Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seneca and Some Relevant Comments for Our Time

I was reading Seneca's De Beneficiis (On Benefits) when I came across this timeless, sobering quote which really reminded me of the times in which we are living:

Our ancestors made the complaint, we make the complaint, and our descendents will complain about it too: morals are corrupt, vice is dominant, human affairs are declining, and all sense of right and wrong is crumbling. But the situation is still the same and it will remain pretty much the same, give or take a little movement one way or the other, like the waves which the incoming tide brings further inland and the outgoing tide holds back to the low-water line. (10.2) At one point our moral failings will lean more in the direction of adultery than any other vice, and the restraints of sexual modesty will be shattered; at another point the dominant vice will be the mad excesses of feasting and gastronomic extravagance, which reduce inheritances to a shameful state of ruin; at some other time it will be excessive cultivation of the body and an obsession with beauty that advertises intellectual and moral ugliness; again, it will be badly managed freedom which breaks out into presumptuous impudence; then we will descend into public and private savagery and the madness of civil wars, in which everything sacred and holy is violated. Some day drunkenness will bring respect, and the capacity to drink a huge volume of strong wine will be a virtue. (10.3) Vices do not wait around in just one location; they are on the move and jostle competitively with each other— sometimes winning, sometimes losing. But we will always be obliged to make the same declaration about ourselves: that we are bad now, have been bad in the past, and (though I add this point reluctantly) will be bad in the future. (10.4) There will always be killers, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, rapists, violators of religion, and traitors. 

But lower than all of these is the ungrateful man—unless, of course, all those crimes actually stem from ingratitude, without which hardly any great crime achieves its full magnitude. Treat it  as the greatest crime—and so avoid committing it. But think of it as the  slightest—and so forgive it if someone commits it against you.
For the sum total of the injustice is that you have lost the benefit you gave; you have preserved what is best about it, the fact that you gave it (1.10.1-4, translation Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood).

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