Plutarch’s Morals: Consolatory Letter To His Wife

The Moral Liberal, Classics Library

Plutarch’s Morals: “ Consolatory Lettter To His Wife”, 75 A.C.E.

§ i. Plutarch to his wife sends greeting. The messenger that you sent to me to announce the death of our little girl seems to have missed his way en route for Athens; but when I got to Tanagra I heard the news from my niece. I suppose the funeral has already taken place, and I hope everything went off so as to give you least sorrow both now and hereafter. But if you left undone anything you wished to do, waiting for my opinion, and thinking your grief would then be lighter, be it without ceremoniousness or superstition, both which things are indeed foreign to your character.

§ ii. Only, my dear wife, let us both be patient at this calamity. I know and can see very clearly how great it is, but should I find your grief too excessive, it would trouble me even more than the event itself. And yet I have not a heart hard as heart of oak or flintstone, as you yourself know very well, who have shared with me in the bringing up of so many children, as they have all been educated at home by ourselves. And this one I know was more especially beloved by you, as she was the first daughter after four sons, when you longed for a daughter, and so I gave her your name.191 And as you are very fond of children your grief must have a peculiar bitterness when you call to mind her pure and simple gaiety, which was without a tincture of passion or querulousness. For she had from nature a wonderful contentedness of mind and meekness, and her affectionateness and winning ways not only pleased one but also afforded a means of observing her kindliness of heart, for she used to bid her nurse192 give the teat not only to other children but even to her favourite playthings, and so invited them as it were to her table in kindliness of heart, and gave them a share of her good things, and provided the best entertainment for those that pleased her.

§ iii. But I see no reason, my dear wife, why these and similar traits in her character, that gave us delight in her lifetime,86 should now, when recalled to the memory, grieve and trouble us. Though, on the other hand, I fear that if we cease to grieve we may also cease to remember her, like Clymene, who says in the Play193—

“I hate the supple bow of cornel-wood,
And would put down athletics,”
because she ever avoided and trembled at anything that reminded her of her son, for it brought grief with it, and it is natural to avoid everything that gives us pain. But as she gave us the greatest pleasure in embracing her and even in seeing and hearing her, so ought her memory living and dwelling with us to give us more, aye, many times more, joy than grief, since those arguments that we have often used to others ought to be profitable to us in the present conjuncture, nor should we sit down and rail against fortune, opposing to those joys many more griefs.

§ iv. Those who were present at the funeral tell me with evident surprise that you put on no mourning, and that you bedizened up neither yourself nor your maids with the trappings of woe, and that there was no ostentatious expenditure of money at the funeral, but that everything was done orderly and silently in the presence of our relations. I am not myself surprised that you, who never made a display either at the theatre or on any other public occasion, and thought extravagance useless even in the case of pleasure, should have been frugal in your grief. For not only ought the chaste woman to remain uncorrupt in Bacchanalian revels,194 but she ought to consider her self-control not a whit less necessary in the surges of sorrow and emotion of grief, contending not (as most people think) against natural affection, but against the extravagant wishes of the soul. For we are indulgent to natural affection in the regret, and honour, and memory that it pays to the dead: but the insatiable desire for a passionate display of funeral grief, coming to the climax in coronachs and beatings of the breast, is not less unseemly than intemperance in 87pleasure and is unreasonably195 forgiven only because pain and grief instead of delight are elements in the unseemly exhibition. For what is more unreasonable than to curtail excessive laughter or any other demonstration of joy, and to allow a free vent to copious lamentation and wailing that come from the same source? And how unreasonable is it, as some husbands do, to quarrel with their wives about perfume and purple robes, while they allow them to shear their heads in mourning, and to dress in black, and to sit in idle grief, and to lie down in weariness! And what is worst of all, how unreasonable is it for husbands to interfere if their wives chastise the domestics and maids immoderately or without sufficient cause, yet allow them to ill-treat themselves cruelly in cases and conjunctures that require repose and kindness!

§ v. But between us, my dear wife, there never was any occasion for such a contest, nor do I think there ever will be. For as to your economy in dress and simple way of living, there is no philosopher with whom you are acquainted whom you did not amaze, nor is there any citizen who has not observed196 how plainly you dressed at sacred rites, and sacrifices, and theatres. You have also already on similar painful occasions exhibited great fortitude, as when you lost your eldest son, and again when our handsome Chæron died. For when I was informed of his death, I well remember some guests from the sea were coming home with me to my house as well as some others, but when they saw the great quiet and tranquillity of the household, they thought, as they afterwards told some other people, that no such disaster had really happened, but that the news was untrue. So well had you ordered everything in the house, at a time when there would have been great excuse for disorder. And yet you had suckled that son, though your breast had had to be lanced owing to a contusion. This was noble conduct and showed your great natural affection.

