There is a line in one of Seneca’s letters (107.11) that reads:
Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.
Seneca is quoting a line by the philosopher Cleanthes, which means, “The fates lead along the willing, and carry along the unwilling.” It does not matter whether we want, or do not want, to move in some direction; we will be brought there by the operation of Fate. Of course there are many who will say that this is nothing but a crude fatalism that promotes resignation and apathy. Carried to excess, the idea does lend itself to these sentiments. On the other hand, I am sure that there are many who can confirm that, in some cases, doing nothing is better than constantly straining to force a certain outcome.
The harder you try, the more your goal recedes into the distance; ignore it for a bit and go about your business, and watch it move closer to you. There is something in this ethic. I am not sure how far it can be taken, or what its precise parameters are; but I know there is some truth to it. Or perhaps it is just the voice of exhaustion whispering in my ears. The man of action is accustomed to trying to control events; he wants to seize the bulls of Knossos by the horns, and leap over them while Minos watches in delight. He wants to perform, to accomplish, and finds it difficult to accept the role of the spectator. Yet Nature grinds him down, too. With the passage of years, the sinews become less supple, the muscles less resilient; and the irritations and inanities of the world begin to oppress his spirit. How tempting it is to renounce control for once, brother, and surrender to some higher force that places no demands on us!
Herodotus says (III.128) that the Persian King Darius once seriously injured his foot. He was out hunting, overreached himself, and dislocated his ankle. The pain from the injury was severe; Darius tried to remedy it himself, to no avail. So he called upon his Egyptian doctors, who had a reputation for healing with minimally invasive procedures. But here they did him no good; in fact, the poor king was left in worse shape than when they began their treatments. For seven days and nights he could not sleep. Finally, unable to stand the situation any longer, one of his attendants told him about the reputation of the Greek doctor Democedes of Crotona. He was supposed to have worked medical wonders in Sardis, so Darius sent for him without delay.
But Democedes arrived at Darius’s court in a wretched state. He had fallen on hard times and been enslaved. He was dressed in rags and was in shackles. Darius asked Democedes if he was a capable doctor, and if he could heal the king’s foot. The unfortunate Greek was afraid of answering in the affirmative, aware that he might be forced to stay at the court of the Persian king for the rest of his life. Darius detected the wily Greek’s deception, and had his own way of resolving the issue. He ordered an attendant to fetch a whip and some iron spikes; the sight of these instruments of torture would be enough, he knew, to reduce matters to their essentials. Democedes still tried to equivocate; he said he did have some medical training, but was not an expert. This was good enough for Darius, who ordered him to examine the royal ankle. As Greek medical techniques were superior to those of the king’s other doctors, Darius was healed in short order.
The king was most grateful, as he had never expected such a result. To reward Democedes, he presented him with a set of gold chains. Half in jest, the Greek asked the king if he intended to double his sufferings by adding a set of gold chains to the iron ones that already fettered him. Laughing, Darius told him that this was not the case; and to prove it, he sent Democedes to spend some time with his many wives. He was announced by the eunuchs there as the man who had cured the king; and on hearing this, his wives presented him with cup after cup of gold coins. From that point, Democedes was able to live in a large house in Susa, and enjoyed every privilege of being a royal intimate. The only thing he could not do was return home to Greece. He had made great advances from his previous condition, but now he needed time to consolidate and evaluate his current situation.
The more he tried to cause a certain outcome to take place, the more it slipped away from his grasp. He desperately wanted to get back home, but he was not permitted to leave. At some point, he gave up all hope of ever returning home. But one day, something happened to change his luck. Darius’s wife, the Queen Atossa, became ill with breast cancer; an ulcer appeared on her breast, and she raised the matter with Democedes. He removed the cyst with surgery, and asked of her in return that she do him a favor. The favor, he said, was to talk to Darius and convince him to send Democedes back to Greece as an advisor and scout for the king’s planned invasion of that country. When the opportunity was right, he gave the Persians the slip and escaped into the Greek countryside, and eventually made his way back to Crotona. He even married. He had bided his time, and the fates had smiled on him.
Stories like this cause me to believe that sometimes we should stay alert, observe events, and wait for the right opportunities to come along. I am not sure of the right balance between action and inaction. Perhaps no one is. To me it seems more a matter of instinct than anything else. Bursts of action should perhaps be followed by recuperative bouts of inaction. We should surge and then consolidate, surge and then recuperate. Or perhaps it is fate, which carries us along whether we are willing or unwilling.
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