The Roman writer Aulus Gellius relates an anecdote about his discovery of the meaning of an old proverb. He tells us that he read the following line in one of the speeches of Marcus Cato Censorius:
Saepe audivi inter os atque offam multa intervenire posse.
[Aul. Gel. XIII.18]
This sentence says, “I have often heard that many things can come between the mouth and a morsel of food.” It is an unusual expression, and Gellius was not alone in being mystified by it. The word offa is defined as a lump or pellet of flour, or as a “bite of food” in general; the best translation in this context would be “morsel.” But what is the expression supposed to signify? What could be the meaning of something coming between a mouth and a hovering bite of food? The expression was turned over to a learned man familiar with old literature, and he was able to shed light on its meaning. He quoted a related Greek expression, which made it clear that the expression is used to express the idea that Fate can often intervene to deny us what we want. In other words, we should not consider that morsel of food “in the mouth” until it is actually there, and being chewed.
When I first heard this expression, I thought it was both memorable and useful. For it seems to me that we are constantly in the habit of “counting our chickens before they are hatched.” We do this in ways that are both overt and subtle; but it is the subtle way that is the most corrosive to our lives. We think that just because we “possess” something, or have it on our fork, then it is as good as already in the gullet. And this is not true. Even when we do have something, my experience is that it is not easy to hold on to it. So many intervening events or circumstances can deprive us of what we want. Consider the man who has a large income. His money rolls in, and he feels satisfied with the numbers that appear on his paystubs, his W-2 forms, and his tax returns. He can now sleep at night because, at long last, his money troubles are finally over.
Or are they? As his income grows, so do his wants and needs. Ever so imperceptibly, his expenses creep up, higher and higher. Those things that he once scoffed at as frivolous luxuries, he now eyes with longing and envy. His girlfriend or wife, aware of his prosperity, does nothing to dissuade him from spending; indeed, she demands more and more herself. The numbers are there; the times are good, he believes that they will stay good. Until they are not, of course. Suddenly things slow down at work. The volume of customers and clients, once so high, now slowly declines. And when this happens, the man begins to panic; the car payments, the boat payments, the house payments, and the furniture payments do not stop. He now feels like all he does is pay bills. How he longs for his old life! But there is no way back; for he does not have the fortitude to confront his wife and tell her that they need to make lifestyle changes.
And this is how these things happen. It is not what you make, but what you keep, that matters. There are people making colossal salaries, yet who hardly have enough in their pockets for a decent meal at a slop-house. And this is often because they are unable to control their habits and desires. Between their mouths and their desired morsels, something bad has intervened, as old Cato would have said. Granted that this is true: but what does it mean for us? It seems to me that we spend far too much time focusing on how to get things, and not enough time on how to keep them.
Everyone wants to be successful and prosperous; and to this end they learn a trade, work hard, and devote themselves to their professions. But they give hardly any thought on how to acquire the discipline and character that will help them to retain their riches. Do you think that it is easy to hold on to what you have? Do you? Do you think it makes sense to spend years learning how to acquire something, and yet have no idea how to keep it? Well? What is your answer? It is of no use to learn how to fish, if we are unable to transport the fish from the river to our kitchen for eating.
Training in discipline, character, and virtue is the way we learn how to keep our riches. In life one must study all things; one must seek to learn positives, negatives, and neutrals. The physician Galen says, in his Art of Medicine, that the study of medicine consisted of three components:
Medicine is the knowledge of those things that are healthy, those that are unhealthy, and those that are neither. [Art of Med. I.307]
So we have to think in various perspectives. Yet so few people think about this. They are so fixated on grasping for their desires, that they are oblivious to the fact that they will lose them unless they have the skills to handle them. They are blind to the fact that preservation is an entirely different skill from acquisition. You do not put a welding machine in the hands of a child; and so you do not hand over a pile of riches to an undisciplined man with no understanding of what is good, and what is bad. He is blind to the concept of good and evil without training in wisdom. It is essential for us to polish our characters, and to make the study of wisdom a lifetime pursuit. It is not optional; it is the only way to prevent disaster from overtaking us in life. For Fortune, that implacable mistress, has a thousand devious ways of coming between mouth and morsel.
Read more in the innovative new translation of On Moral Ends: