On Benefits, by L. Annaeus Seneca

Book III.

I. Not to return gratitude for benefits, my AEbutius Liberalis, is both base in itself, and is thought base by all men; wherefore even ungrateful men complain of ingratitude, and yet what all condemn is at the same time rooted in all; and so far do men sometimes run into the other extreme that some of them become our bitterest enemies, not merely after receiving benefits from us, but because they have received them. I cannot deny that some do this out of sheer badness of nature; but more do so because lapse of time destroys their remembrance, for time gradually effaces what they felt vividly at the moment. I remember having had an argument with you about this class of persons, whom you wished to call forgetful rather than ungrateful, as if that which caused a man to be ungrateful was any excuse for his being so, or as if the fact of this happening to a man prevented his being ungrateful, when we know that it only happens to ungrateful men. There are many classes of the ungrateful, as there are of thieves or of homicides, who all have the same fault, though there is a great variety in its various forms. The man is ungrateful who denies that he has received a benefit; who pretends that he has not received it; who does not return it. The most ungrateful man of all is he who forgets it. The others, though they do not repay it, yet feel their debt, and possess some traces of worth, though obstructed by their bad conscience. They may by some means and at some time be brought to show their gratitude, if, for instance, they be pricked by shame, if they conceive some noble ambition such as occasionally rises even in the breasts of the wicked, if some easy opportunity of doing so offers; but the man from whom all recollection of the benefit has passed away can never become grateful. Which of the two do you call the worse — he who is ungrateful for kindness, or he who does not even remember it? The eyes which fear to look at the light are diseased, but those which cannot see it are blind. It is filial impiety not to love one’s parents, but not to recognise them is madness.

II. Who is so ungrateful as he who has so completely laid aside and cast away that which ought to be in the forefront of his mind and ever before him, that he knows it not? It is clear that if forgetfulness of a benefit steals over a man, he cannot have often thought about repaying it.

In short, repayment requires gratitude, time, opportunity, and the help of fortune; whereas, he who remembers a benefit is grateful for it, and that too without expenditure. Since gratitude demands neither labour, wealth, nor good fortune, he who fails to render it has no excuse behind which to shelter himself; for he who places a benefit so far away that it is out of his sight, never could have meant to be grateful for it. Just as those tools which are kept in use, and are daily touched by the hand, are never in danger of growing rusty, while those which are not brought before our eyes, and lie as if superfluous, not being required for common use, collect dirt by the mere lapse of time, so likewise that which our thoughts frequently turn over and renew never passes from our memory, which only loses those things to which it seldom directs its eyes.

III. Besides this, there are other causes which at times erase the greatest services from our minds. The first and most powerful of these is that, being always intent upon new objects of desire, we think, not of what we have, but of what we are striving to obtain. Those whose mind is fixed entirely upon what they hope to gain, regard with contempt all that is their own already. It follows that since men’s eagerness for something new makes them undervalue whatever they have received, they do not esteem those from whom they have received it. As long as we are satisfied with the position we have gained, we love our benefactor, we look up to him, and declare that we owe our position entirely to him; then we begin to entertain other aspirations, and hurry forward to attain them after the manner of human beings, who when they have gained much always covet more; straightway all that we used to regard as benefits slip from our memory, and we no longer consider the advantages which we enjoy over others, but only the insolent prosperity of those who have outstripped us. Now no one can at the same time be both jealous and grateful, because those who are jealous are querulous and sad, while the grateful are joyous. In the next place, since none of us think of any time but the present, and but few turn back their thoughts to the past, it results that we forget our teachers, and all the benefits which we have obtained from them, because we have altogether left our childhood behind us: thus, all that was done for us in our youth perishes unremembered, because our youth itself is never reviewed. What has been is regarded by every one, not only as past, but as gone; and for the same reason, our memory is weak for what is about to happen in the future.

IV. Here I must do Epicurus the justice to say that he constantly complains of our ingratitude for past benefits, because we cannot bring back again, or count among our present pleasures, those good things which we have received long ago, although no pleasures can be more undeniable than those which cannot be taken from us. Present good is not yet altogether complete, some mischance may interrupt it; the future is in suspense, and uncertain; but what is past is laid up in safety. How can any man feel gratitude for benefits, if he skips through his whole life entirely engrossed with the present and the future? It is remembrance that mates men grateful; and the more men hope, the less they remember.

V. In the same way, my Liberalis, as some things remain in our memory as soon as they are learned, while to know others it is not enough to have learned them, for our knowledge slips away from us unless it be kept up — I allude to geometry and astronomy, and such other sciences as are Hard to remember because of their intricacy — so the greatness of some benefits prevents their being forgotten, while others, individually less, though many more in number, and bestowed at different times, pass from our minds, because, as I have stated above, we do not constantly think about them, and do not willingly recognize how much we owe to each of our benefactors. Listen to the words of those who ask for favours. There is not one of them who does not declare that his remembrance will be eternal, who does not vow himself your devoted servant and slave, or find, if he can, some even greater expression of humility with which to pledge himself. After a brief space of time these same men avoid their former expressions, thinking them abject, and scarcely befitting free-born men; afterwards they arrive at the same point to which, as I suppose, the worst and most ungrateful of men come — that is, they forget. So little does forgetfulness excuse ingratitude, that even the remembrance of a benefit may leave us ungrateful.

VI. The question has been raised, whether this most odious vice ought to go unpunished; and whether the law commonly made use of in the schools, by which we can proceed against a man for ingratitude, ought to be adopted by the State also, since all men agree that it is just. “Why not?” you may say, “seeing that even cities cast in each other’s teeth the services which they have performed to one another, and demand from the children some return for benefits conferred upon their fathers?” On the other hand, our ancestors, who were most admirable men, made demands upon their enemies alone, and both gave and lost their benefits with magnanimity. With the exception of Macedonia, no nation has ever established an action at law for ingratitude. And this is a strong argument against its being established, because all agree in blaming crime; and homicide, poisoning, parricide, and sacrilege are visited with different penalties in different countries, but everywhere with some penalty; whereas this most common vice is nowhere punished, though it is everywhere blamed. We do not acquit it; but as it would be most difficult to reckon accurately the penalty for so varying a matter, we condemn it only to be hated, and place it upon the list of those crimes which we refer for judgment to the gods.

