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:Continue reading
There is an interesting passage in the writings of Valerius Maximus (III.3) that is open to different interpretations. It reads as follows:
The Athenian statesman and lawgiver Solon is said to have enacted an unusual law in 594 B.C. The essence of the law was that, in times of civil conflict or crisis, every citizen had to take one side or another. Neutrality was not an option; one could not “sit on the sidelines” and wait things out. Anyone doing so would run the risk of being declared an outlaw (atimos), and might have his property confiscated.
The world is a much smaller place than we are aware. Things we do, actions we take, can have far-reaching effects that come back to us in ways we can never imagine. While events, places, and the flowing rush of time are shifting and transitory, the power of virtue is such that it transcends time and place. I was reminded of this recently after reading the Second World War memoirs of Col. Hans von Luck, a German commander who fought in all the major theaters of the European war.
Philo of Alexandria, in his essay on agriculture (De Agricultura), points out that there is a difference between an ordinary tiller of the ground, and an actual farmer; and that there is also a clear difference between a shepherd and someone who just tends to sheep. In the same way, he tells us, there is a great difference between a rider of a horse and a true horseman.
The Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria made this compelling analogy in his essay, Every Good Man is Free (Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit V.26):
As I have gotten older I find that reading plays brings more enjoyment than it did in earlier years. Tragedies especially: the unformed mind has not yet been sufficiently battered by the winds and waves of fortune against the rocks, and is equipped with a merciful immunity to the pathos of existence. And yet, as the years roll on, beards and barnacles begin to replace the smooth, supple surfaces of youth; scars and aches accumulate; and the omnipresence of tragedy dawns on the maturing mind with a startling rapidity. The mind then calls for a tonic: it requires the writer to make sense of all this chaos, all this pain, and all this suffering. The struggle must be dignified with a sense of universal justice, and an ethic of enduring goodness. So the tragedian steps forward, and with his stylus attempts to perform this task.
The virtues have been a force promoting social cohesion and stability for thousands of years. As a society becomes more wealthy, it tends to neglect these virtues. The consequences are deeply destructive: loss of social cohesion, indiscipline, greed and moral corruption. History suggests that such societies become ripe for disorder, even collapse.
There is a fable told in the Roman emperor Julian’s oration To the Cynic Heracleios that is worth relating and discussing. The fable is rather involved, but we will extract its relevant parts here. The god Hermes once appeared before a youth who, though virtuous and good, was having some difficulties in life. Hermes said to the young man:
It may be asked how a man’s character changes according to his circumstances. Without doubt it does change; there remains an unalterable core of our character, fashioned from our earliest years, but onto this trunk may be grafted or discarded a variety of traits and habits.
On this subject we should be mindful of the following:
1. It is easier to add character traits than it is to remove them. The learning of a new set of habits and traits can be accomplished if the incentives and motivations are there. Far more difficult it is to try to remove some ingrained character feature that may have been with us for years. It is not impossible, but it is difficult.
Adding is easier than removing. Being mindful of this, we should endeavor to add character traits, rather than to try to remove ones that may already exist. The removal of character traits should be reserved for those situations where the trait in question is directly harmful or a serious impediment to future growth.
2. The true revelation of character comes at moments of difficulty or stress. If we wish to know our own, or someone else’s character, we should seek out situations in which we can exert pressure on that individual. The resulting observations will be useful.
3. The ravages of disease or old age can corrode positive character traits. It will not corrupt the most important ones, but it can have adverse effects. As an example of this, Plutarch mentions an incident (Pericles 38) where Pericles, who had contracted the plague, permitted some visitors on his sickbed to lay amulets and charms on him. He had always derided superstition and would never have permitted such conduct had he been healthy. Thus is it shown that disease may corrode the bulwarks of virtue.
Somewhat conversely Plutarch in his Spartan Sayings also relates an anecdote about the Agiad king Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandridas. The king had suffered greatly from a long bout of illness, and in desperation, had enlisted the aid of practitioners of the magical arts. When his friends had expressed unease at this development, the king said, “There is no reason to be amazed. I’m not the same person I was before, so of course what I believe and disbelieve isn’t the same either.”
It is also clear that with the advance of old age come the vices of greed, superstition, and timidity; for these vices flourish in a climate of fear, which old age does much to aggravate. As a man advances in age, he will acutely feel the hound of fear biting his heels, as he becomes more and more worried about his security and health.
And it is for this reason that we must do all we can when young, so that the advance of old age or sickness will not expose us to these vices.
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