I have undertaken, Nero Caesar, to write on the subject of mercy, in order to serve in a way the purpose of a mirror, and thus reveal you to yourself as one destined to attain to the greatest of all pleasures. For, though the true profit of virtuous deeds lies in the doing, and there is no fitting reward for the virtues apart from the virtues themselves, still it is a pleasure to subject a good conscience to a round of inspection, then to cast one’s eyes upon this vast throng — discordant, factious, and unruly, ready to run riot alike for the destruction of itself and others if it should break its yoke — and finally to commune with oneself thus.
Have I of all mortals found favor with Heaven and been chosen to serve on earth as vicar of the gods? I am the arbiter of life and death for the nations; it rests in my power what each man’s lot and state shall be; by my lips Fortune proclaims what gift she would bestow on each human being; from my utterance peoples and cities gather reasons for rejoicing; without my favor and grace no part of the wide world can prosper; all those many thousands of swords which my peace restrains will be drawn at my nod; what nations shall be utterly destroyed, which banished, which shall receive the gift of liberty, which have it taken from them, what kings shall become slaves and whose heads shall be crowned with royal honor, what cities shall fall and which shall rise this it is mine to decree. With all things thus at my disposal, I have been moved neither by anger nor youthful impulse to unjust punishment, nor by the foolhardiness and obstinacy of men which have often wrung patience from even the serenest souls, nor yet by that vainglory which employs terror for the display of might — a dread but all too common use of great and lordly power. With me the sword is hidden, nay, is sheathed; I am sparing to the utmost of even the meanest blood; no man fails to find favor at my hands though be lack all else but the name of man. Sternness I keep hidden, but mercy ever ready at hand. I so hold guard over myself as though I were about to render an account to those laws which I have summoned from decay and darkness into the light of day. I have been moved to pity by the fresh youth of one, by the extreme old age of another; one I have pardoned for his high position, another for his humble state; whenever I found no excuse for pity, for my own sake I have spared. Today, if the immortal gods should require a reckoning from me, I am ready to give full tale of the human race.
This pronouncement, Caesar, you may boldly make, that whatever has passed into your trust and guardianship is still kept safe, that through you the state suffers no loss, either from violence or from fraud. It is the rarest praise, hitherto denied to all other princes, that you have coveted for yourself innocence of wrong. Nor has the effort been in vain, and that unparalleled goodness of yours has not found men ungrateful or grudging in their appraisement. Thanks are rendered to you; no human being has ever been so dear to another as you are to the people of Rome — its great and lasting blessing. But it is a mighty burden that you have taken upon yourself; no one today talks of the deified Augustus or the early years of Tiberius Caesar, or seeks for any model he would have you copy other than yourself; the standard for your principate is the foretaste you have given. This would have indeed been difficult if that goodness of yours were not innate but only assumed for the moment. For no one can wear a mask long; the false quickly lapses back into its own nature; but whatever has truth for its foundation, and whatever springs, so to speak, from out the solid earth, grows by the mere passing of time into something larger and better.
Great was the hazard that the Roman people faced so long as it was uncertain what course those noble talents of yours would take; today the prayers of the state are assured, for there is no danger that you will be seized by sudden forgetfulness of yourself. Over-much prosperity, it is true, makes men greedy, and desires are never so well controlled as to cease at the point of attainment; the ascent is from great to greater, and men embrace the wildest hopes when once they have gained what they did not hope for; and yet today your subjects one and all are constrained to confess that they are happy, and, too, that nothing further can be added to their blessings, except that these may last. Many facts force them to this confession, which more than any other a man is loath to make: a security deep and abounding, and justice enthroned above all injustice; before their eyes hovers the fairest vision of a state which lacks no element of complete liberty except the license of self-destruction. Above all, however, alike to the highest and the lowest, extends the same admiration for your quality of mercy; for although of other blessings each one experiences or expects a larger or smaller measure in proportion to his lot, yet from mercy men all hope to have the same; nor is there any man so wholly satisfied with his own innocence as not to rejoice that mercy stands in sight, waiting for human errors.