VII. Many arguments occur to me which prove that this vice ought not to come under the action of the law. First of all, the best part of a benefit is lost if the benefit can be sued for at law, as in the case of a loan, or of letting and hiring. Indeed, the finest part of a benefit is that we have given it without considering whether we shall lose it or not, that we have left all this to the free choice of him who receives it: if I call him before a judge, it begins to be not a benefit, but a loan. Next, though it is a most honourable thing to show gratitude, it ceases to be honourable if it be forced, for in that case no one will praise a grateful man any more than he praises him who restores the money which was deposited in his keeping, or who pays what he borrowed without the intervention of a judge. We should therefore spoil the two finest things in human life — a grateful man and a beneficent man; for what is there admirable in one who does not give but merely lends a benefit, or in one who repays it, not because he wishes, but because he is forced to do so? There is no credit in being grateful, unless it is safe to be ungrateful. Besides this, all the courts would hardly be enough for the action of this one law. Who would not plead under it? Who would not be pleaded against? for every one exalts his own merits, every one magnifies even the smallest matters which he has bestowed upon another. Besides this, those things which form the subject of a judicial inquiry can be distinctly defined, and cannot afford unlimited licence to the judge; wherefore a good cause is in a better position if it before a judge than before an arbitrator, because the words of the law tie down a judge and define certain limits beyond which he may not pass, whereas the conscience of an arbitrator is free and not fettered by any rules, so that he can either give or take away, and can arrange his decision, not according to the precepts of law and justice, but just as his own kindly feeling or compassion may prompt him. An action for ingratitude would not bind a judge, but would place him in the position of an autocrat. It cannot be known what or how great a benefit is; all that would be really important would be, how indulgently the judge might interpret it. No law defines an ungrateful person, often, indeed, one who repays what he has received is ungrateful, and one who has not returned it is grateful. Even an unpractised judge can give his vote upon some matters; for instance, when the thing to be determined is whether something has or has not been done, when a dispute is terminated by the parties giving written bonds, or when the casting up of accounts decides between the disputants. When, however, motives have to be guessed at, when matters upon which wisdom alone can decide, are brought into court, they cannot be tried by a judge taken at random from the list of “select judges,” 1 whom property and the inheritance of an equestrian fortune 2 has placed upon the roll.

VIII. Ingratitude, therefore, is not only matter unfit to be brought into court, but no judge could be found fit to try it; and this you will not be surprised at, if you examine the difficulties of any one who should attempt to prosecute a man upon such a charge. One man may have given a large sum of money, but he is rich and would not feel it; another may have given it at the cost of his entire inheritance. The sum given is the same in each case, but the benefit conferred is not the same. Add another instance: suppose that to redeem a debtor from slavery one man paid money from his own private means, while another man paid the same sum, but had to borrow it or beg for it, and allow himself to be laid under a great obligation to some one; would you rank the man who so easily bestowed his benefit on an equality with him who was obliged to receive a benefit himself before he could bestow it? Some benefits are great, not because of their amount, but because of the time at which they are bestowed; it is a benefit to give an estate whose fertility can bring down the price of corn, and it is a benefit to give a loaf of bread in time of famine; it is a benefit to give provinces through which flow vast navigable rivers, and it is a benefit, when men are parched with thirst, and can scarcely draw breath through their dry throats, to show them a spring of water. Who will compare these cases with one another, or weigh one against the other? It is hard to give a decision when it is not the thing given, but its meaning, which has to be considered; though what is given is the same, yet if it be given under different circumstances it has a different value. A man may have bestowed a benefit upon me, but unwillingly; he may have complained of having given it; he may have looked at me with greater haughtiness than he was wont to do; he may have been so slow in giving it, that he would have done me a greater service if he had promptly refused it. How could a judge estimate the value of these things, when words, hesitation, or looks can destroy all their claim to gratitude?

IX. What, again, could he do, seeing that some things are called benefits because they are unduly coveted, whilst others are not benefits at all, according to this common valuation, yet are of even greater value, though not so showy? You call it a benefit to cause a man to be adopted as a member of a powerful city, to get him enrolled among the knights, or to defend one who is being tried for his life: what do you say of him who gives useful advice? of him who holds you back when you would rush into crime? of him who strikes the sword from the hands of the suicide? of him who by his power of consolation brings back to the duties of life one who was plunged in grief, and eager to follow those whom he had lost? of him who sits at the bedside of the sick man, and who, when health and recovery depend upon seizing the right moment, administers food in due season, stimulates the failing veins with wine, or calls in the physician to the dying man? Who can estimate the value of such services as these? who can bid us weigh dissimilar benefits one with another? “I gave you a house,” says one. Yes, but I forewarned you that your own house would come down upon your head. “I gave you an estate,” says he. True, but I gave a plank to you when shipwrecked. “I fought for you and received wounds for you,” says another. But I saved your life by keeping silence. Since a benefit is both given and returned differently by different people, it is hard to make them balance.

X. Besides this, no day is appointed for repayment of a benefit, as there is for borrowed money; consequently he who has not yet repaid a benefit may do so hereafter: for tell me, pray, within what time a man is to be declared ungrateful? The greatest benefits cannot be proved by evidence; they often lurk in the silent consciousness of two men only; are we to introduce the rule of not bestowing benefits without witnesses? Next, what punishment are we to appoint for the ungrateful? is there to be one only for all, though the benefits which they have received are different? or should the punishment be varying, greater or less according to the benefit which each has received? Are our valuations to be restricted to pecuniary fines? what are we to do, seeing that in some cases the benefit conferred is life, and things dearer than life? What punishment is to be assigned to ingratitude for these? One less than the benefit? That would be unjust. One equal to it; death? What could be more inhuman than to cause benefits to result in cruelty?

