Essays and Miscellanies, by Plutarch

That a Philosopher Ought Chiefly to Converse with Great Men.

The resolution which you have taken to enter into the friendship and familiarity of Sorcanus, that by the frequent opportunities of conversing with him you may cultivate and improve a soil which gives such early promises of a plentiful harvest, is an undertaking which will not only oblige his relations and friends, but rebound very much to the advantage of the public; and (notwithstanding the peevish censures of some morose or ignorant people) it is so far from being an argument of an aspiring vainglorious temper, that it shows you to be a lover of virtue and good manners, and a zealous promoter of the common interest of mankind.

They themselves are rather to be accused of an indirect but more vehement sort of ambition, who would not upon any terms be found in the company or so much as be seen to give a civil salute to a person of quality. For how unreasonable would it be to enforce a well-disposed young gentleman, and one who needs the direction of a wise governor, to such complaints as these: “Would that I might become from a Pericles or a Cato to a cobbler like Simon or a grammarian like Dionysius, that I might like them talk with such a man as Socrates, and sit by him.”

So far, I am sure, was Aristo of Chios from being of their humor, that when he was censured for exposing and prostituting the dignity of philosophy by his freedom to all comers, he answered, that he could wish that Nature had given understanding to wild beasts, that they too might be capable of being his hearers. Shall we then deny that privilege to men of interest and power, which this good man would have communicated (if it had been possible) to the brute beasts? But these men have taken a false notion of philosophy, they make it much like the art of statuary, whose business it is to carve out a lifeless image in the most exact figure and proportion, and then to raise it upon its pedestal, where it is to continue forever. The true philosophy is of a quite different nature; it is a spring and principle of motion wherever it comes; it makes men active and industrious, it sets every wheel and faculty a-going, it stores our minds with axioms and rules by which to make a sound judgment, it determines the will to the choice of what is honorable and just; and it wings all our faculties to the swiftest prosecution of it. It is accompanied with an elevation and nobleness of mind, joined with a coolness and sweetness of behavior, and backed with a becoming assurance and inflexible resolution. And from this diffusiveness of the nature of good it follows, that the best and most accomplished men are inclined to converse with persons of the highest condition. Indeed a physician if he have any good nature and sense of honor, would be more ready to cure an eye which is to see and to watch for a great many thousands, than that of a private person; how much more then ought a philosopher to form and fashion, to rectify and cure the soul of such a one, who is (if I may so express it) to inform the body politic — who is to think and understand for so many others, to be in so great measure the rule of reason, the standard of law, and model of behavior, by which all the rest will square and direct their actions? Suppose a man to have a talent at finding out springs and contriving of aqueducts (a piece of skill for which Hercules and other of the ancients are much celebrated in history), surely he could not so satisfactorily employ himself in sinking a well or deriving water to some private seat or contemptible cottage, as in supplying conduits to some fair and populous city, in relieving an army just perishing with thirst, or in refreshing and adorning with fountains and cool streams the beautiful gardens of some glorious monarch. There is a passage of Homer very pertinent to this purpose, in which he calls Minos [Greek text], which, as Plato interprets it, signifies THE DISCIPLE AND COMPANION OF JUPITER. For it were beneath his dignity indeed to teach private men, such as care only for a family or indulge their useless speculations; but kings are scholars worthy the tuition of a god, who, when they are well advised, just, good, and magnanimous, never fail to procure the peace and prosperity of all their subjects. The naturalists tell us that the eryngium hath such a property with it, that if one of the flock do but taste it, all the rest will stand stock still in the same place till the shepherd hath taken it out of its mouth. Such swiftness of action does it have, pervading and inserting itself in everything near it, as if it were fire. The effects of philosophy, however, are different according to the difference of inclinations in men. If indeed it lights on one who loves a dull and inactive sort of life, that makes himself the centre and the little conveniences of life the circumference of all his thoughts, such a one does contract the sphere of her activity, so that having only made easy and comfortable the life of a single person, it fails and dies with him; but when it finds a man of a ruling genius, one fitted for conversation and able to grapple with the difficulties of public business, if it once possess him with principles of honesty, honor, and religion, it takes a compendious method, by doing good to one, to oblige a great part of mankind. Such was the effect of the intercourse of Anaxagoras with Pericles, of Plato with Dion, and of Pythagoras with the principal statesmen of all Italy. Cato himself took a voyage, when he had the concern of an expedition lying upon him, to see and hear Athenodorus; and Scipio sent for Panaetius, when he was commissioned by the senate “to take a survey alike of the habits of men good and bad,” (“Odyssey,” xvii. 487.) as Posidonius says. Now what a pretty sort of return would it have been in Panaetius to send word back — “If indeed you were in a private capacity, John a Nokes or John a Stiles, that had a mind to get into some obscure corner or cell, to state cases and resolve syllogisms, I should very gladly have accepted your invitation; but now, because you are the son of Paulus AEmilius who was twice consul, and grandson of that Scipio who was surnamed from his conquest of Hannibal and Africa, I cannot with honor hold any conversation with you!”

