Recede

seneca1

Quid ista circumspicis quae tibi possunt fortasse evenire sed possunt et non evenire? incendium dico, ruinam, alia quae nobis incidunt, non insidiantur: illa potius vide, illa vita quae nos observant, quae captant. rari sunt casus, etiamsi graves, naufragium facere, vehiculo everti: ab homine homini cotidianum periculum. adversus hoc te expedi, hoc intentis oculis intuere; nullum est malum frequentius, nullum pertinacius, nullum blandius. tempestas minatur antequam surgat, crepant aedificia antequam corruant, praenuntiat fumus incendium: subita est ex homine pernicies, et eo diligentius tegitur quo propius accedit. erras si istorum tibi qui occurrunt vultibus credis: hominum effigies habent, animos ferarum, nisi quod illarum perniciosus est primus incursus: quos transiere non quaerunt. numquam enim illas ad nocendum nisi necessitas incitat; aut fame aut timore coguntur ad pugnam: homini perdere hominem libet. tu tamen ita cogita quod ex homine periculum sit ut cogites quod sit hominis officium; alterum intuere ne laedaris, alterum ne laedas. commodis omnium laeteris, movearis incommodis, et memineris quae praestare debeas, quae cavere. sic vivendo quid consequaris? non te ne noceant, sed ne fallant. quantum potes autem in philosophiam recede: illa te sinu suo proteget, in huius sacrario eris aut tutus aut tutior. non arietant inter se nisi in eadem ambulantes via. ipsam autem philosophiam non debebis iactare; multis fuit periculi causa insolenter tractata et contumaciter: tibi vitia detrahat, non aliis exprobret. non abhorreat a publicis moribus nec hoc agat ut quidquid non facit damnare videatur. licet sapere sine pompa, sine invidia. vale.
(Seneca Minor, Ep. ad Luc. 103)

Why are you keeping a lookout for things that may possibly happen to you, but may very well not happen? I am talking about fires, collapse of buildings, and other things that do come our way but are not intended to do us harm. Keep an eye, rather, on things that do have it in for us and lay traps for us, and avoid those. Although accidents like shipwreck and being thrown from a carriage are serious enough, they are infrequent. It’s the danger that one human can do to another that is a daily occurrence. Equip yourself against this and focus on this. No calamity is more common, none more persistent, none more insidious. Storms threaten before they surge, buildings creak before they collapse, and smoke gives warning of fire; but damage caused by human beings is immediate, and the closer it comes the more carefully it is hidden. It’s a mistake to trust the faces of the people you meet: they have the appearance of human beings but the character of wild animals, except that with animals it is the first attack that is the most dangerous. They don’t pass people by and then turn and pursue them. They are never provoked to do injury except under compulsion, when hunger or fear forces them to fight. One human being, on the other hand, positively likes to destroy another. Still, when you consider what dangers you may be in from other people, you should also be thinking about people’s responsibilities to one another. Keep an eye on one person to avoid being hurt by him, on another to avoid hurting him. You should show pleasure at everyone’s successes, feel for them when their affairs go wrong, remembering when you should be forthcoming and when you should be wary instead. By living like this, what will you gain? You will not necessarily escape harm, but you will avoid being caught unawares. Withdraw into philosophy as much as you can. Philosophy will protect you; you will be safe, or at least safer, in philosophy’s sanctuary. People only knock into one another when they are walking on the same path. But you should not brag about your philosophy. Many people have been put in danger by crassly boasting about it. You should use philosophy to remove your faults, not to criticize other people’s. You should not distance philosophy from the general way of the world, nor let it seem to be condemning everything that it refrains from doing itself. It’s possible to practice wisdom without parade and without incurring resentment. Farewell. (tr. Margaret Graver & Anthony A. Long)

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