XI. It may be argued, “Parents have certain privileges: these are regarded as exempt from the action of ordinary rules, and so also ought to be the case with other beneficent persons.” Nay; mankind has assigned a peculiar sanctity to the position of parents, because it was advantageous that children should be reared, and people had to be tempted into undergoing the toil of doing so, because the issue of their experiment was doubtful. One cannot say to them, as one does to others who bestow benefits, “Choose the man to whom you give: you must only blame yourself if you are deceived; help the deserving.” In rearing children nothing depends upon the judgment of those who rear them; it is a matter of hope: in order, therefore, that people may be more willing to embark upon this lottery, it was right that they should be given a certain authority; and since it is useful for youth to be governed, we have placed their parents in the position of domestic magistrates, under whose guardianship their lives may be ruled. Moreover, the position of parents differs from that of other benefactors, for their having given formerly to their children does not stand in the way of their giving now and hereafter; and also, there is no fear of their falsely asserting that they have given: with others one has to inquire not only whether they have received, but whether they have given; but the good deeds of parents are placed beyond doubt. In the next place, one benefit bestowed by parents is the same for all, and might be counted once for all; while the others which they bestow are of various kinds, unlike one to another, differing from one another by the widest possible intervals; they can therefore come under no regular rule, since it would be more just to leave them all unrewarded than to give the same reward to all.

XII. Some benefits cost much to the givers, some are of much value to the receivers but cost the givers nothing. Some are bestowed upon friends, others on strangers: now although that which is given be the same, yet it becomes more when it is given to one with whom you are beginning to be acquainted through the benefits which you have previously conferred upon him. One man may give us help, another distinctions, a third consolation. You may find one who thinks nothing pleasanter or more important than to have some one to save him from distress; you may again find one who would rather be helped to great place than to security; while some consider themselves more indebted to those who save their lives than to those who save their honour. Each of these services will be held more or less important, according as the disposition of our judge inclines to one or the other of them. Besides this, I choose my creditors for myself, whereas I often receive benefits from those from whom I would not, and sometimes I am laid under an obligation without my knowledge. What will you do in such a case? When a man has received a benefit unknown to himself, and which, had he known of it, he would have refused to receive, will you call him ungrateful if he does not repay it, however he may have received it? Suppose that some one has bestowed a benefit upon me, and that the same man has afterwards done me some wrong; am I to be bound by his one bounty to endure with patience any wrong that he may do me, or will it be the same as if I had repaid it, because he himself has by the subsequent wrong cancelled his own benefit? How, in that case, would you decide which was the greater; the present which the man has received, or the injury which has been done him? Time would fail me if I attempted to discuss all the difficulties which would arise.

XIII. It may be argued that “we render men less willing to confer benefits by not supporting the claim of those which have been bestowed to meet with gratitude, and by not punishing those who repudiate them.” But you would find, on the other hand, that men would be far less willing to receive benefits, if by so doing they were likely to incur the danger of having to plead their cause in court, and having more difficulty in proving their integrity. This legislation would also render us less willing to give: for no one is willing to give to those who are unwilling to receive, but one who is urged to acts of kindness by his own good nature and by the beauty of charity, will give all the more freely to those who need make no return unless they choose. It impairs the credit of doing a service, if in doing it we are carefully protected from loss.

XIV. “Benefits, then, will be fewer, but more genuine: well, what harm is there in restricting people from giving recklessly?” Even those who would have no legislation upon the subject follow this rule, that we ought to be somewhat careful in giving, and in choosing those upon whom we bestow favours. Reflect over and over again to whom you are giving: you will have no remedy at law, no means of enforcing repayment. You are mistaken if you suppose that the judge will assist you: no law will make full restitution to you, you must look only to the honour of the receiver. Thus only can benefits retain their influence, and thus only are they admirable: you dishonour them if you make them the grounds of litigation, “Pay what you owe” is a most just proverb; and one which carries with it the sanction of all nations; but in dealing with benefits it is most shameful. “Pay!” How is a man to pay who owes his life, his position, his safety, or his reason to another? None of the greatest benefits can be repaid. “Yet,” it is said, “you ought to give in return for them something of equal value.” This is just what I have been saying, that the grandeur of the act is ruined if we make our benefits commercial transactions. We ought hot to encourage ourselves in avarice, in discontent, or in quarrels; the human mind is prone enough to these by nature. As far as we are able, let us check it, and cut off the opportunities for which it seeks.

XV. Would that we could indeed persuade men to receive back money which they have lent from those debtors only who are willing to pay! would that no agreement ever bound the buyer to the seller, and that their interests were not protected by sealed covenants and agreements, but rather by honour and a sense of justice! However, men prefer what is needful to what is truly best, and choose rather to force their creditors to keep faith with them than to trust that they will do so. Witnesses are called on both sides; the one, by calling in brokers, makes several names appear in his accounts as his debtors instead of one; the other is not content with the legal forms of question and answer unless he holds the other party by the hand. What a shameful admission of the dishonesty and wickedness of mankind! men trust more to our signet-rings than to our intentions. For what are these respectable men summoned? for what do they impress their seals? it is in order that the borrower may not deny that he has received what he has received. You regard these men, I suppose, as above bribes, as maintainers of the truth: well, these very men will not be entrusted with money except on the same terms. Would it not, then, be more honourable to be deceived by some than to suspect all men of dishonesty? To fill up the measure of avarice one thing only is lacking, that we should bestow no benefit without a surety. To help, to be of service, is the part of a generous and noble mind; he who gives acts like a god, he who demands repayment acts like a money-lender. Why then, by trying to protect the rights of the former class, should we reduce them to the level of the basest of mankind?

