April 14, 2020•2155 words
A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays. THE MODERN LIBRARY
DEBTS AND LESSONS
1. MY GRANDFATHER VERUS
Character and self-control.
2. MY FATHER (FROM MY OWN MEMORIES AND HIS REPUTATION)
Integrity and manliness.
3. MY MOTHER
Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not
only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the
simple way she lived—not in the least like the rich.
4. MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER
To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers,
and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.
5. MY FIRST TEACHER
Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter
or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make
demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and
have no time for slanderers.
Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by
conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about
incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it. Not to be
obsessed with quail-fighting or other crazes like that. To hear
unwelcome truths. To practice philosophy, and to study with
Baccheius, and then with Tandasis and Marcianus. To write
dialogues as a student. To choose the Greek lifestyle—the
camp-bed and the cloak.
The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my
Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to
write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing
little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The
Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. To steer
clear of oratory, poetry and belles lettres.
Not to dress up just to stroll around the house, or things
like that. To write straightforward letters (like the one he
sent my mother from Sinuessa). And to behave in a
conciliatory way when people who have angered or annoyed
us want to make up.
To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting
the gist of it.” And not to fall for every smooth talker.
And for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and
loaning me his own copy.
Independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention
to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to
be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a
child, chronic illness. And to see clearly, from his example,
that a man can show both strength and flexibility.
His patience in teaching. And to have seen someone who
clearly viewed his expertise and ability as a teacher as the
humblest of virtues.
And to have learned how to accept favors from friends
without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.
An example of fatherly authority in the home. What it
means to live as nature requires.
Gravity without airs.
To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to
amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with
everyone: sharing his company was the highest of
compliments, and the opportunity an honor for those around
To investigate and analyze, with understanding and logic,
the principles we ought to live by.
Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of
passion and yet full of love.
To praise without bombast; to display expertise without
10. THE LITERARY CRITIC ALEXANDER
Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not
to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a
grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just
answer their question or add another example, or debate the
issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other
contribution to the discussion—and insert the right
To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power
produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by
people from “good families.”
12. ALEXANDER THE PLATONIST
Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I’m
too busy, unless I really am. Similarly, not to be always
ducking my responsibilities to the people around me because
of “pressing business.”
Not to shrug off a friend’s resentment—even unjustified
resentment—but try to put things right.
To show your teachers ungrudging respect (the Domitius
and Athenodotus story), and your children unfeigned love.
14. [MY BROTHER] SEVERUS
To love my family, truth and justice. It was through him that I
encountered Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion and Brutus, and
conceived of a society of equal laws, governed by equality
of status and of speech, and of rulers who respect the liberty
of their subjects above all else.
And from him as well, to be steady and consistent in
And to help others and be eager to share, not to be a
pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you.
And that when people incurred his disapproval, they always
knew it. And that his friends never had to speculate about his
attitude to anything: it was always clear.
Self-control and resistance to distractions.
Optimism in adversity—especially illness.
A personality in balance: dignity and grace together.
Doing your job without whining.
Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he
thought, and what he did was done without malice.
Never taken aback or apprehensive. Neither rash nor
hesitant—or bewildered, or at a loss. Not obsequious
—but not aggressive or paranoid either.
Generosity, charity, honesty.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than
being kept on it.
That no one could ever have felt patronized by him—or
in a position to patronize him.
A sense of humor.
16. MY ADOPTED FATHER
Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d
reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work.
Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public
His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.
A sense of when to push and when to back off.
Putting a stop to the pursuit of boys.
His altruism. Not expecting his friends to keep him
entertained at dinner or to travel with him (unless they
wanted to). And anyone who had to stay behind to take care
of something always found him the same when he returned.
His searching questions at meetings. A kind of singlemindedness,
almost, never content with first impressions, or
breaking off the discussion prematurely.
His constancy to friends—never getting fed up with them,
or playing favorites.
Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness.
And his advance planning (well in advance) and his
discreet attention to even minor things.
