Attamen, quae causae sunt eiusmodi, ut de earum iure dubium esse non possit, omnino in iudicium vocari non solent. num quis eo testamento, quod paterfamilias ante fecit, quam ei filius natus esset, hereditatem petit? nemo; quia constat agnascendo rumpi testamentum. ergo in hoc genere iuris iudicia nulla sunt. licet igitur impune oratori omnem hanc partem iuris incontroversi ignorare, quae pars sine dubio multo maxima est; in eo autem iure, quod ambigitur inter peritissimos, non est difficile oratori, eius partis, quamcumque defendat, auctorem aliquem invenire; a quo cum amentatas hastas acceperit, ipse eas oratoris lacertis viribusque torquebit.
(Cicero, De Or. 1.241-242)

And yet those cases which are such that the law involved in them is beyond dispute, do not as a rule come to a hearing at all. Does anyone claim an inheritance under a will made by the head of a household before the birth of a son of his? No one; since it is settled law that the will is revoked by such subsequent birth. Thus there are no judicial
decisions on this branch of the law. And so the orator may safely disregard all this region of unquestionable law, being as it certainly is by far the larger portion of the science: while, as for the law which is unsettled in the most learned circles, it is easy enough for him to find some authority in favour of whichever side he is supporting, and, having obtained a supply of thonged shafts* from him, he himself will hurl these with all the might of an orator’s arm.

* These were javelins with a slinging-strap to help the thrower.

(tr. Edward William Sutton, with his note)


Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous, que sommes-nous, où allons-nous, 1897
Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? (1897-98)

Nimis caducum simul ac superbum animal est homo, nimis alte fragilibus superedificat fundamentis. e tanta sodalium turba ad quem redacti numerum sumus, vides; et ecce, dum loquimur, ipsi etiam fugimus atque umbre in morem evanescimus, momentoque temporis abiisse alter alterum accipiet, et ipse mox previum secuturus. quid ergo sumus, frater optime? quid sumus? nec desinimus superbire. suis angoribus consternatus Cicero, in epystola quadam ad Athicum, “Ipsi” inquit “quid sumus aut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” brevis quidem sed bona, ni fallor, questio, et salutaris et gravida atque utilibus plena sententiis, sub qua multum vere humilitatis ac modestie multumque contemptus rerum fugitivarum vigil fossor inveniet. “quid sumus?” inquam; quam gravi, quam tardo, quam fragili corpore, quam ceco, quam turbido, quam inquieto animo, quam varia quamque incerta volubilique fortuna! “qut quandiu hec curaturi sumus?” profecto perbreviter. nempe non aliud sonat, quam si diceret: “ipsi quid sumus, et hoc ipsum quandiu futuri sumus?” utique hercle non diu, cum hoc idem nostrum esse, ut diuturnum esse non potest, sic nunc possit inter verba desinere, neque si accidat, miri aliquid acciderit. utrunque igitur bene et graviter queris, Marce Tulli; sed, queso te, ubinam tertium reliquisti, et eventu periculosius et quesitu dignius? postquam hic esse desierimus, quid futuri sumus? o rem magnam et ambiguam, sed neglectam! vale.
(Petrarca, Epist. Fam. 8.7.23-26)

Man is both too mortal and too proud a creature, and builds too high on brittle foundations. YOu see the small number to which we have been reduced from so great a group of friends, and even as we talk we ourselves are fleeting and disappearing like a shadow, and in a moment of time one of us will learn that the other has departed, destined himself soon to follow his predecessor. O best of brothers, what are we? What? And yet we do not abandon our pride. Cicero once, overwhelmed by anxieties, wrote in a letter to Atticus: “Who are we, really, or for how long will we concern ourselves over these woes?” A short question, but a good one, if I am not mistaken, one beneficial and loaded with useful thoughts, that will force the wakeful investigator to find much true humility and modesty and much contempt for fleeting affairs. I say again, what are we? How heavy, slow and fragile is our body, how blind, how troubled, how disturbed our mind, how shifting and unsure and mobile is Fortune. Or how long shall we care for these troubles? Surely only for a very brief time. To me this does not sound any different than if Cicero were saying: “Who are we, really? And how long shall we be the same person?” In any case, not for long, since our identities cannot last for long and can come to an end now as we speak, and if it happened this would be nothing strange. So you do well and wisely to ask both questions, Marcus Tullius; but I ask you, where did you leave that third possibility, more dangerous in outcome and more worthy of investigation? After we have ceased to exist here, what shall we become? What a great and problematic issue, but one overlooked! Farewell. (tr. Elaine Fantham)


Pieter Claesz, Vanitas, 1630
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas (1630)