XVI. “More men,” our opponent argues, “will be ungrateful, if no legal remedy exists against ingratitude.” Nay, fewer, because then benefits will be bestowed with more discrimination, In the next place, it is not advisable that it should be publicly known how many ungrateful men there are: for the number of sinners will do away with the disgrace of the sin, and a reproach which applies to all men will cease to be dishonourable. Is any woman ashamed of being divorced, now that some noble ladies reckon the years of their lives, not by the number of the consuls, but by that of their husbands, now that they leave their homes in order to marry others, and marry only in order to be divorced? Divorce was only dreaded as long as it was unusual; now that no gazette appears without it, women learn to do what they hear so much about. Can any one feel ashamed of adultery, now that things have come to such a pass that no woman keeps a husband at all unless it be to pique her lover? Chastity merely implies ugliness. Where will you find any woman so abject, so repulsive, as to be satisfied with a single pair of lovers, without having a different one for each hour of the day; nor is the day long enough for all of them, unless she has taken her airing in the grounds of one, and passes the night with another. A woman is frumpish and old-fashioned if she does not know that “adultery with one paramour is nick-named marriage.” Just as all shame at these vices has disappeared since the vice itself became so widely spread, so if you made the ungrateful begin to count their own numbers, you would both make them more numerous, and enable them to be ungrateful with greater impunity.

XVII. “What then? shall the ungrateful man go unpunished?” What then, I answer, shall we punish the undutiful, the malicious, the avaricious, the headstrong, and the cruel? Do you imagine that those things which are loathed are not punished, or do you suppose that any punishment is greater than the hate of all men? It is a punishment not to dare receive a benefit from anyone, not to dare to bestow one, to be, or to fancy that you are a mark for all men’s eyes, and to lose all appreciation of so excellent and pleasant a matter. Do you call a man unhappy who has lost his sight, or whose hearing has been impaired by disease, and do you not call him wretched who has lost the power of feeling benefits? He fears the gods, the witnesses of all ingratitude; he is tortured by the thought of the benefit which he has misapplied, and, in fine, he is sufficiently punished by this great penalty, that, as I said before, he cannot enjoy the fruits of this most delightful act. On the other hand, he who takes pleasure in receiving a benefit, enjoys an unvarying and continuous happiness, which he derives from consideration, not of the thing given, but of the intention of the giver. A benefit gives perpetual joy to a grateful man, but pleases an ungrateful one only for a moment. Can the lives of such men be compared, seeing that the one is sad and gloomy — as it is natural that a denier of his debts and a defrauder should be, a man who does not give his parents, his nurses, or his teachers the honour which is their due — while the other is joyous, cheerful, on the watch for an opportunity of proving his gratitude, and gaining much pleasure from this frame of mind itself? Such a man has no wish to become bankrupt, but only to make the fullest and most copious return for benefits, and that not only to parents and friends, but also to more humble persons; for even if he receives a benefit from his own slave, he does not consider from whom he receives it, but what he receives.

XVIII. It has, however, been doubted by Hecaton and some other writers, whether a slave can bestow a benefit upon his master. Some distinguish between benefits, duties, and services, calling those things benefits which are bestowed by a stranger — that is, by one who could discontinue them without blame — while duties are performed by our children, our wives, and those whom relationship prompts and orders to afford us help; and, thirdly, services are performed by slaves, whose position is such that nothing which they do for their master can give them any claim upon him . . . .

Besides this, he who affirms that a slave does not sometimes confer a benefit upon his master is ignorant of the rights of man; for the question is, not what the station in life of the giver may be, but what his intentions are. The path of virtue is closed to no one, it lies open to all; it admits and invites all, whether they be free-born men, slaves or freed-men, kings or exiles; it requires no qualifications of family or of property, it is satisfied with a mere man. What, indeed, should we have to trust to for defence against sudden misfortunes, what could — a noble mind promise to itself to keep unshaken, if virtue could be lost together with prosperity? If a slave cannot confer a benefit upon his master, then no subject can confer a benefit upon his king, and no soldier upon his general; for so long as the man is subject to supreme authority, the form of authority can make no difference. If main force, or the fear of death and torture, can prevent a slave from gaining any title to his master’s gratitude, they will also prevent the subjects of a king, or the soldiers of a general from doing so, for the same things may happen to either of these classes of men, though under different names.

Yet men do bestow benefits upon their kings and their generals; therefore slaves can bestow benefits upon their masters. A slave can be just, brave, magnanimous; he can therefore bestow a benefit, for this is also the part of a virtuous man. So true is it that slaves can bestow benefits upon their masters, that the masters have often owed their lives to them.

XIX. There is no doubt that a slave can bestow a benefit upon anyone; why, then, not upon his master? “Because,” it is argued, “he cannot become his master’s creditor if he gives him money. If this be not so, he daily lays his master under an obligation to him; he attends him when on a journey, he nurses him when sick, he works most laboriously at the cultivation of his estate; yet all these, which would be called benefits if done for us by anyone else, are merely called service when done by a slave. A benefit is that which some one bestows who has the option of withholding it:— now a slave has no power to refuse, so that he does not afford us his help, but obeys our orders, and cannot boast of having done what he could not leave undone.” Even under these conditions I shall win the day, and will place a slave in such positions, that for many purposes he will be free; in the meanwhile, tell me, if I give you an instance of a slave fighting for his master’s safety without regard to himself, pierced through with wounds, yet spending the last drops of his blood, and gaining time for his master to escape by the sacrifice of his life, will you say that this man did not bestow a benefit upon his master because he was a slave? If I give an instance of one who could not be bribed to betray his master’s secrets by any of the offers of a tyrant, who was not terrified by any threats, nor overpowered by any tortures, but who, as far as he was able, placed his questioners upon a wrong scent, and, paid for his loyalty with his life; will you say that this man did not confer a benefit upon his master because he was a slave? Consider, rather, whether an example of virtue in a slave be not all the greater because it is rarer than in free men, and whether it be not all the more gratifying that, although to be commanded is odious, and all submission to authority is irksome, yet in some particular cases love for a master has been more powerful than men’s general dislike to servitude. A benefit does not, therefore, cease to be a benefit because it is bestowed by a slave, but is all the greater on that account, because not even slavery could restrain him from bestowing it.