I know, however, that there are some who think that mercy upholds the worst class of men, since it is superfluous unless there has been some crime, and since it alone of all the virtues finds no exercise among the guiltless. But, first of all, just as medicine is used by the sick, yet is held in honor by the healthy, so with mercy — though it is those who deserve punishment that invoke it, yet even the guiltless cherish it. Again, this virtue has scope even in the person of the guiltless, because at times fortune takes the place of guilt; and not only does mercy come to the rescue of innocence, but often of righteousness also, inasmuch as, from the state of the times, there arise certain acts which, while praised, may yet be punished. Then, too, there are a great many people who might be turned back to the path of virtue if <they are released from punishment>. Nevertheless, pardoning ought not to be too common; for when the distinction between the bad and the good is removed, the result is confusion and an epidemic of vice. Therefore a wise moderation should be exercised which will be capable of distinguishing between curable and hopeless characters. Neither should we have indiscriminate and general mercy, nor yet preclude it; for it is as much a cruelty to pardon all as to pardon none. We should maintain the mean; but since a perfect balance is difficult, if anything is to disturb the equipoise it should turn the scale toward the kindlier side.
But these matters will be more fitly discussed in their proper place. Here I shall divide this subject as a whole into three parts. The first will treat of the remission of punishment; the second will aim to show the nature and aspect of mercy; for since there are certain vices which counterfeit virtues, they cannot be separated unless you stamp them with marks by which they may be known apart. In the third place I shall inquire how the mind is led to adopt this virtue, and how it establishes it and by practice makes it its own.
That no one of all the virtues is more seemly for a man, since none is more human, is a necessary conviction not only for those of us who maintain that man is a social creature, begotten for the common good, but also for those who give man over to pleasure, whose words and deeds all look to their own advantage. For if a man seeks calm and quiet, he finds this virtue, which loves peace and stays the hand, forthwith suited to his bent. Yet of all men none is better graced by mercy than a king or a prince. For great power confers grace and glory only when it is potent for benefit; it is surely a baneful might that is strong only for harm. He alone has firm and well-grounded greatness whom all men know to be as much their friend as he is their superior; whose concern they daily find to be vigilant for the safety of each and all; upon whose approach they do not flee as if some monster or deadly beast had leaped from his lair, but rush eagerly forward as toward a bright and beneficent star. In his defence they are ready on the instant to throw themselves before the swords of assassins, and to lay their bodies beneath his feet if his path to safety must be paved with slaughtered men; his sleep they guard by nightly vigils, his person they defend with an encircling barrier, against assailing dangers they make themselves a rampart.
Not without reason do cities and peoples show this accord in giving such protection and love to their kings, and in flinging themselves and all they have into the breach whenever the safety of their ruler craves it. Nor is it self-depreciation or madness when many thousands meet the steel for the sake of one man, and with many deaths ransom the single life, it may be, of a feeble dotard.
The whole body is the servant of the mind, and though the former is so much larger and so much more showy, while the unsubstantial soul remains invisible not knowing where its secret habitation lies, yet the hands, the feet, and the eyes are in its employ; the outer skin is its defense; at its bidding we lie idle, or restlessly run to and fro; when it commands, if it is a grasping tyrant, we search the sea for gain; if covetous of fame, ere now we have thrust a right hand into the flame, or plunged willingly into a chasm. In the same way this vast throng, encircling the life of one man, is ruled by his spirit, guided by his reason, and would crush and cripple itself with its own power if it were not upheld by wisdom.
It is, therefore, their own safety that men love, when for one man they lead ten legions at a time into battle when they rush to the forefront and expose their breasts to wounds that they may save the standards of their emperor from defeat. For he is the bond by which the commonwealth is united, the breath of life which these many thousands draw, who in their own strength would be only a burden to themselves and the prey of others if the great mind of the empire should be withdrawn.
If safe their king, one mind to all;
Bereft of him, they troth recall.
Such a calamity would be the destruction of the Roman peace, such a calamity will force the fortune of a mighty people to its downfall. Just so long will this people be free from that danger as it shall know how to submit to the rein; but if ever it shall tear away the rein, or shall not suffer it to be replaced if shaken loose by some mishap, then this unity and this fabric of mightiest empire will fly into many parts, and the end of this city’s rule will be one with the end of her obedience. Therefore it is not strange that kings and princes and guardians of the public order, whatever different name they bear, are held more dear even than those bound to us by private ties; for if men of sense put publicinterests above private, it follows that he too is dearer upon whom the whole state centres. At an earlier day, in fact, Caesar so clothed himself with the powers of state that neither one could be withdrawn without the destruction of both. For while a Caesar needs power, the state also needs a head.
My discourse seems to have withdrawn somewhat far from its purpose, but, in very truth, it bears closely upon the real issue. For if — and this is what thus far it is establishing — you are the soul of the state and the state your body, you see, I think, how requisite is mercy; for you are merciful to yourself when you are seemingly merciful to another. And so even reprobate citizens should have mercy as being the weak members of the body, and if there should ever be need to let blood, the hand must be held under control to keep it from cutting deeper than may be necessary. The quality of mercy, then, as I was saying, is indeed for all men in accordance with nature, but in rulers it has an especial comeliness inasmuch as with them it finds more to save, and exhibits itself amid ampler opportunities. For how small the harm the cruelty of a private citizen can do! But when princes rage there is war. Though, moreover, the virtues are at harmony with each other, and no one of them is better or more noble than another, yet to certain people a certain virtue will be more suited. Greatness of soul is a virtue that is seemly for every human being, even for him who is the lowliest of the lowly. For what is greater or braver than to beat down misfortune? Yet thls greatness of soul has freer play under circumstances of good fortune, and is shown to better advantage upon the judge’s bench than on the floor.
Every house that mercy enters she will render peaceful and happy, but in the palace she is more wonderful, in that she is rarer. For what is more remarkable than that he whose anger nothing can withstand, to whose sentence, too heavy though it be, even the victims bow the head, whom, if he is very greatly incensed, no one will venture to gainsay, nay, even to entreat — that this man should lay a restraining hand upon himself, and use his power to better and more peaceful ends when he reflects,
Any one can violate the law to kill, none but I, to save? A lofty spirit befits a lofty station, and if it does not rise to thxe lhevel of its station and even stand above it, the other, too, is dragged downward to the ground. Moreover, the peculiar marks of a lofty spirit are mildness and composure, and the lofty disregard of injustice and wrongs. It is for woman to rage in anger, for wild beasts doubtless — and yet not even the noble sort of these — to bite and worry their prostrate victims. Elephants and lions pass by what they have stricken down; it is the ignoble beast that is relentless. Cruel and inexorable anger is not seemly for a king, for thus he does not rise much above the other man, toward whose own level he descends by being angry at him. But if he grants life, if he grants position to those who have imperilled and deserve to lose them, he does what none but a sovereign may; for one may take the life even of a superior, but not give it ever except to an inferior. To save life is the peculiar privilege of exalted station, which never has a right to greater admiration than when it has the good fortune to have the same power as the gods, by whose kindness we all, the evil as well as the good, are brought forth into the light. Let a prince, therefore, appropriating to himself the spirit of the gods, look with pleasure upon one class of his citizens because they are useful and good; others let him leave to make up the count; let him be glad that some of them live, some let him merely endure.
Consider this city, in which the throng that streams ceaselessly through its widest streets is crushed to pieces whenever anything gets in the way to check its course as it streams like a rushing torrent, this city in which the seating space of three theaters is required at one time, in which is consumed all the produce of the plough from every land; consider how great would be the loneliness and the desolation of it if none should be left but those whom a strict judge would acquit. How few prosecutors there are who would escape conviction under the very law which they cite for the prosecution; how few accusers are free from blame. And, I am inclined to think, no one is more reluctant to grant pardon than he who again and again has had reason to seek it. We have all sinned — some in serious, some in trivial things; some from deliberate intention some by chance impulse, or because we were led astray by the wickedness of others; some of us have not stood strongly enough by good resolutions, and have lost our innocence against our will and though still clinging to it; and not only have we done wrong, but we shall go on doing wrong to the very end of life. Even if there is any one who has so thoroughly cleansed his mind that nothing can any more confound him and betray him, yet it is by sinning that he has reached the sinless state.
