On Benefits Book I, VI

THE MATTER OF OBLIGATIONS, WITH ITS CIRCUMSTANCES.

Next to the choice of the person follows that of the matter; wherein a regard must be had to time, place, proportion, quality; and to the very nicks of opportunity and humor.

One man values his peace above his honor, another his honor above his safety; and not a few there are that (provided they may save their bodies) never care what becomes of their souls.

So that good offices depend much upon construction.

Some take themselves to be obliged, when they are not; others will not believe it, when they are; and some again take obligations and injuries, the one for the other.

For our better direction, let it be noted, “That a benefit is a common tie betwixt the giver and receiver, with respect to both:” wherefore it must be accommodated to the rules of discretion; for all things have their bounds and measures, and so must liberality among the rest; that it be neither too much for the one nor too little for the other; the excess being every jot as bad as the defect.

Alexander bestowed a city upon one of his favorites; who modestly excusing himself, “That it was too much for him to receive.”

“Well, but,” says Alexander, “it is not too much for me to give.”

A haughty certainly, and an imprudent speech; for that which was not fit for the one to take could not be fit for the other to give.

It passes in the world for greatness of mind to be perpetually giving and loading of people with bounties; but it is one thing to know how to give, and another thing not to know how to keep.

Give me a heart that is easy and open, but I will have no holes in it; let it be bountiful with judgment, but I will have nothing run out of it I know not how.

How much greater was he that refused the city than the other that offered it?

Some men throw away their money as if they were angry with it, which is the error commonly of weak minds and large fortunes.

No man esteems of anything that comes to him by chance; but when it is governed by reason, it brings credit both to the giver and receiver; whereas those favors are, in some sort, scandalous, that make a man ashamed of his patron.

It is a matter of great prudence, for the benefactor to suit the benefit to the condition of the receiver: who must be either his superior, his inferior, or his equal; and that which would be the highest obligation imaginable to the one, would perhaps be as great a mockery and affront to the other; as a plate of broken meat (for the purpose) to a rich man were an indignity, which to a poor man is a charity.

The benefits of princes and of great men, are honors, offices, monies, profitable commissions, countenance, and protection: the poor man has nothing to present but good-will, good advice, faith, industry, the service and hazard of his person, an early apple, peradventure, or some other cheap curiosity: equals indeed may correspond in kind; but whatsoever the present be, or to whomsoever we offer it, this general rule must be observed, that we always design the good and satisfaction of the receiver, and never grant anything to his detriment.

It is not for a man to say, I was overcome by importunity; for when the fever is off, we detest the man that was prevailed upon to our destruction.

I will no more undo a man with his will, than forbear saving him against it. It is a benefit in some cases to grant, and in others to deny; so that we are rather to consider the advantage than the desire of the petitioner.

For we may in a passion earnestly beg for (and take it ill to be denied too) that very thing, which, upon second thoughts, we may come to curse, as the occasion of a most pernicious bounty.

Never give anything that shall turn to mischief, infamy, or shame.

I will consider another man’s want or safety; but so as not to forget my own; unless in the case of a very excellent person, and then I shall not much heed what becomes of myself.

There is no giving of water to a man in a fever; or putting a sword into a madman’s hand.

He that lends a man money to carry him to a bawdy-house, or a weapon for his revenge, makes himself a partaker of his crime.

He that would make an acceptable present, will pitch upon something that is desired, sought for, and hard to be found; that which he sees nowhere else, and which few have; or at least not in that place or season; something that may be always in his eye, and mind him of his benefactor.

If it be lasting and durable, so much the better; as plate, rather than money; statues than apparel; for it will serve as a monitor to mind the receiver of the obligation, which the presenter cannot so handsomely do.

However, let it not be improper, as arms to a woman, books to a clown, toys to a philosopher: I will not give to any man that which he cannot receive, as if I threw a ball to a man without hands; but I will make a return, though he cannot receive it; for my business is not to oblige him, but to free myself: nor anything that may reproach a man of his vice or infirmity; as false dice to a cheat; spectacles to a man that is blind.

Let it not be unseasonable neither; as a furred gown in summer, an umbrella in winter. It enhances the value of the present, if it was never given to him by anybody else, nor by me to any other; for that which we give to everybody is welcome to nobody.

The particularity does much, but yet the same thing may receive a different estimate from several persons; for there are ways of marking and recommending it in such a manner, that if the same good office be done to twenty people, every one of them shall reckon himself peculiarly obliged as a cunning whore, if she has a thousand sweethearts, will persuade every one of them she loves him best.

But this is rather the artifice of conversation than the virtue of it.

The citizens of Megara send ambassadors to Alexander in the height of his glory, to offer him, as a compliment, the freedom of their city.

Upon Alexander’s smiling at the proposal, they told him, that it was a present which they had never made but to Hercules and himself.

Whereupon Alexander treated them kindly, and accepted of it; not for the presenters’ sake, but because they had joined him with Hercules; now unreasonably soever; for Hercules conquered nothing for himself, but made his business to vindicate and to protect the miserable, without any private interest or design; but this intemperate young man (whose virtue was nothing else but a successful temerity) was trained up from his youth in the trade of violence; the common enemy of mankind, as well of his friends as of his foes, and one that valued himself upon being terrible to all mortals: never considering, that the dullest creatures are as dangerous and as dreadful, as the fiercest; for the poison of a toad, or the tooth of a snake, will do a man’s business, as sure as the paw of a tiger.