Male de Seio. sed omnia humana tolerabilia ducenda. ipsi enim quid sumus aut quam diu haec curaturi sumus? ea videamus quae ad nos magis pertinent, nec tamen multo. quid agamus de senatu? et ut ne quid praetermittam, Caesonius ad me litteras misit Postumiam Sulpici domum ad se venisse. de Pompei Magni filia tibi rescripsi me nihil hoc tempore cogitare; alteram vero illam quam tu scribis, puto, nosti: nihil vidi foedius. sed adsum. coram igitur.
obsignata epistula accepi tuas. Atticae hilaritatem libenter audio. commotiunculis συμπάσχω.
(Cicero, Ep. ad Att. 249 (=12.11))

I am so sorry about Seius. But we must resign ourselves to the lot of mankind and all that is part of it. What after all are we, and how long shall we be taking these things to heart? Let us look at matters which concern us more directly, though not much more. What am I to do about the Senate? And, not to leave anything out, Caesonius has sent me a letter to say that Postumia, Sulpicius’ wife, has been to see him at his house. I wrote to you in answer to your remark about Pompeius Magnus’ daughter that I had no such thought at present. As for the other lady you mention, I think you know her. She is quite remarkably ugly. However I am nearly home, and we shall talk of it* together.
After sealing my letter I received yours. Glad to hear of Attica’s good spirits. I sympathize with her little upsets.

* I.e., of a new wife for Ciero, who had divorced Terentia earlier in the year. The ‘other lady’ may have been Hirtius’ sister, whom according to St. Jerome (Adversus Iovinianum, 1.48) Cicero declined to mary on the ground that he coul not devote himself equally to a wife and to philosophy.

(tr. David Roy Shackleton Bailey, with his note)



Sequere nunc me in Campum. ardet ambitus. “σῆμα δὲ τοι ἐρέω”: faenus ex triente Idibus Quintilibus factum erat bessibus. dices “istuc quidem non moleste fero.” o virum! o civem! Memmium Caesaris omnes opes confirmant. Cum eo Domitium consules iunxerunt, qua pactione epistulae committere non audeo. Pompeius fremit, queritur, Scauro studet; sed utrum fronte an mente dubitatur. ἐξοχὴ in nullo est; pecunia omnium dignitatem exaequat. Messalla languet, non quo aut animus desit aut amici, sed coitio consulum et Pompeius obsunt. ea comitia puto fore ut ducantur. tribunicii candidati iurarunt se arbitrio Catonis petituros. apud eum HS quingena deposuerunt ut, qui a Catone damnatus esset, id perderet et competitoribus tribueretur. haec ego pridie scribebam quam comitia fore putabantur. sed ad te, quinto Kalendis Sextilibus, si facta erunt et tabellarius non erit profectus, tota comitia perscribam. quae si, ut putantur, gratuita fuerint, plus unus Cato potuerit quam omnes leges omnesque iudices.
(Cicero, Ep. ad Att. 90(=4.15).7-8)

Now follow me to the Campus. Bribery is running riot. ‘A token I shall tell’: interest went up on the Ides of July from 1/3 to 2/3%. ‘That I can bear’, you’ll say—you model of morality and public spirit! Caesar is backing Memmius for all he’s worth. The Consuls have paired him with Domitius in an arrangement which I dare not commit to writing. Pompey is fuming and growling. Ostensibly Scaurus is his man, but does he mean it? We have our doubts. None of the four has any special prominence. Money levels standing all round. Messalla is lagging, not for lack of spirit or friends, but the Consuls’ pact and Pompey are against him. I think these elections are likely to drag on. The tribunician candidates have taken an oath to conduct their campaign with Cato as umpire. Each of them has deposited HS 500,000 with him on the understanding that anyone found guilty of impropriety by Cato shall forfeit his deposit, which will be distributed among his rivals. I write this the day before the elections are expected to take place. If they do, and if the courier has not left, I shall write you the whole story of the elections on 28 July. If they go through without bribery, as it is believed they will, Cato will have done more single-handed than all the laws and all the jurymen. (tr. David Roy Shackleton Bailey)



