Ly. Give an account of yourself, my man. You wear a beard and let your hair grow; you eschew shirts; you exhibit your skin; your feet are bare; you choose a wandering, outcast, beastly life; unlike other people, you make your own body the object of your severities; you go from place to place sleeping on the hard ground where chance finds you, with the result that your old cloak, neither light nor soft nor gay to begin with, has a plentiful load of filth to carry about with it. Why is it all?
Cy. It meets my needs. It was easy to come by, and it gives its owner no trouble. It is the cloak for me.
Pray tell me, do you not call extravagance a vice? Ly. Oh, yes.
Cy. And economy a virtue?
Ly. Yes, again.
Cy. Then, if you find me living economically, and others extravagantly, why blame me instead of them?
Ly. I do not call your life more economical than other people’s; I call it more destitute — destitution and want, that is what it is; you are no better than the poor who beg their daily bread.
Cy. That brings us to the questions, What is want, and what is sufficiency? Shall we try to find the answers? Ly. If you like, yes.
Cy. A man’s sufficiency is that which meets his necessities; will that do?
Ly. I pass that.
Cy. And want occurs when the supply falls short of necessity — does not meet the need?
Cy. Very well, then, I am not in want; nothing of mine fails to satisfy my need.
Ly. How do you make that out?
Cy. Well, consider the purpose of anything we require; the purpose of a house is protection?
Cy. Clothing — what is that for? protection too, I think.
Cy. But now, pray, what is the purpose of the protection, in turn? the better condition of the protected, I presume.
Ly. I agree.
Cy. Then do you think my feet are in worse condition than yours?
Ly. I cannot say.
Cy. Oh, yes; look at it this way; what have feet to do?
Cy. And do you think my feet walk worse than yours, or than the average man’s?
Ly. Oh, not that, I dare say.
Cy. Then they are not in worse condition, if they do their work as well.
Ly. That may be so.
Cy. So it appears that, as far as feet go, I am in no worse condition than other people.
Ly. No, I do not think you are.
Cy. Well, the rest of my body, then? If it is in worse condition, it must be weaker, strength being the virtue of the body. Is mine weaker?
Ly. Not that I see.
Cy. Consequently, neither my feet nor the rest of my body need protection, it seems; if they did, they would be in bad condition; for want is always an evil, and deteriorates the thing concerned. But again, there is no sign, either, of my, body’s being nourished the worse for its nourishment’s being of a common sort.
Ly. None whatever.
Cy. It would not be healthy, if it were badly nourished; for bad food injures the body.
Ly. That is true.
Cy. If so, it is for you to explain why you blame me and depreciate my life and call it miserable.
Ly. Easily explained. Nature (which you honour) and the Gods have given us the earth, and brought all sorts of good things out of it, providing us with abundance not merely for our necessities, but for our pleasures; and then you abstain from all or nearly all of it, and utilize these good things no more than the beasts. Your drink is water, just like theirs; you eat what you pick up, like a dog, and the dog’s bed is as good as yours; straw is enough for either of you. Then your clothes are no more presentable than a beggar’s . Now, if this sort of contentment is to pass for wisdom, God must have been all wrong in making sheep woolly, filling grapes with wine, and providing all our infinite variety of oil, honey, and the rest, that we might have food of every sort, pleasant drink, money, soft beds, fine houses, all the wonderful paraphernalia of civilization, in fact; for the productions of art are God’s gifts to us too. To live without all these would be miserable enough even if one could not help it, as prisoners cannot, for instance; it is far more so if the abstention is forced upon a man by himself; it is then sheer madness.
Cy. You may be right. But take this case, now. A rich man, indulging genial kindly instincts, entertains at a banquet all sorts and conditions of men; some of them are sick, others sound, and the dishes provided are as various as the guests. There is one of these to whom nothing comes amiss; he has his finger in every dish, not only the ones within easy reach, but those some way off that were intended for the invalids; this though he is in rude health, has not more than one stomach, requires little to nourish him, and is likely to be upset by a surfeit. What is your opinion of this gentleman? is he a man of sense?
Ly. Why, no.
Cy. Is he temperate?
Ly. No, nor that.