§ vi. But most mothers we see, when their children are 88brought to them clean and tidy, take them into their hands as playthings, and when they die burst out into idle and unthankful grief, not so much out of affection—for affection is thoughtful and noble—but a great yearning for vain glory197 mixed with a little natural affection makes their grief fierce and vehement and hard to appease. And this does not seem to have escaped Æsop’s notice, for he says that when Zeus assigned their honours to various gods, Grief also claimed his. And Zeus granted his wish, with this limitation that only those who chose and wished need pay him honour.198 It is thus with grief at the outset, everyone welcomes it at first, but after it has got by process of time settled, and become an inmate of the house, it is with difficulty dislodged again, however much people may wish to dislodge it. Wherefore we ought to keep it out of doors, and not let it approach the garrison by wearing mourning or shearing the hair, or by any similar outward sign of sorrow. For these things occurring daily and being importunate make the mind little, and narrow, and unsocial, and harsh, and timid, so that, being besieged and taken in hand by grief, it can no longer laugh, and shuns daylight, and avoids society. This evil will be followed by neglect of the body, and dislike to anointing and the bath and the other usual modes of life: whereas the very opposite ought to be the case, for the mind ill at ease especially requires that the body should be in a sound and healthy condition. For much of grief is blunted and relaxed when the body is permeated by calm, like the sea in fine weather. But if the body get into a dry and parched condition from a low diet, and gives no proper nutriment to the soul, but only feeds it with sorrow and grief, as it were with bitter and injurious exhalations, it cannot easily recover its tone however people may wish it should. Such is the state of the soul that has been so ill-treated.

§ vii. Moreover, I should not hesitate to assert199 that the 89most formidable peril in connection with this is “the visits of bad women,”200 and their chatter, and joint lamentation, all which things fan the fire of sorrow and aggravate it, and suffer it not to be extinguished either by others or by itself. I am not ignorant what a time of it you had lately, when you went to the aid of Theon’s sister, and fought against the women who came on a visit of condolence and rushed up with lamentation and wailing, adding fuel as it were to her fire of grief in their simplicity. For when people see their friends’ houses on fire they put it out as quickly and energetically as they can, but when their souls are on fire they themselves bring fuel. And if anybody has anything the matter with his eyes they will not let him put his hands to them, however much he wish, nor do they themselves touch the inflamed part; but a person in grief sits down and gives himself up to every chance comer, like a river [that all make use of], to stir up and aggravate the sore, so that from a little tickling and discomfort it grows into a great and terrible disease. However, as to all this I know you will be on your guard.

§ viii. Try also often to carry yourself back in memory to that time when, this little girl not having been then born, we had nothing to charge Fortune with, and to compare that time and this together, as if our circumstances had gone back to what they were then. Otherwise, my dear wife, we shall seem discontented at the birth of our little daughter, if we consider our position before her birth as more perfect. But we ought not to erase from our memory the two years of her life, but to consider them as a time of pleasure giving us gratification and enjoyment, and not to deem the shortness of the blessing as a great evil, nor to be unthankful for what was given us, because Fortune did not give us a longer tenure as we wished. For ever to be careful what we say about the gods, and to be cheerful and not rail against Fortune, brings a sweet and goodly profit; and he who in such conjunctures as ours mostly tries to remember his blessings, and turns and diverts his mind from the dark and disturbing things in life to the 90bright and radiant, either altogether extinguishes his grief or makes it small and dim from a comparison with his comforts. For as perfume gives pleasure to the nose, and is a remedy against disagreeable smells, so the remembrance of past happiness in present trouble gives all the relief they require to those who do not shut out of their memory the blessings of the past, or always and everywhere rail against Fortune. And this certainly ought not to be our case, that we should slander all our past life because, like a book, it has one erasure in it, when all the other pages have been bright and clean.