At quae stirpes sunt aegritudinis, quam multae, quam amarae! quae ipso trunco everso omnes eligendae sunt et, si necesse erit, singulis disputationibus. superest enim nobis hoc, cuicuimodi est, otium. Sed ratio una omnium est aegritudinum, plura nomina. nam et invidere aegritudinis est et aemulari et obtrectare et misereri et angi, lugere, maerere, aerumna adfici, lamentari, sollicitari, dolere, in molestia esse, adflictari, desperare. haec omnia definiunt Stoici, eaque verba quae dixi singularum rerum sunt, non, ut videntur, easdem res significant, sed aliquid differunt; quod alio loco fortasse tractabimus. haec sunt illae fibrae stirpium, quas initio dixi, persequendae et omnes eligendae, ne umquam ulla possit existere. magnum opus et difficile, quis negat? quid autem praeclarurn non idem arduum? Sed tamen id se effecturam philosophia profitetur, nos modo curationem eius recipiamus. verum haec quidem hactenus, cetera, quotienscumque voletis, et hoc loco et aliis parata vobis erunt.
(Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 3.83-84)

Yet how numerous are the roots of distress, and how bitter they are! The trunk itself may have been cast down, and still they must be pulled out, every one, by single disputations if need be. I have more than enough free time to do so—if “free time” it can be called. For although all forms of distress have the same explanation, they have many different names. Envy is a form of distress, and so are rivalry, jealousy, pity, anxiety, grief, sorrow, weariness, mourning, worry, anguish, sadness, affliction, and despair. The Stoics have definitions for all of these. For although it may appear that the terms I have listed all mean the same, they in fact refer to slightly different things, as I may perhaps explain later on. These are those root-fibers I mentioned at the start, the ones which must all be found and pulled out, so that none of them can ever arise again. No one would deny that this is a heavy and difficult task. Every great work is arduous, is it not? Yet philosophy promises that she will accomplish it, if only we take her for our physician. But this is enough for now. The rest I am ready to tell you, as many times as you like, both here and elsewhere. (tr. Margaret Graver)



Cumque plurimas et maximas commoditates amicitia contineat, tum illa nimirum praestat omnibus, quod bonam spem praelucet in posterum nec debilitari animos aut cadere patitur. verum enim amicum qui intuetur, tamquam exemplar aliquod intuetur sui. quocirca et absentes adsunt et egentes abundant et imbecilli valent et, quod difficilius dictu est, mortui vivunt; tantus eos honos, memoria, desiderium prosequitur amicorum. ex quo illorum beata mors videtur, horum vita laudabilis. quod si exemeris ex rerum natura benevolentiae coniunctionem, nec domus ulla nec urbs stare poterit, ne agri quidem cultus permanebit. id si minus intellegitur, quanta vis amicitiae concordiaeque sit, ex dissensionibus atque ex discordiis percipi potest. quae enim domus tam stabilis, quae tam firma civitas est, quae non odiis et discidiis funditus possit everti? ex quo quantum boni sit in amicitia iudicari potest.
(Cicero, De Amicitia 23)

Moreover, while friendship comprises the greatest number and variety of beneficent offices, it certainly has this special prerogative, that it lights up a good hope for the time to come, and thus preserves the minds that it sustains from imbecility or prostration in misfortune. For he, indeed, who looks into the face of a friend beholds, as it were, a copy of himself. Thus the absent are present, and the poor are rich, and the weak are strong, and–what seems stranger still–the dead are alive, such is the honor, the enduring remembrance, the longing love, with which the dying are followed by the living; so that the death of the dying seems happy, the life of the living full of praise. But if from the condition of human life you were to exclude all kindly union, no house, no city, could stand, nor, indeed, could the tillage of the field survive. If it is not perfectly understood what virtue there is in friendship and concord, it may be learned from dissension and discord. For what house is so stable, what state so firm, that it cannot be utterly overturned by hatred and strife? Hence it may be ascertained how much good there is in friendship. (tr. Andrew P. Peabody)



Quibus autem artibus aut prudentia maior inest aut non mediocris utilitas quaeritur, ut medicina, ut architectura, ut doctrina rerum honestarum, eae sunt iis, quorum ordini conveniunt, honestae. mercatura autem, si tenuis est, sordida putanda est; sin magna et copiosa, multa undique apportans multisque sine vanitate impertiens, non est admodum vituperanda; atque etiam si satiata quaestu et contenta potius, ut saepe ex alto in portum, ex ipso se portu in agros possessionesque contulit, videtur iure optimo posse laudari. omnium autem rerum, ex quibus aliquid acquiritur, nihil est agricultura melius, nihil uberius, nihil dulcius, nihil homine, nihil libero dignius.
(Cicero, Off. 151)

But the professions in which either a higher degree of intelligence is required or from which no small benefit to society is derived—medicine and architecture, for example, and teaching—these are proper for those whose social position they become. Trade, if it is on a small scale, is to be considered vulgar; but if wholesale and on a large scale, importing large quantities from all parts of the world and distributing to many without misrepresentation, it is not to be greatly disparaged. Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it, satiated, or rather, I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from the port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman. (tr. Walter Miller)