On Benefits Book I, XII


We come now to the main point of the matter in question: that is to say, whether or not it be a thing desirable in itself, the giving and receiving of benefits?

There is a sect of philosophers that accounts nothing valuable but what is profitable, and so makes all virtue mercenary; an unmanly mistake to imagine, that the hope of gain, or fear of loss, should make a man either the more or less honest.

As who should say, “What will I get by it, and I will be an honest man?”

Whereas, on the contrary, honesty is a thing in itself to be purchased at any rate.

It is not for a body to say, “It will be a charge, a hazard, I shall give offence,” etc.

My business is to do what I ought to do: all other considerations are foreign to the office.

Whensoever my duty calls me, it is my part to attend, without scrupulizing upon forms or difficulties.

Shall I see an honest man oppressed at the bar, and not assist him, for fear of a court faction? or not second him upon the highway against thieves, for fear of a broken head? and choose rather to sit still, the quiet spectator of fraud and violence?

Why will men be just, temperate, generous, brave, but because it carries along with it fame and a good conscience? and for the same reason, and no other, (to apply it to the subject in hand,) let a man also be bountiful.

The school of Epicurus, I am sure, will never swallow this doctrine: (that effeminate tribe of lazy and voluptuous philosophers;) they will tell you, that virtue is but the servant and vassal of pleasure.

“No,” says Epicurus, “I am not for pleasure neither without virtue.”

But, why then for pleasure, say I, before virtue?

Not that the stress of the controversy lies upon the order only; for the power of it, as well as the dignity, is now under debate.

It is the office of virtue to superintend, to lead, and to govern; but the parts you have assigned it, are to submit, to follow, and to be under command.

But this, you will say, is nothing to the purpose, so long as both sides are agreed, that there can be no happiness without virtue: “Take away that,” says Epicurus, “and I am as little a friend to pleasure as you.”

The pinch, in short, is this, whether virtue itself be the supreme good or the only cause of it? It is not the inverting of the order that will clear this point; (though it is a very preposterous error, to set that first which should be last.)

It does not half so much offend me; ranging of pleasure before virtue, as the very comparing of them; and the bringing of the two opposites, and professed enemies, into any sort of competition.

The drift of this discourse is, to support the cause of benefits; and to prove, that it is a mean and dishonorable thing to give for any other end than for giving’s sake.

He that gives for gain, profit, or any by-end, destroys the very intent of bounty; for it falls only upon those that do not want, and perverts the charitable inclinations of princes and of great men, who cannot reasonably propound to themselves any such end.

What does the sun get by travelling about the universe; by visiting and comforting all the quarters of the earth?

Is the whole creation made and ordered for the good of mankind, and every particular man only for the good of himself?

There passes not an hour of our lives, wherein we do not enjoy the blessings of Providence, without measure and without intermission.

And what design can the Almighty have upon us, who is in himself full, safe, and inviolable?

If he should give only for his own sake, what would become of poor mortals, that have nothing to return him at best but dutiful acknowledgments?

It is putting out of a benefit to interest only to bestow where we may place it to advantage.

Let us be liberal then, after the example of our great Creator, and give to others with the same consideration that he gives to us.

Epicurus’s answer will be to this, that God gives no benefits at all, but turns his back upon the world; and without any concern for us, leaves Nature to take her course: and whether he does anything himself, or nothing, he takes no notice, however, either of the good or of the ill that is done here below.

If there were not an ordering and an over-ruling Providence, how comes it (say I, on the other side) that the universality of mankind should ever have so unanimously agreed in the madness of worshipping a power that can neither hear nor help us?

Some blessings are freely given us; others upon our prayers are granted us; and every day brings forth instances of great and of seasonable mercies.

There never was yet any man so insensible as not to feel, see, and understand, a Deity in the ordinary methods of nature, though many have been so obstinately ungrateful as not to confess it; nor is any man so wretched as not to be a partaker in that divine bounty.

Some benefits, it is true, may appear to be unequally divided; but it is no small matter yet that we possess in common: and which Nature has bestowed upon us in her very self.

If God be not bountiful, whence is it that we have all that we pretend to?

That which we give, and that which we deny, that which we lay up, and that which we squander away?

Those innumerable delights for the entertainment of our eyes, our ears, and our understandings? nay, that copious matter even for luxury itself?

For care is taken, not only for our necessities, but also for our pleasures, and for the gratifying of all our senses and appetites.

So many pleasant groves; fruitful and salutary plants; so many fair rivers that serve us, both for recreation, plenty, and commerce: vicissitudes of seasons; varieties of food, by nature made ready to our hands, and the whole creation itself subjected to mankind for health, medicine and dominion.

We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres, or a little money: and yet for the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, as life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation.

If a man bestows upon us a house that is delicately beautified with paintings, statues, gildings, and marble, we make a mighty business of it, and yet it lies at the mercy of a puff of wind, the snuff of a candle, and a hundred other accidents, to lay it in the dust.

And is it nothing now to sleep under the canopy of heaven, where we have the globe of the earth for our place of repose, and the glories of the heavens for our spectacle?

How comes it that we should so much value what we have, and yet at the same time be so unthankful for it?

Whence is it that we have our breath, the comforts of light and of heat, the very blood that runs in our veins? the cattle that feed us, and the fruits of the earth that feed them?

Whence have we the growth of our bodies, the succession of our ages, and the faculties of our minds? so many veins of metals, quarries of marble, etc.

The seed of everything is in itself, and it is the blessing of God that raises it out of the dark into act and motion.

To say nothing of the charming varieties of music, beautiful objects, delicious provisions for the palate, exquisite perfumes, which are cast in, over and above, to the common necessities of our being.

All this, says Epicurus, we are to ascribe to Nature.

And why not to God, I beseech ye? as if they were not both of them one and the same power, working in the whole, and in every part of it.

Or, if you call him the Almighty Jupiter; the Thunderer; the Creator and Preserver of us all: it comes to the same issue; some will express him under the notion of Fate; which is only a connexion of causes, and himself the uppermost and original, upon which all the rest depend.

The Stoics represent the several functions of the Almighty Power under several appellations. When they speak of him as the father and the fountain of all beings, they call him Bacchus: and under the name of Hercules, they denote him to be indefatigable and invincible; and in the contemplation of him in the reason, order, proportion, and wisdom of his proceedings, they call him Mercury; so that which way soever they look, and under what name soever they couch their meaning, they never fail of finding him; for he is everywhere, and fills his own work.

If a man should borrow money of Seneca, and say that he owes it to Amnæus or Lucius, he may change the name but not his creditor; for let him take which of the three names he pleases, he is still a debtor to the same person.

As justice, integrity, prudence, frugality, fortitude, are all of them goods of one and the same mind, so that whichsoever of them pleases us, we cannot distinctly say that it is this or that, but the mind.

But, not to carry this digression too far; that which God himself does, we are sure is well done; and we are no less sure, that for whatsoever he gives, he neither wants, expects, nor receives, anything in return; so that the end of a benefit ought to be the advantage of the receiver; and that must be our scope without any by-regard to ourselves.

It is objected to us, the singular caution we prescribe in the choice of the person: for it were a madness, we say, for a husbandman to sow the sand: which, if true, say they, you have an eye upon profit, as well in giving as in plowing and sowing.

And then they say again, that if the conferring of a benefit were desirable in itself, it would have no dependence upon the choice of a man; for let us give it when, how, or wheresoever we please, it would be still a benefit.

This does not at all affect our assertion; for the person, the matter, the manner, and the time, are circumstances absolutely necessary to the reason of the action: there must be a right judgment in all respects to make it a benefit.

It is my duty to be true to a trust, and yet there may be a time or a place, wherein I would make little difference betwixt the renouncing of it and the delivering of it up; and the same rule holds in benefits; I will neither render the one, nor bestow the other, to the damage of the receiver.

A wicked man will run all risks to do an injury, and to compass his revenge; and shall not an honest man venture as far to do a good office?

All benefits must be gratuitous.

A merchant sells me the corn that keeps me and my family from starving; but he sold it for his interests, as well as I bought it for mine; and so I owe him nothing for it.

He that gives for profit, gives to himself; as a physician or a lawyer, gives counsel for a fee, and only makes use of me for his own ends; as a grazier fats his cattle to bring them to a better market.

This is more properly the driving of a trade than the cultivating of a generous commerce.

This for that, is rather a truck than a benefit; and he deserves to be cozened that gives any thing in hope of a return.

And in truth, what end should a man honorably propound? not profit; sure that is vulgar and mechanic; and he that does not contemn it can never be grateful.

And then for glory, it is a mighty matter indeed for a man to boast of doing his duty.

We are to give, if it were only to avoid not giving; if any thing comes of it, it is clear gain; and, at worst, there is nothing lost; beside, that one benefit well placed makes amends for a thousand miscarriages.

It is not that I would exclude the benefactor neither for being himself the better for a good office he does for another.

Some there are that do us good only for their own sakes; others for ours; and some again for both.

He that does it for me in common with himself, if he had a prospect upon both in the doing it, I am obliged to him for it; and glad with all my heart that he had a share in it.

Nay, I were ungrateful and unjust if I should not rejoice, that what was beneficial to me might be so likewise to himself.

To pass now to the matter of gratitude and ingratitude.

There never was any man yet so wicked as not to approve of the one, and detest the other; as the two things in the whole world, the one to be the most abominated, the other the most esteemed.

The very story of an ungrateful action puts us out of all patience, and gives us a loathing for the author of it.

“That inhuman villain,” we cry, “to do so horrid a thing:” not, “that inconsiderate fool for omitting so profitable a virtue;” which plainly shows the sense we naturally have, both of the one and of the other, and that we are led to it by a common impulse of reason and of conscience.

Epicurus fancies God to be without power, and without arms; above fear himself, and as little to be feared.

He places him betwixt the orbs, solitary and idle, out of the reach of mortals, and neither hearing our prayers nor minding our concerns; and allows him only such a veneration and respect as we pay to our parents.

If a man should ask him now, why any reverence at all, if we have no obligation to him, or rather, why that greater reverence to his fortuitous atoms? his answer would be, that it was for their majesty and their admirable nature, and not out of any hope or expectation from them.

So that by his proper confession, a thing may be desirable for its own worth.

But, says he, gratitude is a virtue that has commonly profit annexed to it.

And where is the virtue, say I, that has not? but still the virtue is to be valued for itself, and not for the profit that attends it.

There is no question, but gratitude for benefits received is the ready way to procure more; and in requiting one friend we encourage many: but these accessions fall in by the by; and if I were sure that the doing of good offices would be my ruin, I would yet pursue them.

He that visits the sick, in hope of a legacy, let him be never so friendly in all other cases, I look upon him in this to be no better than a raven, that watches a weak sheep only to peck out the eyes of it.

We never give with so much judgment or care, as when we consider the honesty of the action, without any regard to the profit of it; for our understandings are corrupted by fear, hope, and pleasure.