To Polybius, on Consolation XI

“But,” you say, “he was taken away unexpectedly.”

Every man is deceived by his own willingness to believe what he wishes, and he chooses to forget that those whom he loves are mortal: yet Nature gives us clear proofs that she will not suspend her laws in favour of anyone: the funeral processions of our friends and of strangers alike pass daily before our eyes, yet we take no notice of them, and when an event happens which our whole life warns us will someday happen, we call it sudden.

This is not, therefore, the injustice of fate, but the perversity and insatiable universal greediness of the human mind, which is indignant at having to leave a place to which it was only admitted on sufferance.

How far more righteous was he who, on hearing of the death of his son, made a speech worthy of a great man, saying: “When I begat him, I knew that he would die some day.”

Indeed, you need not be surprised at the son of such a man being able to die bravely.

He did not receive the tidings of his son’s death as news: for what is there new in a man’s dying, when his whole life is merely a journey towards death?

“When I begat him, I knew that he would die some day,” said he: and then he added, what showed even more wisdom and courage, “It was for this that I brought him up.”

It is for this that we have all been brought up: everyone who is brought into life is intended to die.

Let us enjoy what is given to us, and give it back when it is asked for: the Fates lay their hands on some men at some times, and on other men at other times, but they will never pass anyone by altogether.

Our mind ought always to be on the alert, and while it ought never to fear what is certain to happen, it ought always to be ready for what may happen at any time.

Why need I tell you of generals and the children of generals, of men ennobled by many consulships and triumphs, who have succumbed to pitiless fate?

Whole kingdoms together with their kings, whole nations with all their component tribes, have all submitted to their doom.

All men, nay, all things look forward to an end of their days: yet all do not come to the same end: one man loses his life in the midst of his career, another at the very beginning of it, another seems hardly able to free himself from it when worn out with extreme old age, and eager to be released: we are all going to the same place, but we all go thither at different times.

I know not whether it is more foolish not to know the law of mortality, or more presumptuous to refuse to obey it.

Come, take into your hands the poems [62] of whichever you please of those two authors upon whom your genius has expended so much labour, whom you have so well paraphrased, that although the structure of the verse be removed, its charm nevertheless is preserved; for you have transferred them from one language to another so well as to effect the most difficult matter of all, that of making all the beauties of the original reappear in a foreign speech: among their works you will find no volume which will not offer you numberless instances of the vicissitudes of human life, of the uncertainty of events, and of tears shed for various reasons.

Read with what fire you have thundered out their swelling phrases: you will feel ashamed of suddenly failing and falling short of the elevation of their magnificent language.

Do not commit the fault of making everyone, who according to his ability admires your writings, ask how so frail a mind can have formed such stable and well-connected ideas.