Cy. Well, then there is another guest at the same table; he seems unconscious of all that variety, fixes on some dish close by that suits his need, eats moderately of it and confines himself to it without a glance at the rest. You surely find him a more temperate and better man than the other?
Cy. Do you see, or must I explain?
Cy. That the hospitable entertainer is God, who provides this variety of all kinds that each may have something to suit him; this is for the sound, that for the sick; this for the strong and that for the weak; it is not all for all of us; each is to take what is within reach, and of that only what he most needs.
Now you others are like the greedy unrestrained person who lays hands on everything; local productions will not do for you, the world must be your storehouse; your native land and its seas are quite insufficient; you purchase your pleasures from the ends of the earth, prefer the exotic to the home growth, the costly to the cheap, the rare to the common; in fact you would rather have troubles and complications than avoid them. Most of the precious instruments of happiness that you so pride yourselves upon are won only by vexation and worry. Give a moment’s thought, if you will, to the gold you all pray for, to the silver, the costly houses, the elaborate dresses, and do not forget their conditions precedent, the trouble and toil and danger they cost — nay, the blood and mortality and ruin; not only do numbers perish at sea on their account, or endure miseries in the acquisition or working of them; besides that, they have very likely to be fought for, or the desire of them makes friends plot against friends, children against parents, wives against husbands.
And how purposeless it all is! embroidered clothes have no more warmth in them than others, gilded houses keep out the rain no better, the drink is no sweeter out of a silver cup, or a gold one for that matter, an ivory bed makes sleep no softer; on the contrary, your fortunate man on his ivory bed between his delicate sheets constantly finds himself wooing sleep in vain. And as to the elaborate dressing of food, I need hardly say that instead of aiding nutrition it injures the body and breeds diseases in it.
As superfluous to mention the abuse of the sexual instinct, so easily managed if indulgence were not made an object. And if madness and corruption were limited to that —; but men must take nowadays to perverting the use of everything they have, turning it to unnatural purposes, like him who insists on making a carriage of a couch.
Ly. Is there such a person?
Cy. Why, he is you; you for whom men are beasts of burden, you who make them shoulder your couch-carriages, and loll up there yourselves in luxury, driving your men like so many asses and bidding them turn this way and not that; this is one of the outward and visible signs of your happiness.
Again, when people use edible things not for food but to get dye out of — the murex-dyers, for instance — are they not abusing God’s gifts?
Ly. Certainly not; the flesh of the murex can provide a pigment as well as food.
Cy. Ah, but it was not made for that. So you can force a mixing-bowl to do the work of a saucepan; but that is not what it was made for. However, it is impossible to exhaust these people’s wrong-headedness; it is endless. And because I will not join them, you reproach me. My life is that of the orderly man I described; I make merry on what comes to hand, use what is cheap, and have no yearning for the elaborate and exotic.
Moreover, if you think that because I need and use but few things I live the life of a beast, that argument lands you in the conclusion that the Gods are yet lower than the beasts; for they’ have no needs at all. But to clear your ideas on the comparative merits of great and small needs, you have only to reflect that children have more needs than adults, women than men, the sick than the well, and generally the inferior than the superior. Accordingly, the Gods have no needs, and those men the fewest who are nearest Gods.
Take Heracles, the best man that ever lived, a divine man, and rightly reckoned a God; was it wrong-headedness that made him go about in nothing but a lion’s skin, insensible to all the needs you feel? No, he was not wrong-headed, who righted other people’s wrongs; he was not poor, who was lord of land and sea. Wherever he went, he was master; he never met his superior or his equal as long as he lived. Do you suppose he could not get sheets and shoes, and therefore went as he did? absurd! he had self-control and fortitude; he wanted power, and not luxury.
And Theseus his disciple — king of all the Athenians, son of Posidon, says the legend, and best of his generation — he too chose to go naked and unshod; it was his pleasure to let his hair and beard grow; and not his pleasure only, but all his contemporaries’; they were better men than you, and would no more have let you shave them than a lion would; soft smooth flesh was very well for women, they thought; as for them, they were men, and were content to look it; the beard was man’s ornament, like the lion’s, or the horse’s mane; God had made certain beautiful and decorative additions to those creatures; and so he had to man, in the beard. Well, I admire those ancients and would fain be like them; I have not the smallest ‘ admiration for the present generation’s wonderful felicity — tables! clothes! bodies artificially polished all over! not a hair to grow on any of the places where nature plants it!