The objections which they bring from the two kinds of discourse, one of which is mental, the other like the gift of Mercury expressed in words or interpretative of the former, are so frivolous, that they are best answered by laughter or silence; and we may quote the old saying, “I knew this before Theognis arose.” However, thus much shall be added, that the end of them both is friendship — in the first case with ourselves, in the second with another. For he that hath attained to virtue by the methods of philosophy hath his mind all in tune and good temper; he is not struck with those reproaches of conscience, which cause the acutest sense of pain and are the natural punishments of our follies; but he enjoys (the great prerogative of a good man) to be always easy and in amity with himself.

No factious lusts reason’s just power control,
Nor kindle civil discord in his soul.

His passion does not stand in defiance to his reason, nor do his reasonings cross and thwart one the other, but he is always consistent with himself. But the very joys of wicked men are tumultuary and confused, like those who dwell in the borders of two great empires at variance, always insecure, and in perpetual alarms; whilst a good man enjoys an uninterrupted peace and serenity of mind, which excels the other not only in duration, but in sense of pleasure too. As for the other sort of converse, that which consists in expression of itself to others, Pindar says very well, that it was not mercenary in old time, nor indeed is it so now; but by the baseness and ambition of a few it is made use of to serve their poor secular interests. For if the poets represent Venus herself as much offended with those who make a trade and traffic of the passion of love, how much more reasonably may we suppose that Urania and Clio and Calliope have an indignation against those who set learning and philosophy to sale? Certainly the gifts and endowments of the Muses should be privileged from such mean considerations.

If indeed some have made fame and reputation one of the ends of their studies, they used it only as an instrument to get friends; since we find by common observation that men only praise those whom they love. If they sought its own praise, they were as much mistaken as Ixion when he embraced a cloud instead of Juno; for there is nothing so fleeting, so changeable, and so inconstant as popular applause; it is but a pompous shadow, and hath no manner of solidity and duration in it. But a wise man, if he design to engage in business and matters of state, will so far aim at fame and popularity as that he may be better enabled to benefit others; for it is a difficult and very unpleasant task to do good to those who are disaffected to our persons. It is the good opinion men have of us which disposes men to give credit to our doctrine. As light is a greater good to those who see others by it than to those who only are seen, so is honor of a greater benefit to those who are sensible of it than to those whose glory is admired. But even one who withdraws himself from the noise of the world, who loves privacy and indulges his own thoughts, will show that respect to the good word of the people which Hippolytus did to Venus — though he abstain from her mysteries, he will pay his devotions at a distance; (Euripides, “Hippolytus,” 102.) but he will not be so cynical and sullen as not to hear with gladness the commendations of virtuous men like himself; he will neither engage himself in a restless pursuit of wealth, interest, or honor, nor will he on the other hand be so rustic and insensible as to refuse them in a moderate degree, when they fairly come in his way; in like manner he will not court and follow handsome and beautiful youth, but will rather choose such as are of a teachable disposition, of a gentle behavior, and lovers of learning. The charms and graces of youth will not make a philosopher shy of their conversation, when the endowments of their minds are answerable to the features of their bodies. The case is the same when greatness of place and fortune concur with a well disposed person; he will not therefore forbear loving and respecting such a one, nor be afraid of the name of a courtier, nor think it a curse that such attendance and dependence should be his fate.

They that try most Dame Venus to despise
Do sin as much as they who her most prize.
(From the “Veiled Hippolytus” of Euripides, Frag. 431.)

The application is easy to the matter in hand.

A philosopher therefore, if he is of a retired humor, will not avoid such persons; while one who generously designs his studies for the public advantage will cheerfully embrace their advances of friendship, will not bore them to hear him, will lay aside his sophistic terms and distinctions, and will rejoice to discourse and pass his time with them when they are disposed.