XX. It is a mistake to imagine that slavery pervades a man’s whole being; the better part of him is exempt from it: the body indeed is subjected and in the power of a master, but the mind is independent, and indeed is so free and wild, that it cannot be restrained even by this prison of the body, wherein it is confined, from following its own impulses, dealing with gigantic designs, and soaring into the infinite, accompanied by all the host of heaven. It is, therefore, only the body which misfortune hands over to a master, and which he buys and sells; this inward part cannot be transferred as a chattel. Whatever comes from this, is free; indeed, we are not allowed to order all things to be done, nor are slaves compelled to obey us in all things; they will not carry out treasonable orders, or lend their hands to an act of crime.

XXI. There are some things which the law neither enjoins nor forbids; it is in these that a slave finds the means of bestowing benefits. As long as we only receive what is generally demanded from a slave, that is mere service; when more is given than a slave need afford us, it is a benefit; as soon as what he does begins to partake of the affection of a friend, it can no longer be called service. There are certain things with which a master is bound to provide his slave, such as food and clothing; no one calls this a benefit; but supposing that he indulges his slave, educates him above his station, teaches him arts which free-born men learn, that is a benefit. The converse is true in the case of the slave; anything which goes beyond the rules of a slave’s duty, which is done of his own free will, and not in obedience to orders, is a benefit, provided it be of sufficient importance to be called by such a name if bestowed by any other person.

XXII. It has pleased Chrysippus to define a slave as “a hireling for life.” Just as a hireling bestows a benefit when he does more than he engaged himself to do, so when a slave’s love for his master raises him above his condition and urges him to do something noble — something which would be a credit even to men more fortunate by birth — he surpasses the hopes of his master, and is a benefit found in the house. Do you think it is just that we should be angry with our slaves when they do less than their duty, and that we should not be grateful to them when they do more? Do you wish to know when their service is not a benefit? When the question can be asked, “What if he had refused to do it?” When he does that which he might have refused to do, we must praise his good will. Benefits and wrongs are opposites; a slave can bestow a benefit upon his master, if he can receive a wrong from his master. Now an official has been appointed to hear complaints of the wrongs done by masters to their slaves, whose duty it is to restrain cruelty and lust, or avarice in providing them with the necessaries of life. What follows, then? Is it the master who receives a benefit from his slave? nay, rather, it is one man who receives it from another. Lastly, he did all that lay in his power; he bestowed a benefit upon his master; it lies in your power to receive or not to receive it from a slave. Yet who is so exalted, that fortune may not make him need the aid even of the lowliest?

XXIII. I shall now quote a number of instances of benefits, not all alike, some even contradictory. Some slaves have given their master life, some death; have saved him when perishing, or, as if that were not enough, have saved him by their own death; others have helped their master to die, some have saved his life by stratagem. Claudius Quadrigarius tells us in the eighteenth book of his “Annals,” that when Grumentum was being besieged, and had been reduced to the greatest straits, two slaves deserted to the enemy, and did valuable service. Afterwards, when the city was taken, and the victors were rushing wildly in every direction, they ran before every one else along the streets, which they well knew, to the house in which they had been slaves, and drove their mistress before them; when they were asked who she might be, they answered that she was their mistress, and a most cruel one, and that they were leading her away for punishment. They led her outside the walls, and concealed her with the greatest care until the fighting was over; then, as the soldiery, satisfied with the sack of the city, quickly resumed the manners of Romans, they also returned to their own countrymen, and themselves restored their mistress to them. She manumitted each of them on the spot, and was not ashamed to receive her life from men over whom she had held the power of life and death. She might, indeed, especially congratulate herself upon this; for had she been saved otherwise, she would merely have received a common and hackneyed piece of kindness, whereas, by being saved as she was, she became a glorious legend, and an example to two cities. In the confusion of the captured city, when every one was thinking only of his own safety, all deserted her except these deserters; but they, that they might prove what had been their intentions in effecting that desertion, deserted again from the victors to the captive, wearing the masks of unnatural murderers.

They thought — and this was the greatest part of the service which they rendered — they were content to seem to have murdered their mistress, if thereby their mistress might be saved from murder. Believe me, it is the mark of no slavish soul to purchase a noble deed by the semblance of crime.

When Vettius, the praetor of the Marsi, was being led into the presence of the Roman general, his slave snatched a sword from the soldier who was dragging him along, and first slew his master. Then he said, “It is now time for me to look to myself; I have already set my master free,” and with these words transfixed himself with one blow. Can you tell me of anyone who saved his master more gloriously?

XXIV. When Caesar was besieging Corfinium, Domitius, who was shut up in the city, ordered a slave of his own, who was also a physician, to give him poison. Observing the man’s hesitation, he said, “Why do you delay, as though the whole business was in your power? I ask for death with arms in my hands.” Then the slave assented, and gave him a harmless drug to drink. When Domitius fell asleep after drinking this, the slave went to his son, and said, “Give orders for my being kept in custody until you learn from the result whether I have given your father poison or no.” Domitius lived, and Caesar saved his life; but his slave had saved it before.

XXV. During the civil war, a slave hid his master, who had been proscribed, put on his rings and clothes, met the soldiers who were searching for him, and, after declaring that he would not stoop to entreat them not to carry out their orders, offered his neck to their swords. What a noble spirit it shows in a slave to have been willing to die for his master, at a time when few were faithful enough to wish their master to live! to be found kind when the state was cruel, faithful when it was treacherous! to be eager for the reward of fidelity, though it was death, at a time when such rich rewards were offered for treachery!

XXVI. I will not pass over the instances which our own age affords. In the reign of Tiberius Caesar, there was a common and almost universal frenzy for informing, which was more ruinous to the citizens of Rome than the whole civil war; the talk of drunkards, the frankness of jesters, was alike reported to the government; nothing was safe; every opportunity of ferocious punishment was seized, and men no longer waited to hear the fate of accused persons, since it was always the same. One Paulus, of the Praetorian guard, was at an entertainment, wearing a portrait of Tiberius Caesar engraved in relief upon a gem. It would be absurd for me to beat about the bush for some delicate way of explaining that he took up a chamber-pot, an action which was at once noticed by Maro, one of the most notorious informers of that time, and the slave of the man who was about to fall into the trap, who drew the ring from the finger of his drunken master. When Maro called the guests to witness that Paulus had dishonoured the portrait of the emperor, and was already drawing up an act of accusation, the slave showed the ring upon his own finger. Such a man no more deserves to be called a slave, than Maro deserved to be called a guest.