§ ix. You have often heard that happiness consists in right calculations resulting in a healthy state of mind, and that the changes which Fortune brings about need not upset it, and introduce confusion into our life. But if we too must, like most people, be governed by external events, and make an inventory of the dealings of Fortune, and constitute other people the judges of our felicity, do not now regard the tears and lamentations of those who visit you, which by a faulty custom are lavished on everybody, but consider rather how happy you are still esteemed by them for your family, your house, and life. For it would be monstrous, if others would gladly prefer your destiny to theirs, even taking into account our present sorrow, that you should rail against and be impatient at our present lot, and in consequence of our bitter grief not reflect how much comfort is still left to us. But like those who quote imperfect verses of Homer201 and neglect the finest passages of his writings, to enumerate and complain of the trials of life, while you pay no attention to its blessings, is to resemble those stingy misers, who heap up riches and make no use of them when they have them, but lament and are impatient if they are lost. And if you grieve over her dying unmarried and childless, you can comfort yourself with the thought that you have had both those advantages. For they should not be reckoned as great blessings in the case of those who do not enjoy them, and small blessings in the case of those who do. And that she has gone to a 91place where she is out of pain ought not to pain us, for what evil can we mourn for on her account if her pains are over? For even the loss of important things does not grieve us when we have no need of them. But it was only little things that your Timoxena was deprived of, little things only she knew, and in little things only did she rejoice; and how can one be said to be deprived of things of which one had no conception, nor experience, nor even desire for?

§ x. As to what you hear from some people, who get many to credit their notion, that the dead suffer no evil or pain, I know that you are prevented from believing that by the tradition of our fathers and by the mystic symbols of the mysteries of Dionysus, for we are both initiated. Consider then that the soul, being incorruptible, is in the same condition after death as birds that have been caught. For if it has been a long time in the body, and during this mortal life has become tame by many affairs and long habit, it swoops down again and a second time enters the body, and does not cease to be involved in the changes and chances of this life that result from birth. For do not suppose that old age is abused and ill-spoken of only for its wrinkles and white hair and weakness of body, but this is the worst feature about it, that it makes the soul feeble in its remembrance of things in the other world, and strong in its attachment to things in this world, and bends and presses it, if it retain the form which it had in the body from its experience. But that soul, which does indeed enter the body, but remains only a short time in it, being liberated from it by the higher powers, rears as it were at a damp and soft turning post in the race of life, and hastens on to its destined goal. For just as if anyone put out a fire, and light it again at once, it is soon rekindled, and burns up again quickly, but if it has been out a long time, to light it again will be a far more difficult and irksome task, so the soul that has sojourned only a short time in this dark and mortal life, quickly recovers the light and blaze of its former bright life, whereas for those who have not had the good fortune very early, to use the language of the poet, “to pass the gates of Hades,”202 nothing remains but a great 92passion for the things of this life, and a softening of the soul through contact with the body, and a melting away of it as if by the agency of drugs.203

§ xi. And the truth of this is rendered more apparent in our hereditary and time-honoured customs and laws. For when infants die no libations are poured out for them, nor are any other rites performed for them, such as are always performed for adults. For they have no share in the earth or in things of the earth, nor do parents haunt their tombs or monuments, or sit by their bodies when they are laid out. For the laws do not allow us to mourn for such, seeing that it is an impious thing to do so in the case of persons who have departed into a better and more divine place and sphere. I know that doubts are entertained about this, but since to doubt is harder for them than to believe, let us do externally as the laws enjoin, and internally let us be more holy and pure and chaste.204

191 Timoxena, as we see later on, § ix.

192 Adopting Reiske’s reading, μαστὸν κελεύουσα, προεκαλεῖτο καθάπερ.

193 Euripides’ “Phaethon,” which exists only in fragments. Clymene was the daughter of Oceanus, and mother of Phaethon.

194 An allusion to Euripides, “Bacchæ,” 317, 318.

195 Reading with Reiske οὐδένι λόγῳ δὲ, or ἀλόγως δὲ. Some such reading seems necessary to comport with the τί γὰρ ἀλογώτερον two lines later.

196 Reading παρεῖχες with Xylander.

197 A great craving for sympathy would be the modern way of putting it.

198 See the Fable of Æsop, entitled Πένθους γερας, No. 355. Halme. See also Plutarch’s “Consolation to Apollonius,” § xix., where the Fable is told at some length.

199 Reading with Reiske οὐκ ἂν εἰπεῖν φοβηθείην.

200 An allusion to Euripides, “Andromache,” 930. See Plutarch’s “Conjugal Precepts,” § xl.

201 The whole subject is discussed in full by Athenæus, p. 632, F. F. A false quantity we see was a bugbear even before the days of Universities.

202 Homer, “Iliad,” v. 646; xxiii. 71.

203 This section is dreadfully corrupt. I have adopted, it will be seen, the suggestions of Wyttenbach.

204 This Consolatory Letter ends rather abruptly. It is probable that there was more of it.

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Translated with notes and index Arthur Richard Shillitoe, MA. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of Plutarch’s “Morals” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.