I plough the wide Berecynthian fields,
Full six days’ journey long,
(From the “Niobe” of Aechylus, Frag. 153.)

says one boastingly in the poet; the same man, if he were as much a lover of mankind as of husbandry, would much rather bestow his pains on such a farm, the fruits of which would serve a great number, than to be always dressing the olive-yard of some cynical malcontent, which, when all was done, would scarce yield oil enough to dress a salad or to supply his lamp in the long winter evenings. Epicurus himself, who places happiness in the profoundest quiet and sluggish inactivity, as the only secure harbor from the storms of this troublesome world, could not but confess that it is both more noble and delightful to do than to receive a kindness; (Almost the same words with those of our Saviour, It is more blessed to give than to receive. So that a man can scarcely be a true Epicurean without practising some of the maxims of Christianity.) for there is nothing which produces so humane and genuine a sort of pleasure as that of doing good. He who gave the names to the three Graces was intelligent, for they all mean delectation and joy, (Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia.) and these feelings surely are far greater and purer in the giver. This is so evidently true, that we all receive good turns blushing and with some confusion, but we are always gay and well pleased when we are conferring one.

If then it is so pleasant to do good to a few, how are their hearts dilated with joy who are benefactors to whole cities, provinces, and kingdoms? And such benefactors are they who instil good principles into those upon whom so many millions do depend. On the other hand, those who debauch the minds of great men — as sycophants, false informers, and flatterers worse than both, manifestly do — are the centre of all the curses of a nation, as men not only infuse deadly poison into the cistern of a private house, but into the public springs of which so many thousands are to drink. The people therefore laughed at the parasites of Callias, whom, as Eupolis says, neither with fire nor brass nor steel could prevent from supping with him; but as for the favorites of those execrable tyrants Apollodorus, Phalaris, and Dionysius, they racked them, they flayed them alive, they roasted them at slow fires, looked on them as the very pests of society and disgraces of human nature; for to debauch a simple person is indeed an ill thing, but to corrupt a prince is an infinite mischief. In like manner, he who instructs an ordinary man makes him to pass his life decently and with comfort; but he who instructs a prince, by correcting his errors and clearing his understanding, is a philosopher for the public, by rectifying the very mould and model by which whole nations are formed and regulated. It is the custom of all nations to pay a peculiar honor and deference to their priests; and the reason of it is, because they do not only pray for good things for themselves, their own families and friends, but for whole communities, for the whole state of mankind. Yet we are not so fond as to think that the priests make the gods to be givers of good things, or inspire a vein of beneficence into them; but they only make their supplications to a being which of itself is inclinable to answer their requests. But in this a good tutor hath the privilege above the priests — he effectually renders a prince more disposed to actions of justice, of moderation, and mercy, and therefore hath a greater satisfaction of mind when he reflects upon it.

For my own part, I cannot but think that an ordinary mechanic — for instance, a maker of musical instruments — would be much more attentive and pleased at his work, and if his harp would be touched by the famous Amphion, and in his hand to serve for the builder of Thebes, or if that Thales had bespoke it, who was so great a master by the force of his music he pacified a popular tumult amongst the Lacedaemonians. A good-natured shipwright would ply his work more heartily, if he were constructing the rudder for the admiral galley of Themistocles when he fought for the liberty of Greece, or of Pompey when he went on his expedition against the pirates: what ecstasy of delight then must a philosopher be in, when he reflects that his scholar is a man of authority, a prince or great potentate, that he is employed in so public a work, giving laws to him who is to give laws to a whole nation, who is to punish vice, and to reward the virtuous with riches and honor? The builder of the ARGO certainly would have been mightily pleased, if he had known what noble mariners were to row in his ship, and that at last she should be translated into heaven; and a carpenter would not be half so much pleased to make a chariot or plough, as to cut the tablets on which Solon’s laws were to be engraved. In like manner the discourses and rules of philosophy, being once deeply stamped and imprinted on the minds of great personages, will stick so close, that the prince shall seem no other than justice incarnate and animated law. This was the design of Plato’s voyage into Sicily — he hoped that the lectures of his philosophy would serve for laws to Dionysius, and bring his affairs again into a good posture. But the soul of that unfortunate prince was like paper scribbled all over with the characters of vice; its piercing and corroding quality had stained quite through, and sunk into the very substance of his soul. Whereas, such persons must be taken when they are on the run, if they are to absorb useful discourses.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24