Since I have made mention of the gods, I shall do very well to establish this as the standard after which a prince should model himself — that he should wish so to be to his subjects, as he would wish the gods to be to himself. Is it, then, desirable to have deities that cannot be moved to show mercy to our sins and mistakes? Is it desirable to have them our enenlies even to the point of our complete destruction? And what king will escape the danger of having the soothsayers gather up his riven limbs? But if the gods, merciful and just, do not instantly avenge with the thunderbolt the shortcomings of the mighty, how much more just is it for a man, set over men, to exercise his power in gentle spirit and to ask himself which condition of the world is more pleasing to the eye and more lovely — when the day is calm and clear, or when all nature quakes with crash upon crash of thunder, and hither and yonder the lightnings flash? And yet the aspect of a quiet and well-ordered empire is not different from that of a calm and shining sky. A reign that is cruel is stormy and overcast with gloom, and, while men tremble and grow pale at the sudden uproar, even he who is the cause of all the turmoil does not fail to shudder. One in private life, if he stubbornly seeks revenge, is more easily pardoned; for it is possible for him to receive an injury, and his resentment springs from a sense of wrong; besides, he is afraid of being scorned, and, when one is injured, the failure to make requital seems a show of weakness, not of mercy. But the man for whom vengeance is easy, by disregarding it, gains assured praise for clemency. Those placed in lowly station are more free to use force, to quarrel, to rush into a brawl, and to indulge their wrath; when the odds are matched, blows fall light; but in a king, even loud speech and unbridled words ill accord with his majesty.
You think that it is a serious matter to deprive kings of the right of free speech, which belongs to the humblest man.
That, you say,
is servitude, not sovereignty. What? are you not aware that the sovereignty is ours, the servitude yours? Far different is the position of those who escape notice in a crowd that they do not overtop, whose virtues must struggle long in order to be seen, whose vices keep under the cover of obscurity; but the words and deeds of such as you are caught up by rumor, and, consequently, none should be more concerned about the character of their reputation than those who, no matter what reputation they may deserve, are sure to have a great one. How many things there are which you may not do, which we, thanks to you, may do! It is posible for me to walk alone without fear in any part of the city I please, though no companion attends me, though I have no sword at my house, none at my side; you, amid the peace you create, must live armed. You cannot escape from your lot; it besets you, and, whenever you leave the heights, it pursues you with its magnificence. In this lies the servitude of supreme greatness — that it cannot become less great; but you share with the gods that inevitable condition. For even they are held in bondage by heaven, and it is no more lawful for them to leave the heights than it is safe for you; you are nailed to your pinnacle. Our movements are noticed by few; we may come forth and retire and change our dress without the world being aware; you can no more hide yourself than the sun. A flood of light surrounds you; toward it every one turns his eyes. Think you to
come forth? Nay, you rise. You cannot speak but that all the nations of the earth hear your voice; you cannot be angry without causing everything to tremble, because you cannot strike any one down without shaking all that is around him. As the lightning’s stroke is dangerous for the few, though feared by all, so the punishment born of great power I causes wider terror than harm, and not without reason; for when the doer is omnipotent, men consider not how much he has done, but how much he is likely to do. Consider, too, that whereas private citizens, by enduring the wrongs already received, lie more open to receiving others, yet kings by clemency gain a security more assured, because repeated punishment, while it crushes the hatred of a few, stirs the hatred of all. The inclination to vent one’s rage should be less strong than the provocation for it; otherwise, just as trees that have been trimmed throw out again countless branches, and as many kinds of plants are cut back to make them grow thicker, so the cruelty of a king by removing his enemies increases their number; for the parents and children of those who have been killed, their relatives too and their friends, step into the place of each single victim.