My prayer would be that my feet might be just hoofs, like Chiron’s in the story, that I might need bedclothes no more than the lion, and costly food no more than the dog. Let my sufficient bed be the whole earth, my house this universe, and the food of my choice the easiest procurable. May I have no need, I nor any that I call friend, of gold and silver. For all human evils spring from the desire of these, seditions and wars, conspiracies and murders. The fountain of them all is the desire of more. Never be that desire mine; let me never wish for more than my share, but be content with less.
Such are our aspirations — considerably different from other people’s . It is no wonder that our get-up is peculiar, since the peculiarity of our underlying principle is so marked. I cannot make out why you allow a harpist his proper robe and get-up — and so the flute-player has his, and the tragic actor his — but will not be consistent and recognize any uniform for a good man; the good man must be like every one else, of course, regardless of the fact that every one else is all wrong. Well, if the good are to have a uniform of their own, there can be none better than that which the average sensual man will consider most improper, and reject with most decision for himself.
Now my uniform consists of a rough hairy skin, a threadbare cloak, long hair, and bare feet, whereas yours is for all the world that of some minister to vice; there is not a pin to choose between you — the gay colours, the soft texture, the number of garments you are swathed in, the shoes, the sleeked hair, the very scent of you; for the more blessed you are, the more do you exhale perfumes like his. What value can one attach to a man whom one’s nose would identify for one of those minions? The consequence is, you are equal to no more work than they are, and to quite as much pleasure. You feed like them, you sleep like them, you walk like them — except so far as you avoid walking by getting yourselves conveyed like parcels by porters or animals; as for me, my feet take me anywhere that I want to go. I can put up with cold and heat and be content with the works of God — such a miserable wretch am I — whereas you blessed ones are displeased with everything that happens and grumble without ceasing; what is is intolerable, what is not you pine for, in winter for summer, in summer for winter, in heat for cold, in cold for heat, as fastidious and peevish as so many invalids; only their reason is to be found in their illness, and yours in your characters.
And then, because we occasionally make mistakes in practice, you recommend us to change our plan and correct our principles, the fact being that you in your own affairs go quite at random, never acting on deliberation or reason, but always on habit and appetite. You are no better than people washed about by a flood; they drift with the current, you with your appetites. There is a story of a man on a vicious horse that just gives your case. The horse ran away with him, and at the pace it was going at he could not get off. A man in the way asked him where he was off to; ‘wherever this beast chooses,’ was the reply. So if one asked you where you were bound for, if you cared to tell the truth you would say either generally, wherever your appetites chose, or in particular, where pleasure chose to-day, where fancy chose to-morrow, and where avarice chose another day; or sometimes it is rage, sometimes fear, sometimes any other such feeling, that takes you whither it will. You ride not one horse, but many at different times, all vicious, and all out of control. They are carrying you straight for pits and cliffs; but you do not realize that you are bound for a fall till the fall comes.
The old cloak, the shaggy hair, the whole get-up that you ridicule, has this effect; it enables me to live a quiet life, doing as I will and keeping the company I want. No ignorant uneducated person will have anything to say to one dressed like this; and the soft livers turn the other way as soon as I am in sight. But the refined, the reasonable, the earnest, seek me out; they are the men who seek me, because they are the men I wish to see. At the doors of those whom the world counts happy I do not dance attendance; their gold crowns and their purple I call ostentation, and them I laugh to scorn.
These externals that you pour contempt upon, you may learn that they are seemly enough not merely for good men, but for Gods, if you will look at the Gods’ statues; do those resemble you, or me? Do not confine your attention to Greece; take a tour round the foreign temples too, and see whether the Gods treat their hair and beards like me, or let the painters and sculptors shave them. Most of them, you will find, have no more shirt than I have, either. I hope you will not venture to describe again as mean an appearance that is accepted as godlike.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57