XXVII. In the reign of Augustus men’s own words were not yet able to ruin them, yet they sometimes brought them into trouble. A senator named Rufus, while at dinner, expressed a hope that Caesar would not return safe from a journey for which he was preparing, and added that all bulls and calves wished the same thing. Some of those present carefully noted these words. At daybreak, the slave who had stood at his feet during the dinner, told him what he had said in his cups, and urged him to be the first to go to Caesar, and denounce himself. Rufus followed this advice, met Caesar as he was going down to the forum, and, swearing that he was out of his mind the day before, prayed that what he had said might fall upon his own head and that of his children; he then begged Caesar pardon him, and to take him back into favour. When Caesar said that he would do so, he added, “No one will believe that you have taken me back into favour unless you make me a present of something;” and he asked for and obtained a sum of money so large, that it would have been a gift not to be slighted even if bestowed by an unoffended prince. Caesar added: “In future I will take care never to quarrel with you, for my own sake.” Caesar acted honourably in pardoning him, and in being liberal as well as forgiving; no one can hear this anecdote without praising Caesar, but he must praise the slave first. You need not wait for me to tell you that the slave who did his master this service was set free; yet his master did not do this for nothing, for Caesar had already paid him the price of the slave’s liberty.

XXVIII. After so many instances, can we doubt that a master may sometimes receive a benefit from a slave? Why need the person of the giver detract from the thing which he gives? why should not the gift add rather to the glory of the giver. All men descend from the same original stock; no one is better born than another, except in so far as his disposition is nobler and better suited for the performance of good actions. Those who display portraits of their ancestors in their halls, and set up in the entrance to their houses the pedigree of their family drawn out at length, with many complicated collateral branches, are they not notorious rather than noble? The universe is the one parent of all, whether they trace their descent from this primary source through a glorious or a mean line of ancestors. Be not deceived when men who are reckoning up their genealogy, wherever an illustrious name is wanting, foist in that of a god in its place. You need despise no one, even though he bears a commonplace name, and owes little to fortune. Whether your immediate ancestors were freedmen, or slaves, or foreigners, pluck up your spirits boldly, and leap over any intervening disgraces of your pedigree; at its source, a noble origin awaits you. Why should our pride inflate us to such a degree that we think it beneath us to receive benefits from slaves, and think only of their position, forgetting their good deeds? You, the slave of lust, of gluttony, of a harlot, nay, who are owned as a joint chattel by harlots, can you call anyone else a slave? Call a man a slave? why, I pray you, whither are you being hurried by those bearers who carry your litter? whither are these men with their smart military-looking cloaks carrying you? is it not to the door of some door-keeper, or to the gardens of some one who has not even a subordinate office? and then you, who regard the salute of another man’s slave as a benefit, declare that you cannot receive a benefit from your own slave. What inconsistency is this? At the same time you despise and fawn upon slaves, you are haughty and violent at home, while out of doors you are meek, and as much despised as you despise your slaves; for none abase themselves lower than those who unconscionably give themselves airs, nor are anymore prepared to trample upon others than those who have learned how to offer insults by having endured them.

XXIX. I felt it my duty to say this, in order to crush the arrogance of men who are themselves at the mercy of fortune, and to claim the right of bestowing a benefit for slaves, in order that I may claim it also for sons. The question arises, whether children can ever bestow upon their parents greater benefits than those which they have received from them.

It is granted that many sons become greater and more powerful than their parents, and also that they are better men. If this be true, they may give better gifts to their fathers than they have received from them, seeing that their fortune and their good nature are alike greater than that of their father. “Whatever a father receives from his son,” our opponent will urge, “must in any case be lees than what the son received from him, because the son owes to his father the very power of giving. Therefore the father can never be surpassed in the bestowal of benefits, because the benefit which surpasses his own is really his.” I answer, that some things derive their first origin from others, yet are greater than those others; and a thing may be greater than that from which it took its rise, although without that thing to start from it never could have grown so great. All things greatly outgrow their beginnings. Seeds are the causes of all things, and yet are the smallest part of the things which they produce. Look at the Rhine, or the Euphrates, or any other famous rivers; how small they are, if you only view them at the place from whence they take their rise? they gain all that makes them terrible and renowned as they flow along. Look at the trees which are tallest if you consider their height, and the broadest if you look at their thickness and the spread of their branches; compared with all this, how small a part of them is contained in the slender fibres of the root? Yet take away their roots, and no more groves will arise, nor great mountains be clothed with trees. Temples and cities are supported by their foundations; yet what is built as the foundation of the entire building lies out of sight. So it is in other matters; the subsequent greatness of a thing ever eclipses its origin. I could never have obtained anything without having previously received the boon of existence from my parents; yet it does not follow from this that whatever I obtain is less than that without which I could not obtain it. If my nurse had not fed me when I was a child, I should not have been able to conduct any of those enterprises which I now carry on, both with my head and with my hand, nor should I ever have obtained the fame which is due to my labours both in peace and war; would you on that account argue that the services of a nurse were more valuable than the most important undertakings? Yet is not the nurse as important as the father, since without the benefits which I have received from each of them alike, I should have been alike unable to effect anything? If I owe all that I now can do to my original beginning, I cannot regard my father or my grandfather as being this original beginning; there always will be a spring further back, from which the spring next below is derived. Yet no one will argue that I owe more to unknown and forgotten ancestors than to my father; though really I do owe them more, if I owe it to my ancestors that my father begat me.

