The philosopher Philo of Alexandria relates the following anecdote in his short treatise On the Life of Moses (II.23.178). The prophet Moses, we are told, had appointed his brother to the office of high priest. His decision had been based on his brother’s merits, but there was inevitably some grumbling by people who believed that the appointment was the result of familial favoritism.
Moses therefore resolved to demonstrate to all that this brother’s suitability as high priest was divinely favored. He commanded that twelve rods should be collected, with each one representing a tribe of his nation. On eleven rods, the name of a tribe’s patriarch should be inscribed; but on the twelfth one, Moses ordered inscribed with the name of his brother. These rods were then carried into a temple and deposited there. A day later, Moses entered the temple again, and brought out this bundle of rods in full view of an assembled crowd. The eleven rods on which the patriarchs’ names were written had not changed at all in appearance. But the rod on which his brother’s name was written had been transformed completely: it had miraculously become a living plant, with roots protruding from one end, and with branches weighed down by fruit.
This fruit, we are told, was almonds. Philo says that almonds are a fruit different in kind from any other. In what way are they different? In most fruits, such as olives, apples, and dates, the seeds and the consumable part of the fruit are different; the seeds are actually surrounded by the edible part. But with almonds, the seed and the edible part are one and the same. The almond is protected by a thick outer shell; and this fact, Philo tells us, we may interpret allegorically when thinking about virtue. But how is this so? With the almond, the beginning and the end are the same, in that the seed and the fruit are one and the same. It is the same situation with the virtues. The virtues do not proceed from any other higher power: they proceed from themselves as a kind of seed, and can be seen as both beginning and end. The virtues are an end, Philo says, “because the life in accordance with nature hastens towards it.” But there is another similarity here:
This is one reason; and another is also mentioned, more clear and emphatic than the former [reason], for the part of the almond which looks like bark is bitter, but that which lies inside the bark, like a wooden case, is very hard and impenetrable, so that the fruit, being enclosed in these two coverings, is not very easy to be got at.
What Philo means by this is that access to virtue is not easily won. It is not something that can just be picked up like ripe apple that has fallen from the branches of a tree. It is something that must be wrestled with, worked for, and clawed at over a long period of time. The inner chamber will not yield its treasures in the face of feeble efforts; there must be instead a committed expenditure of energy for a sustained period. Yet we should not shrink from this labor. Philo considers it a glorious and worthy struggle in itself, and announces this in a passage of great beauty worthy of a Greek or Roman sage:
But labor is a bitter, and distasteful, and harsh thing, from which good is produced, for the sake of which one must not yield to effeminate indolence. For he who seeks to avoid labor is also avoiding good. And he, again, who encounters what is disagreeable to be borne with fortitude and manly perseverance, is taking the best road to happiness; for it is not the nature of virtue to abide with those who are given up to delicacy and luxury, and who have become effeminate in their souls, and whose bodies are enervated by the incessant luxury which they practice every day. But it is subdued by such conduct, and determined to change its abode, having first of all arranged its departure as to depart to, and abide with, the ruler of right reason. [Life of Moses II.24.184]
Philo’s particular genius was to merge Old Testament theology with the wisdom of the classical world, and here he provides us with a perfect example of this reconciliation. He is not quite finished, however, with his analogy of the almond. Of the trees that blossom in the spring, he says, the almond tree is one of the first. It is also one of the last trees to lose its leaves. Because of this tree’s fortitude and permanence, it can serve as a worthy symbol of moral regeneration:
But, if I must tell the truth, the most sacred company of prudence, and temperance, and courage, and justice seeks the society of those who practice virtue, and those who admire a life of austerity and rigid duty, devoting themselves to fortitude and self-denial, with wise economy and abstinence; by means of which virtues the most powerful of all the principles within us, namely, reason, improves and attains to a state of perfect health and vigor, overthrowing the violent attacks of the body, which the moderate use of wine, and epicurism, and licentiousness, and other insatiable appetites excite against it, engendering a fulness of flesh which is the direct enemy of shrewdness and wisdom. [II.24.185]
Long before Philo, Cicero articulated his own thoughts about the importance of virtue for leading a happy life. In book V.3 of his Tusculan Disputations, he relates an anecdote that I very much like. Leon, tyrant of the Greek city of Phlius, had asked the philosopher Pythagoras to define the meaning of “philosopher.” The subtle Greek thought for a few moments, and then provided the ruler with the following analogy. Here I will quote directly from my translation of the Tusculans:
He [Leon] demanded to know who “philosophers” were, and how they differed from other people. Pythagoras’s alleged response was that the life of man appeared to him to be like those commemorative games celebrated with the greatest assortment of sports and the general assembly of participants from all of Greece. At this grand event, some men sought the glory and nobility of a laurel crown through physical exercises. Others were enticed there by the possibility of financial gain through buying and selling. And then there was another kind of person there, who composed the best type, who sought neither profit nor public acclaim, but were there only to observe. They carefully paid attention to their environment to see what was happening and how things were taking place.
In the same way, Pythagoras continued, just as if we were coming from the same provincial city to a well-attended festival, so we ourselves have come from another life and nature to this life. We see that some men are slaves to glory, and others to money. Yet there are those rare few who, looking upon everything else as insignificant, systematically probe into the real nature of things. These men refer to themselves as “devoted to wisdom,” or in other words, philosophers. [V.3]
We can easily conclude from these observations that the best leaders are those who provide a congenial atmosphere for free thought, inquiry, choice, and physical movement. Systems that demand doctrinal obedience, systems that attempt to create distinctions between groups and set them against each other, systems that seek to create a permanent biometric architecture of control for monitoring and surveillance, systems that wish to enforce uniformity of thought under various pretexts—such as terrorism, medical “emergencies,” or other pliable excuses—are unjust, unlawful, and violative of right reason. William Penn, in his great 1670 work The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience, wrote these important words on unjust coercion. They should resonate strongly with us today:
There ought to be an adequation and resemblance betwixt all ends, and the means to them; but in this case there can be none imaginable: the end, is the conformity of our judgments and under standings to the acts of such as require it; the means are fines and imprisonments, and bloody knocks to boot. Now, what proportion or assimilation these bear, let the sober judge: the understanding can never be convinced, nor properly submit, but by such arguments as are rational, persuasive, and suitable to its own nature; something that can resolve its doubts, answer objections, enervate its propositions.
But to imagine those barbarous Newgate instruments of clubs, fines, prisons, &c. with that whole troop of external and dumb materials of force, should be fit arguments to convince the understanding, scatter its scruples, and finally convert it to their religion, is altogether irrational, cruel, and impossible…And to conclude, as we can never betray the honour of our conformity (only due to truth) by a base and timorous hypocrisy to any external violence under heaven; so must we needs say, unreasonable are those imposers, who secure not the imposed or restrained from what may occur to them, upon their account; and most inhuman are those persecutors that punish men for not obeying them, though to their utter ruin.
Read more in the new translation of Tusculan Disputations: