On Benefits Book I, XI


The question now before us requires distinction and caution.

For though it be both natural and generous to wish well to my friend’s friend, yet a second-hand benefit does not bind me any further than to a second-hand gratitude: so that I may receive great satisfaction and advantage from a good office done to my friend, and yet lie under no obligation myself; or, if any man thinks otherwise, I must ask him, in the first place,

Where it begins? and, How it extends? that it may not be boundless.

Suppose a man obliges the son, does that obligation work upon the father? and why not upon the uncle too? the brother? the wife? the sister? the mother? nay, upon all that have any kindness for him? and upon all the lovers of his friends? and upon all that love them too? and so in infinitum.

In this case we must have recourse, as is said heretofore, to the intention of the benefactor, and fix the obligation upon him unto whom the kindness was directed.

If a man manures my ground, keeps my house from burning or falling, it is a benefit to me, for I am the better for it, and my house and land are insensible.

But if he save the life of my son, the benefit is to my son; it is a joy and a comfort to me, but no obligation.

I am as much concerned as I ought to be in the health, the felicity, and the welfare of my son, as happy in the enjoyment of him; and I should be as unhappy as is possible in his loss; but it does not follow that I must of necessity lie under an obligation for being either happier or less miserable, by another body’s means.

There are some benefits, which although conferred upon one man, may yet work upon others; as a sum of money may be given to a poor man for his own sake, which in the consequence proves the relief of his whole family; but still the immediate receiver is the debtor for it; for the question is not, to whom it comes afterward to be transferred, but who is the principal? and upon whom it was first bestowed?

My son’s life is as dear to me as my own; and in saving him you preserve me too: in this case I will acknowledge myself obliged to you, that is to say, in my son’s name; for in my own, and in strictness, I am not; but I am content to make myself a voluntary debtor.

What if he had borrowed money? my paying of it does not at all make it my debt.

It would put me to the blush perhaps to have him taken in bed with another man’s wife; but that does not make me an adulterer.

It is a wonderful delight and satisfaction that I receive in his safety; but still this good is not a benefit.

A man may be the better for an animal, a plant, a stone; but there must be a will, an intention, to make it an obligation.

You save the son without so much as knowing the father, nay, without so much as thinking of him; and, perhaps you would have done the same thing even if you had hated him.

But without any further alteration of dialogue, the conclusion is this; if you meant him the kindness, he is answerable for it, and I may enjoy the fruit of it without being obliged by it: but if it was done for my sake, then I am accountable; or howsoever, upon any occasion, I am ready to do you all the kind offices imaginable; not as the return of a benefit, but as the earnest of a friendship; which you are not to challenge neither, but to entertain as an act of honor and of justice, rather than of gratitude.

If a man find the body of my dead father in a desert, and give it a burial; if he did it as to my father, I am beholden to him: but if the body was unknown to him, and that he would have done the same thing for any other body, I am no farther concerned in it than as a piece of public humanity.

There are, moreover, some cases wherein an unworthy person may be obliged and for the sake of others: and the sottish extract of an ancient nobilty may be preferred before a better man that is but of yesterday’s standing.

And it is but reasonable to pay a reverence even to the memory of eminent virtues.

He that is not illustrious in himself, may yet be reputed so in the right of his ancestors: and there is a gratitude to be entailed upon the offspring of famous progenitors.

Was it not for the father’s sake that Cicero the son was made counsel? and was it not the eminence of one Pompey that raised and dignified the rest of his family?

How came Caligula to be emperor of the world? a man so cruel, that he spilt blood as greedily as if he were to drink it; the empire was not given to himself, but to his father Germanicus.

A brave man deserved that for him, which he could never have challenged upon his own merit.

What was it that preferred Fabius Persicus, (whose very mouth was the uncleanest part about him,) what was it but the 300 of that family that so generously opposed the enemy for the safety of the commonwealth?

Nay, Providence itself is gracious to the wicked posterity of an honorable race.

The counsels of heaven are guided by wisdom, mercy, and justice.

Some men are made kings of their proper virtues, without any respect to their predecessors: others for their ancestors’ sakes, whose virtues, though neglected in their lives, come to be afterward rewarded in their issues.

And it is but equity, that our gratitude should extend as far as the influence of their heroical actions and examples.