.  He would not accept this shabby treatment without some response for posterity’s sake.  So before his death he gave instructions that his tomb should bear the following inscription:


And this means:  Ungrateful country, you will not even get my bones.  Valerius has a great comment on this stinging epitaph.  He says that Scipio “denied his ashes to her [i.e., Rome] whom he had prevented from becoming cinders.”

So the man of action cannot look to others for recognition or approval.  He cannot expect gratitude; and if he does get it, it will be short-lived.  To illustrate this with another example, consider the career of the great Norman chief Tancred of Hauteville.  He was oppressed by the burden of having twelve children by two wives, and resolved to seek his fortune in a new home.  It is remarkable that the Normans were able to prosper in so many different countries and environments.  Tancred first settled in Romagna, and he was hired by a local warlord there (Pandolfo, Prince of Capua) for his military prowess.  The Normans performed wonderfully, but Pandolfo was a stupid and jealous man, and failed to show the uncouth, unrefined Normans any respect.

Instead of brooding about their fates, the Normans, once they realized Pandolfo’s jealous games, simply moved on to greener pastures.  They entered the service of Guaimar, another regional warlord.  But inevitably, Guaimar’s court officials began to whisper venomous words against the Normans as well.  So Tancred and his men moved on, and this time found employment under the Byzantine emperor (who had holdings in Sicily) as a hired force to fight the marauding Saracens in Sicily.  And this they did.  Together the Normans and Greeks were successful in expelling the Saracens from nearly all of Sicily.  But what happened then?  Yes, the Normans became objects of jealously from the Greeks too; so they persuaded the Greek emperor Michael IV Paphlagon to let them settle in Apulia in southern Italy.  They settled there and eventually built the city of Melfi in a well-fortified location.  There they were able to fend off many attackers and build a permanent home for themselves.

We should learn from the behavior of the Normans, and from the “phantom of a vision” ethic of Ibn Munir, as we discussed earlier.  When we are met with a lack of appreciation or a lack of respect, we must fold up our tents and move on to greener pastures.  We should not wring our hands at the injustices of the world, for the world will pay little attention to our futile remonstrations.  We do not perform great tasks for the applause of others; we do them for their own sakes, and because they are an expression of our characteristic fiber.  Neither do we need the permission or validation of others; for our hearts are imbued with greatness of soul, with that inexpressable magnitudo animi, which has its own momentum and its own eternal logic.

We write our own histories, and we inscribe the pages of our folios with the chronicles of our own great deeds.


Read more about this and related subjects in my On Duties and Sallust