Philo of Alexandria wrote a relatively obscure essay entitled On the Prayers And Curses Uttered by Noah When He Became Sober. His translator has fortunately shortened this unwieldy title to the compact De Sobrietate, or On Sobriety. It contains the following passage of importance:
But without proper opportunities virtues indeed exist, but they are immoveable, and like silver and gold, which is of no use in the world because it is treasured up in the secret recesses of the earth. On the other hand again, one can see innumerable persons, unmanly, intemperate, foolish, unjust, impious in their minds, but unable fully to display the disgraceful character of all their vices by reason of the want of opportunity to sin. But if any important or frequent opportunities present themselves, then filling earth and sea to its extremest boundaries with unspeakable wickedness, and leaving nothing whether great or small uninjured, they overturn and destroy everything in one blow. For as the power of fire is quiet when it has no fuel, but when there are proper materials it blazes up, so also all the powers which have reference to the virtue or vice of the soul are extinguished by want of opportunity, as I have said before, but are kindled by a favorable occasion and a happy concurrence of circumstances.
There are several ideas expressed in this passage, and each one merits our consideration. Let us see what they are. Philo’s first point is that virtues must be used and practiced. If they lie dormant, like precious metals in the earth, then they remain useless to us. His second point is that wicked persons (i.e., persons of bad character) can be somewhat kept in check if they are deprived of opportunities to sin. Their bad character, so to speak, lies dormant for want of opportunity; but the moment such opportunity arises, the wicked “fill earth and sea to their extremest boundaries” with their corruption and vice. His third point—which we may see as the natural consequence of the first two—is that virtue and vice need two things before they can find expression: (1) favorable occasion and (2) favorable concurrence of circumstance.
It seems to me that we tend to underestimate Philo’s third point. All the virtue in the world is of little use if we have no occasion to put it into practice; and even if we do try to put it into practice, there must be some favorable concurrence of circumstance that allows us to draw lessons from using it. I am convinced by Cicero’s arguments in book V of the Tusculan Disputations that virtue is sufficient for living a happy life; but virtues do not show their luster unless they have been mined, extracted from their constituent ores, refined, and polished. A person does not develop his character by reading books alone in his basement. He needs to test his rapier against an active opponent, life.
But the welcome news is that the converse is true: the wicked man cannot spread his corruption without a favorable occasion and concurrence of circumstance, either. He may be kept in check by a deprivation of these sustaining elements. Cornelius Nepos, in his Lives of the Great Commanders, reminds us that Pausanias the Spartan (c. 510 B.C.—c. 465 B.C.) was “distinguished by his virtue,” yet “riddled with vices.” He won wide acclaim as a result of his performance at the Battle of Plataea; and as a result of this, he was provided both occasion and concurrence of circumstance to exercise the bad elements of his character. He even tried to set up an impious golden tripod at Delphi, which Nepos describes in the following way:
It was inscribed with an epigram that conveyed the following idea: that the barbarians had been routed at Plataea as a result of his generalship, and that he had given this offering to Apollo as a result of his victory. The Lacedaemonians removed these verses, and inscribed nothing else except the names of the cities whose help the Persians had been beaten. [Pausanias 1]
In this way, the Spartans deprived Pausanias of the opportunity and circumstance of spreading his arrogance and vice. They recognized that his attempt to take all the credit for the victory was impious, and offensive; so they removed his original inscription and replaced it with another. One gets the sense that we have lost touch with this ethic today, when every braggart and vice-ridden mountebank is given both a platform and a bull-horn to amplify his corruption. When we examine our political and social landscape today, we can clearly see that we have allowed too many of the unworthy to occupy positions of responsibility and influence. The wicked hold too many offices, inhabit too many fortresses, and bray into too many megaphones. They exist only to service their own needs, not the needs of the public. A healthy society, a society that cares about leadership, the guidance of the youth, and the maintenance of a robust commonwealth, must deprive these corruptors of the twin oxygens of occasion and fortunate circumstance.
Conversely, every occasion and circumstance must be provided for the flowering of the virtues. We must nurture a culture of fearless action, risk-taking, and bold decision that slash through the Gordian knots of timidity, cowardice, and inertia. Virtues must be practiced, honed, and attempted. Philo does not mention this, but I think it is true that the virtues, if attempted, actually create their own favorable occasions and concurrence of circumstances. We cannot wait for the ideal moment to deploy them. The best moment to practice them is the present moment. Doing this generates a kind of momentum, a happy incidence of habit, which over time gives rise to other occasions and circumstances. Nothing holds us back from doing this except, perhaps, possible feelings of fear. But here we must remember what Cicero tells us in book V of his Tusculans:
Certainly virtue is enough for us to live fearlessly. And if it is enough for us to live without fear, it is also enough for us to live with a great soul: indeed, in a way that we are terrified of nothing and always remain undefeated. It follows from this that there is nothing that causes regret, nothing that is lacking, and nothing that hinders us. [V.18]
So let us advance, then—entirely unhindered in our purposes. And let us live fearlessly.
Read more in the new, complete translation of Tusculan Disputations: