The humanist Bartolomeo Scala wrote a consolatory essay to Cosimo de Medici upon the death of Cosimo’s son Giovanni in 1463. The essay (Dialogus de consolatione) is presented in the form of a dialogue between Cosimo and the author. As the conversation progresses, Scala separates the “goods” (i.e., the good things which make life happy) of this world into three classes: goods of the body, goods of the soul, and a third category of what he calls “external goods.” External goods are such tangibles as wealth, riches, or glory. We can list our “goods” as follows:
1. Goods of the body: Health, strength, beauty, and associated positive physical traits
2. Goods of the soul: The transcendent love of the Divine Principle, the love of wisdom and virtue, and the pursuit of the philosophic life
3. External goods: Wealth (riches), glory (honor)
Of the goods of the body, much has been said by different writers on this subject. Perhaps no blessing is as important as a sound body and regular health; before one can philosophize, one must be blessed with corporeal salubrity. And yet it is strange how some of the best philosophers have been distinctly unsound of body.
Blaise Pascal’s autopsy showed a body wracked by the most terrible ailments and an abnormal cerebral cortex: his internal organs were found to be diseased, and the surface of his brain contained two depressions in it, each the size of a finger. Perhaps this was the origin of the headaches that tormented him for most of his adult life.
Descartes battled sickness from childhood. Nietzsche knew few days of health before being overtaken by insanity. We can speculate that an excess of health likely discourages the pursuit of strenuous mental effort. Plato himself seemed to think so, since (we are told) he supposedly established his Academy in a place uncongenial to physical vitality, so that his pupils would not be distracted by sensual pleasures. They might thereby, he believed, feel more incentive to sharpen their mental acuities.
As any follower of the popular celebrity culture knows, beauty has had a middling record of “goodness.” It has harmed as much as it has helped. It confers great social benefits on its holders, while cursing them with vanity and neurotic disorders. Physical gifts are a blessing, but ultimately they cannot be relied upon, for Fortune can revoke them just as readily as they have been granted.
And since the gifts of beauty or health have not been earned, but rather conferred by divine decree, their holders will not readily appreciate them. They thus can often prove to be an impediment to higher achievement. Because beautiful people are treated with such automatic deference by others, they lose the incentive to cultivate their own personal virtues. Reliance on inborn traits stunts the growth and enfeebles the will, leaving them ill-equipped to withstand the inevitable shocks of life.
But what of the external goods, riches and glory? Wealth is something we all wish for, as it enables us to indulge our ambitions, insulates us (we hope) from calamity, and soothes our avarice. It is neutral, in the sense that wealth in itself will neither corrupt nor ennoble us. It only magnifies the pre-existing traits of its holders. The flawed man will become worse with wealth, and the man of good virtue will become better with it.
Wealth can thus be seen as a fertilizer for the plant that already has germinated. Where wealth does its greatest damage is when it falls into the hands of those who are not equipped to deal with it. The young, the immature, the addictive personality, the defective personality: in these hands, wealth can corrupt and destroy with startling speed. Just as one would not hand the keys to a racecar to a youth of fifteen, it would be equally hazardous to grant vast riches to one who is ill-equipped to handle it.
The excessive pursuit of wealth promotes effeminacy in men. Monetary pursuits are mostly sedentary and indoor, and an obsession with these types of activities causes the body to deteriorate, and the soul to atrophy. Wealth whets the appetite for delicacies, whether it be rich foods or sumptuous clothing. Sallust says the following about avarice:
Avarice means the studied pursuit of money, and this no wise man obsesses over. Greed, as if imbued with a fatal poison, feminizes mind and body. It is infinite and insatiable. Neither abundance nor lack thereof can diminish it.
Wealth also promotes vanity and voluptuousness, as Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights III.5) noted in a story about the philosopher Arcesilaus, who taunted a rich man for his vanity. Archesilaus disdainfully observed the dandyish qualities of his target (his speech, affected mannerisms, dress, and hair), and said to him (with a pointed sexual double entendre), “It makes no difference with what parts of your body you debauch yourself, your front or your rear.”
And what of glory? The desire for glory also seems to be ingrained in the human psyche. Perhaps it is the desire for social approval taken to the extreme. How often in history has ambition proved to be the undoing of a great leader? How often has a man of otherwise prudent judgment been led to ruin by an unnecessary indulgence in glory’s vain temptations? There are examples here beyond number.
Of all the goods discussed here, I am inclined to believe that glory is the most useless, and indeed the most harmful. Like a summer shower, it falls suddenly, and evaporates quickly in the suns of circumstance, leaving us with a damp and hollow feeling. And this is why Roman generals in the republican period, when granted a triumph after a foreign campaign, were careful to have their slaves remind them that all glory was fleeting. But enough of these matters.
We have discussed the nature and qualities of external goods. A question which hovers on the margins here is whether virtue alone is sufficient to impart a happy life. The Stoics placed so much emphasis on virtue that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that a life devoted solely to its pursuit is an arid, unfulfilling one. The body has its own needs, which it alone knows. The mind may master the body, but the body remains the instrument for our exertion of control over our physical environment.
Endurance of pain is all well and good, but just as much evil arises from the suppression of pain as from its outward expression. To claim a proud indifference to pain, or to emotion, is to numb our sensitivity to the joys of life. It is a futile attempt to deny Nature’s power over our physical form, and this can only viewed as vanity on our part.
There is an amusing anecdote which illustrates the inadequacy of virtue alone for a fulfilling life. Aulus Gellius describes a scene (Attic Nights XVIII.1) where he was walking with a group of friends along the shoreline at Ostia on a spring evening. One of the group was his close friend Favorinus, another a follower of the Stoic school, and a third friend was a Peripatetic (a follower of the Aristotelian school).
The Stoic happened to state that virtue alone was sufficient to enjoy a happy life. The Peripatetic disagreed, responding that the use and enjoyment of one’s limbs, health, and similar accompaniments of good fortune were also necessary.
The Peripatetic posed this question to the Stoic. “Do you believe that an amphora of wine from which a congius has been taken, is still an amphora?”
“No,” said the Stoic. “You certainly could not call that an amphora.”
“Then you must admit that one congius makes an amphora,” replied the Peripatetic. “For if its presence makes an amphora, but its absence disqualifies it from being an amphora, then it is the deciding factor. But if it is absurd to say that one congius makes an amphora, then it is equally absurd to say that life can be made happy by virtue alone, or that removing virtue automatically prevents life from being happy.”
Here Favorinus interjected. To the Peripatetic he said, “You are using a clever trick here. When an amphora lacks a congius, this makes the amphora not full. When we add a congius, it completes, rather than makes, the amphora. You should understand the key difference here. The Stoics believe that virtue is not some supplement or ingredient to be added. They believe that virtue, by itself, is what makes a happy life. It alone is the deciding factor, when it is present or absent.”
Gellius does not tell us who won this argument. Perhaps both philosophers were missing the point. As for myself, I would prefer to have my amphora as full of wine as possible. Confronting the world with a full jar of wine gladdens my heart far more readily than having a jar from which someone has lifted a drink or two. A full amphora fortifies the spirit, and perhaps this feeling of confidence is virtue’s handmaiden.
More wisdom is to be found in multiple glasses of wine than in many books of the philosophers.
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