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Whether 'live Unknown' Be A Wise Precept Post by :Oracle_320th Category :Essays Author :Plutarch Date :October 2011 Read :1902

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Whether "live Unknown" Be A Wise Precept

Sec. I. He who uttered this precept(895) certainly did not wish to live unknown, for he uttered it to let all the world know he was a superior thinker, and to get to himself unjust glory by exhorting others to shun glory.
"I hate the wise man for himself not wise."(896)
They say that Philoxenus the son of Eryxis and Gnatho the Sicilian, being exceedingly greedy where good fare was going, would blow their nose in the dishes, to disgust all others at the table, that they alone might take their fill of the choicest dishes. So those that are insatiable pursuers of glory calumniate glory to others who are their rivals, that they may get it without antagonists. In this they resemble rowers, who face the stern of the vessel but propel it ahead, that by the recoil from the stroke of their oars they may reach port, so those that give vent to precepts like this pursue glory with their face turned in the opposite direction. For otherwise what need was there to utter a precept like this, or to write and hand it down to posterity, if he wished to live unknown to his own generation, who did not wish to live unknown to posterity?

Sec. II. Look at the matter in the following way.(897) Has not that "live unknown" a villainous ring, as though one had broken open graves? Is your life so disgraceful that we must all be ignorant of it? For my part I should say, Even if your life be bad do not live unknown, but be known, reform, repent; if you have virtue, be not utterly useless in life; if you are vicious, do not continue unreformed. Point out then and define to whom you recommend this precept. If to an ignorant or wicked or senseless person, you resemble one who should say to a person in a fever or delirium, "Be unknown. Don't let the doctor know your condition. Go and throw yourself into some dark place, that you and your ailments may be unknown." So you say to a vicious man, "Go off with your vice, and hide your deadly and irremediable disease from your friends, fearful to show your superstitious fears, palpitations as it were, to those who could admonish you and cure you." Our remote ancestors paid public attention to the sick, and if any one had either had or cured a similar complaint, he communicated his experience to the patient, and so they say medical art became great by these contributions from experience. We ought also in the same way to expose to everyone diseased lives and the passions of the soul, and to handle them, and to examine the condition of each,(898) and say, Are you a passionate man? Be on your guard against anger. Are you of a jealous turn? Look to it. Are you in love? I myself was in love once, but I had to repent. But nowadays people deny and conceal and cloak their vices, and so fix them deeper in themselves.

Sec. III. Moreover if you advise men of worth to live unknown and in obscurity, you say to Epaminondas, Do not be a general; and to Lycurgus, Do not be a legislator; and to Thrasybulus, Do not be a tyrannicide; and to Pythagoras, Do not teach; and to Socrates, Do not discourse; and first and foremost you bid yourself, Epicurus, to refrain from writing letters to your friends in Asia, and from enrolling Egyptian strangers among your disciples, and from dancing attendance on the youths of Lampsacus, and sending books to all quarters to display your wisdom to all men and all women, and leaving directions in your will about your funeral. What is the meaning of those common tables of yours? what that crowd of friends and handsome youths? Why those many thousand lines written and composed so laboriously on Metrodorus, and Aristobulus, and Chaeredemus, that they may not be unknown even in death, if(899) you ordain for virtue oblivion, for art inactivity, for philosophy silence, and for success that it should be speedily forgotten?

Sec. IV. But if you exclude all knowledge about life, like putting the lights out at a supper party, that you may go from pleasure to pleasure undetected,(900) then "live unknown." Certainly if I am going to pass my life with the harlot Hedeia, or my days with Leontium, and spurn at virtue, and put my summum bonum in sensual gratifications, these are ends that require darkness and night, on these oblivion and ignorance are rightly cast. But if any one in nature sings the praises of the deity and justice and providence, and in morals upholds the law and society and the constitution, and in the constitution what is honourable and not expedient, why should he "live unknown"? Is it that he should instruct nobody, inspire in nobody an emulation for virtue, and be to nobody a pattern in good?(901) Had Themistocles been unknown at Athens, Greece would not have repelled Xerxes; had Camillus been unknown at Rome, Rome would not have remained a state; had Plato been unknown to Dion, Sicily would not have won its freedom. And as light, I take it, makes us not only visible but useful to one another, so knowledge gives not only glory but impetus to virtue. Epaminondas in obscurity up to his fortieth year was no use to the Thebans, but when his merits became known and he was put into power, he saved his state from ruin, and liberated Greece from slavery, making his abilities efficacious in emergency through his reputation like the bright shining of a light. For Sophocles' words,

"Brightly shines brass in use, but when unused
It groweth dull in time, and mars the house,"(902)

are also appropriate to the character of a man, which gets rusty and senile by not mixing in affairs but living in obscurity. For mute inglorious ease, and a sedentary life devoted to leisure, not only injure the body but also the soul: and as hidden waters overshadowed and stagnant get foul because they have no outlet, so the innate powers of unruffled lives, that neither imbibe nor pass on anything, even if they had any useful element in them once, seem to be effete and wasted.