XXX. “Whatever I have bestowed upon my father,” says my opponent, “however great it may be, yet is less valuable than what my father has bestowed upon me, because if he had not begotten me, it never could have existed at all.” By this mode of reasoning, if a man has healed my father when ill, and at the point of death, I shall not be able to bestow anything upon him equivalent to what I have received from him; for had my father not been healed, he could not have begotten me. Yet think whether it be not nearer the truth to regard all that I can do, and all that I have done, as mine, due to my own powers and my own will? Consider what the fact of my birth is in itself; you will see that it is a small matter, the outcome of which is dubious, and that it may lead equally to good or to evil; no doubt it is the first step to everything, but because it is the first, it is not on that account more important than all the others. Suppose that I have saved my father’s life, raised him to the highest honours, and made him the chief man in his city, that I have not merely made him illustrious by my own deeds, but have furnished him himself with an opportunity of performing great exploits, which is at once important, easy, and safe, as well as glorious; that I have loaded him with appointments, wealth, and all that attracts men’s minds; still, even when I surpass all others, I am inferior to him. Now if you say, “You owe to your father the power of doing all this,” I shall answer, “Quite true, if to do all this it is only necessary to be born; but if life is merely an unimportant factor in the art of living well, and if you have bestowed upon me only that which I have in common with wild beasts and the smallest, and some of the foulest of creatures, do not claim for yourself what did not come into being in consequence of the benefits which you bestowed, even though it could not have come into being without them.”

XXXI. Suppose, father, that I have saved your life, in return for the life which I received from you: in this case also I have outdone your benefit, because I have given life to one who understands what I have done, and because I understood what I was doing, since I gave you your life not for the sake of, or by the means of my own pleasure; for just as it is less terrible to die before one has time to fear death, so it is a much greater boon to preserve one’s life than to receive it. I have given life to one who will at once enjoy it, you gave it to one who knew not if he should ever live; I have given life to one who was in fear of death, your gift of life merely enables me to die; I have given you a life complete, perfect; you begat me without intelligence, a burden upon others. Do you wish to know how far from a benefit it was to give life under such conditions? You should have exposed me as a child, for you did me a wrong in begetting me. What do I gather from this? That the cohabitation of a father and mother is the very least of benefits to their child, unless in addition this beginning of kindnesses be followed up by others, and confirmed by other services. It is not a good thing to live, but to live well. “But,” say you, “I do live well.” True, but I might have lived ill; so that your part in me is merely this, that I live. If you claim merit to yourself for giving me mere life, bare and helpless, and boast of it as a great boon, reflect that this you claim merit for giving me is a boon which I possess in common with flies and worms. In the next place, if I say no more than that I have applied myself to honourable pursuits, and have guided the course of my life along the path of rectitude, then you have received more from your benefit than you gave; for you gave me to myself ignorant and unlearned, and I have returned to you a son such as you would wish to have begotten.

XXXII. My father supported me. If I repay this kindness, I give him more than I received, because he has the pleasure, not only of being supported, but of being supported by a son, and receives more delight from my filial devotion than from the food itself, whereas the food which he used to give me merely affected my body. What? if any man rises so high as to become famous among nations for his eloquence, his justice, or his military skill, if much of the splendour of his renown is shed upon his father also, and by its clear light dispels the obscurity of his birth, does not such a man confer an inestimable benefit upon his parents? Would anyone have heard of Aristo and Gryllus except through Xenophon and Plato, their sons? Socrates keeps alive the memory of Sophroniscus. It would take long to recount the other men whose names survive for no other reason than that the admirable qualities of their sons have handed them down to posterity. Did the father of Marcus Agrippa, of whom nothing was known, even after Agrippa became famous, confer the greater benefit upon his son, or was that greater which Agrippa conferred upon his father when he gained the glory, unique in the annals of war, of a naval crown, and when he raised so many vast buildings in Rome, which not only surpassed all former grandeur, but have been surpassed by none since? Did Octavius confer a greater benefit upon his son, or the Emperor Augustus upon his father, obscured as he was by the intervention of an adoptive father? What joy would he have experienced, if, after the putting down of the civil war, he had seen his son ruling the state in peace and security? He would not have recognized the good which he had himself bestowed, and would hardly have believed, when he looked back upon himself, that so great a man could have been born in his house. Why should I go on to speak of others who would now be forgotten, if the glory of their sons had not raised them from obscurity, and kept them in the light until this day? In the next place, as we are not considering what son may have given back to his father greater benefits than he received from him, but whether a son can give back greater benefits, even if the examples which I have quoted are not sufficient, and such benefits do not outweigh the benefits bestowed by the parents, if no age has produced. an actual example, still it is not in the nature of things impossible. Though no solitary act can outweigh the deserts of a parent, yet many such acts combined by one son may do so.

XXXIII. Scipio, while under seventeen years of age, rode among the enemy in battle, and saved his father’s life. Was it not enough, that in order to reach his father he despised so many dangers when they were pressing hardest upon the greatest generals, that he, a novice in his first battle, made his way through so many obstacles, over the bodies of so many veteran soldiers, and showed strength and courage beyond his years? Add to this, that he also defended his father in court, and saved him from a plot of his powerful enemies, that he heaped upon him a second and a third consulship and other posts which were coveted even by consulars, that when his father was poor he bestowed upon him the plunder which he took by military licence, and that he made him rich with the spoils of the enemy, which is the greatest honour of a soldier. If even this did not repay his debt, add to it that he caused him to be constantly employed in the government of provinces and in special commands, add, that after he had destroyed the greatest cities, and became without a rival either in the east or in the west, the acknowledged protector and second founder of the Roman Empire, he bestowed upon one who was already of noble birth the higher title of “the father of Scipio;” can we doubt that the commonplace benefit of his birth was outdone by his exemplary conduct, and by the valour which was at once the glory and the protection of his country? Next, if this be not enough, suppose that a son were to rescue his father from the torture, or to undergo it in his stead. You can suppose the benefits returned by the son as great as you please, whereas the gift he received from his father was of one sort only, was easily performed, and was a pleasure to the giver; that he must necessarily have given the same thing to many others, even to some to whom he knows not that he has given it, that he had a partner in doing so, and that he had in view the law, patriotism, the rewards bestowed upon fathers of families by the state, the maintenance of his house and family: everything rather than him to whom he was giving life. What? supposing that any one were to learn philosophy and teach it to his father, could it be any longer disputed that the son had given him something greater than he had received from him, having returned to his father a happy life, whereas he had received from him merely life?