His restrictions on acclamations—and all attempts to
His constant devotion to the empire’s needs. His
stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take
responsibility—and blame—for both.
His attitude to the gods: no superstitiousness. And his
attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no
pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or
a prey to fads.
The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had
supplied him in such abundance—without arrogance and
without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of
them. If not, he didn’t miss them.
No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic.
They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life,
accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both
himself and them.
His respect for people who practiced philosophy—at
least, those who were sincere about it. But without
denigrating the others—or listening to them.
His ability to feel at ease with people—and put them at
their ease, without being pushy.
His willingness to take adequate care of himself. Not a
hypochondriac or obsessed with his appearance, but not
ignoring things either. With the result that he hardly ever
needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or
This, in particular: his willingness to yield the floor to
experts—in oratory, law, psychology, whatever—and to
support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill
That he respected tradition without needing to constantly
congratulate himself for Safeguarding Our Traditional
Not prone to go off on tangents, or pulled in all directions,
but sticking with the same old places and the same old things.
The way he could have one of his migraines and then go
right back to what he was doing—fresh and at the top of his
That he had so few secrets—only state secrets, in fact, and
not all that many of those.
The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds
—games, building projects, distributions of money and so on
—because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit
to be gained from doing it.
No bathing at strange hours, no self-indulgent building
projects, no concern for food, or the cut and color of his
clothes, or having attractive slaves. (The robe from his farm
at Lorium, most of the things at Lanuvium, the way he
accepted the customs agent’s apology at Tusculum, etc.)
He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or
turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was
to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a
calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose
You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that
he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most
people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy.
Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark
of a soul in readiness—indomitable.
17. THE GODS
That I had good grandparents, a good mother and father, a
good sister, good teachers, good servants, relatives, friends
—almost without exception. And that I never lost control of
myself with any of them, although I had it in me to do that,
and I might have, easily. But thanks to the gods, I was never
put in that position, and so escaped the test.
That I wasn’t raised by my grandfather’s girlfriend for
longer than I was. That I didn’t lose my virginity too early,
and didn’t enter adulthood until it was time—put it off, even.
That I had someone—as a ruler and as a father—who
could keep me from being arrogant and make me realize that
even at court you can live without a troop of bodyguards, and
gorgeous clothes, lamps, sculpture—the whole charade. That
you can behave almost like an ordinary person without
seeming slovenly or careless as a ruler or when carrying out
That I had the kind of brother I did. One whose character
challenged me to improve my own. One whose love and
affection enriched my life.
That my children weren’t born stupid or physically
That I wasn’t more talented in rhetoric or poetry, or other
areas. If I’d felt that I was making better progress I might
never have given them up.
That I conferred on the people who brought me up the
honors they seemed to want early on, instead of putting them
off (since they were still young) with the hope that I’d do it
That I knew Apollonius, and Rusticus, and Maximus.
That I was shown clearly and often what it would be like
to live as nature requires. The gods did all they could—
through their gifts, their help, their inspiration—to ensure that
I could live as nature demands. And if I’ve failed, it’s no
one’s fault but mine. Because I didn’t pay attention to what
they told me—to what they taught me, practically, step by
That my body has held out, especially considering the life
That I never laid a finger on Benedicta or on Theodotus.
And that even later, when I was overcome by passion, I
recovered from it.
That even though I was often upset with Rusticus I never
did anything I would have regretted later.
That even though she died young, at least my mother spent
her last years with me.
That whenever I felt like helping someone who was short
of money, or otherwise in need, I never had to be told that I
had no resources to do it with. And that I was never put in
that position myself—of having to take something from
That I have the wife I do: obedient, loving, humble.
That my children had competent teachers.
Remedies granted through dreams—when I was coughing
blood, for instance, and having fits of dizziness. And the one
That when I became interested in philosophy I didn’t fall
into the hands of charlatans, and didn’t get bogged down in
writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping, or
preoccupied with physics.
All things for which “we need the help of fortune and the