Sec. V. Have you never noticed how when night comes on a tired languor seizes the body, and inactive torpor overpowers the soul, and reason shrinks within itself like a fire going out, and feeling quite worn out is gently agitated by disordered fancies, only just indicating that the man is alive? But when the sun rises and scares away deceitful dreams, and brings on as it were the everyday world(903) and with its light rouses and stimulates the thoughts and actions of everybody, then, as Democritus says, "men form new ideas for the day," and betake themselves to their various pursuits with mutual impetuosity, as if drawn by a strong impulse.

Sec. VI. And I think that life itself, and the way we come into the world, is so ordained by the deity that we should know one another. For everyone comes into this great universe obscure and unknown casually and by degrees, but when he mixes with his fellows and grows to maturity he shines forth, and becomes well-known instead of obscure, and conspicuous instead of unknown. For knowledge is not the road to being, as some say, but being to knowledge, for being does not create but only exhibits things, as death is not the reducing of existence to non-existence, but rather the result of dissolution is obscurity. So people considering the Sun as Apollo according to hereditary and ancient institutions, call him Delius(904) and Pythius; whereas the lord of the world of darkness, whether god or demon, they call Hades(905) (for when we die we go into an unseen and invisible place), and the lord of dark night and idle sleep. And I think our ancestors called man himself by a word meaning light,(906) because by their relationship to light all have implanted in them a strong and vehement desire to know and to be known. And some philosophers think that the soul itself is light in its essence, inferring so on other grounds and because it can least endure ignorance about facts, and hates(907) everything obscure, and is disturbed at everything dark, which inspires fear and suspicion in it, whereas light is so dear and welcome to it that it thinks nothing otherwise delightful bearable without it, as indeed light makes every pleasure pastime and enjoyment gay and cheerful, like the application of some sweet and general flavour. But the man who thrusts himself into obscurity, and wraps himself up in darkness and buries himself alive, is like one who is dissatisfied with his birth, and renounces his being.

Sec. VII. And yet Pindar tells us(908) that the abode of the blest is a glorious existence, where the sun shines bright through the entire night in meadows red with roses, an extensive plain full of shady trees ever in bloom never in fruit, watered by gentle purling streams, and there the blest ones pass their time away in thinking and talking about the past and present in social converse....(909) But the third road is of those who have lived unholy and lawless lives, that thrusts their souls to Erebus and the bottomless pit, where sluggish streams of murky night belch forth endless darkness, which receive those that are to be punished and conceal them in forgetfulness and oblivion. For vultures do not always prey on the liver of wicked persons lying on the ground,(910) for it is destroyed by fire or has rolled away; nor does the carrying of heavy burdens press upon and tire out the bodies of those that undergo punishment,

"For their strength has no longer flesh and bones,"(911)
nor have the dead any vestige of body that can receive the infliction of punishment that can make impression; but in reality the only punishment of those who have lived ill is infamy and obscurity and utter annihilation, which hurries them off to the dark river of oblivion,(912) and plunges them into the abyss of a fathomless sea, involving them in uselessness and idleness, ignorance and obscurity.


(895) Probably Epicurus, as we infer from the very personal Sec. iii.

(896) Euripides, Fragm. 930.

(897) Reading with Wyttenbach, (Greek: Alla touto men taute).

(898) Reading (Greek: ekastou) for (Greek: ekaston). Reiske proposed (Greek: ekaston).

(899) Reading (Greek: ei) (for (Greek: hina)) with Xylander and Wyttenbach.

(900) Reading with Wyttenbach.

(901) Adopting the suggestion of Wyttenbach, "Forte (Greek: kalou), at Amiot."

(902) Frag. 742.

(903) "Dormiens quisque in peculiarem abest mumdum, expergefactus in communem redit."--Xylander. Compare Herrick's Poem, "Dreames."

(904) Bright.

(905) Invisible.

(906) (Greek: phos).

(907) Reading with Wyttenbach (Greek: echthairei).

(908) Reading (Greek: phesin) for (Greek: physin).

(909) Hiatus hic valde deflendus.

(910) As was fabled about Tityus, "Odyssey," xi. 576-579.

(911) "Odyssey," xi. 219.

(912) So Reiske, (Greek: potamin tes lethes).

(The end)
Plutarch's essay: Whether "Live Unknown" Be A Wise Precept

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