XXXIV. “But,” says our opponent, “whatever you do, whatever you are able to give to your father, is part of his benefit bestowed upon you.” So it is the benefit of my teacher that I have become proficient in liberal studies; yet we pass on from those who taught them to us, at any rate from those who taught us the alphabet; and although no one can learn anything without them, yet it does not follow that whatsoever success one subsequently obtains, one is still inferior to those teachers. There is a great difference between the beginning of a thing and its final development; the beginning is not equal to the thing at its greatest, merely upon the ground that, without the beginning, it could never have become so great.

XXXV. It is now time for me to bring forth something, so to speak, from my own mint. So long as there is something better than the benefit which a man bestows, he may be outdone. A father gives life to his son; there is something better than life; therefore a father may be outdone, because there is something better than the benefit which he has bestowed. Still further, he who has given any one his life, if he be more than once saved from peril of death by him, has received a greater benefit than he bestowed. Now, a father has given life to his son: if, therefore, he be more than once saved from peril by his son, he can receive a greater benefit than he gave. A benefit becomes greater to the receiver in proportion to his need of it. Now he who is alive needs life more than he who has not been born, seeing that such a one can have no need at all; consequently a father, if his life is saved by his son, receives a greater benefit than his son received from him by being born. It is said, “The benefits conferred by fathers cannot be outdone by those returned by their sons.” Why? “Because the son received life from his father, and had he not received it, he could not have returned any benefits at all.” A father has this in common with all those who have given any men their lives; it is impossible that these men could repay the debt if they had not received their life. Then I suppose one cannot overpay one’s debt to a physician, for a physician gives life as well as a father; or to a sailor who has saved us when shipwrecked? Yet the benefits bestowed by these and by all the others who give us life in whatever fashion, can be outdone: consequently those of our fathers can be outdone. If any one bestows upon me a benefit which requires the help of benefits from many other persons, whereas I give him what requires no one to help it out, I have given more than I have received; now a father gave to his son a life which, without many accessories to preserve it, would perish; whereas a son, if he gives life to his father, gives him a life which requires no assistance to make it lasting; therefore the father who receives life from his son, receives a greater benefit than he himself bestowed upon his son.

XXXVI. These considerations do not destroy the respect due to parents, or make their children behave worse to them, nay, better; for virtue is naturally ambitious, and wishes to outstrip those who are before it. Filial piety will be all the more eager, if, in returning a father’s benefits, it can hope to outdo them; nor will this be against the will or the pleasure of the father, since in many contests it is to our advantage to be outdone. How does this contest become so desirable? How comes it to be such happiness to parents that they should confess themselves outdone by the benefits bestowed by their children? Unless we decide the matter thus, we give children an excuse, and make them less eager to repay their debt, whereas we ought to spur them on, saying, “Noble youths, give your attention to this! You are invited to contend in an honourable strife between parents and children, as to which party has received more than it has given. Your fathers have not necessarily won the day because they are first in the field: only take courage, as befits you, and do not give up the contest; you will conquer if you wish to do so. In this honourable warfare you will have no lack of leaders who will encourage you to perform deeds like their own, and bid you follow in their footsteps upon a path by which victory has often before now been won over parents.

XXXVII. AEneas conquered his father in well doing, for he himself had been but a light and a safe burden for him when he was a child, yet he bore his father, when heavy with age, through the midst of the. enemy’s lines and the crash of the city which was falling around him, albeit the devout old man, who bore the sacred images and the household gods in his hands, pressed him with more than his own weight; nevertheless (what cannot filial piety accomplish!) AEneas bore him safe through the blazing city, and placed him in safety, to be worshipped as one of the founders of the Roman Empire. Those Sicilian youths outdid their parents whom they bore away safe, when Aetna, roused to unusual fury, poured fire over cities and fields throughout a great part of the island. It is believed that the fires parted, and that the flames retired on either side, so as to leave a passage for these youths to pass through, who certainly deserved to perform their daring task in safety. Antigonus outdid his father when, after having conquered the enemy in a great battle, he transferred the fruits of it to him, and handed over to him the empire of Cyprus. This is true kingship, to choose not to be a king when you might. Manlius conquered his father, imperious 3 though he was, when, in spite of his having previously been banished for a time by his father on, account of his dulness and stupidity as a boy, he came to an interview which he had demanded with the tribune of the people, who had filed an action against his father. The tribune had granted him the interview, hoping that he would betray his hated father, and believed that he had earned the gratitude of the youth, having, amongst other matters, reproached old Manlius with sending him into exile, treating it as a very serious accusation; but the youth, having caught him alone, drew a sword which he had hidden in his robe, and said, “Unless you swear to give up your suit against my father, I will run you through with this sword. It is in your power to decide how my father shall be freed from his prosecutor.” The tribune swore, and kept his oath; he related the reason of his abandonment of his action to an assembly at the Rostra. No other man was ever permitted to put down a tribune with impunity.

XXXVIII. There are instances without number of men who have saved their parents from danger, have raised them from the lowest to the highest station, and, taking them from the nameless mass of the lower classes, have given them a name glorious throughout all ages. By no force of words, by no power of genius, can one rightly express how desirable, how admirable, how never to be erased from human memory it is to be able to say, “I obeyed my parents, I gave way to them, I was submissive to their authority whether it was just, or unjust and harsh; the only point in which I resisted them was, not to be conquered by them in benefits.” Continue this struggle, I beg of you, and even though weary, yet re-form your ranks. Happy are they who conquer, happy they who are conquered. What can be more glorious than the youth who can say to himself — it would not be right to say it to another —”I have conquered my father with benefits”? What is more fortunate than that old man who declares everywhere to everyone that he has been conquered in benefits by his son? What, again, is more blissful than to be overcome in such a contest?”

1. See Smith’s “Dict. of Antiq.,” s. v

2. 400,000 sesterces

3. There is an allusion to the surname of both the father and the son, “Imperiosus” given them on account of their severity.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29