By an example from your own family I wish to remind you how true this is. The deified Augustus was a mild prince if one should undertake to judge him from the time of his principate; but when he shared the state with others, he wielded the sword. When he was at your present age, having just passed his eighteenth year, he had already buried his dagger in the bosom of friends; he had already in stealth aimed a blow at the side of the consul, Mark Antony; he had already been a partner in proscription. But when he had passed his fortieth year and was staying in Gaul, the information was brought to him that Lucius Cinna a dull-witted man, was concocting a plot against him. He was told where and when and how he meant to attack him; one of the accomplices gave the information. Augustus resolved to revenge himself upon the fellow, and ordered a council of his friends to be called. He spent a restless night, reflecting that it was a young man of noble birth, blameless but for this act, the grandson of Gnaeus Pompeius, who was to be condemned. He could not now bear to kill one man, he to whom Mark Antony had dictated the edict of proscription while they dined. He moaned, and now and then would burst forth into fitful and inconsistent speech:
What then? shall I let my murderer walk about in unconcern while I am filled with fear? What! Shall he not pay the penalty who, sought in vain as my life has been in so many civil wars, saved unhurt in so many battles of fleets and armies, now that peace prevails on land and sea, is determining not to murder but to immolate me? (for the plan was to attack him while offering sacrifice). Again, after an interval of silence, in louder tone he would express much greater indignation at himself than at Cinna:
Why do you live on if so many are concerned to have you die? What end will there be of punishments, and of bloodshed? I am the obvious victim for whom young men of noble birth should whet their swords. If so many must perish in order that I may not, my life is not worth the price. At length Livia, his wife, broke in and said:
Will you take a woman’s advice? Follow the practice of physicians, who when the usual remedies do not work try just the opposite. So far you have accomplished nothing by severity. Salvidienus was followed by Lepidus, Lepidus by Murena, Murena by Caepio, Caepio by Egnatius,, to say nothing of the others whose monstrous daring makes one ashamed. Try now how mercy will work: pardon Lucius Cinna. He has been arrested; now he cannot do you harm, but he can help your reputation. Happy to have found a supporter, he thanked his wife, then ordered that the request to the friends who had been asked to the conference be at once countermanded, and summoned only Cinna to his presence. Having sent every one else from the room, he ordered a second chair to be placed for Cinna and said:
My first request of you is, that you will not interrupt me while I am talking, that you will not in the course of my words utter a protest; you will be given free opportunity to speak. Cinna, though I found you in the camp of the enemy, not made, but born, my deadly foe, I saved you, I allowed you to keep the whole of your father’s estate. Today you are so prosperous, so rich, that your conquerors envy you, the conquered. When you sought holy office, I gave it to you, passing over many whose fathers had fought under me. Though such is the service that I have done you, you have determined to kill me. When at these words Cinna cried out that he was far from such madness, he said:
You are not keeping faith, Cinna; it was agreed that you were not to interrupt. You are making ready, I say, to kill me.; He mentioned, further, the place, his confederates, the plan of the plot, the one who had been entrusted with the dagger. And when he saw that Cinna had dropped his eyes, silent now, not because of his compact, but because of his conscience, he said:
What is your purpose in this? Is it that you yourself may become the prince? On my word,the Roman people are hard put to it if nothing stands in the way of your ruling except me. You cannot guard your own house; just lately the influence of a mere freedman defeated you in a private suit; plainly, nothing can be easier for you than to take action against Caesar! Tell me, if I alone block your hopes, will Paulus and Fabius Maximus and the Cossi and the Servilii and the great line of nobles, who are not the representatives of empty names, but add distinction to their pedigree — will these put up with you?
Not to fill up a great part of my book in repeating all his words — for he is known to have talked more than two hours, lengthening out this ordeal with which alone he intended to be content — at last he said:
Cinna, a second time I grant you your life; the first time you were an open enemy, now, a plotter and a parricide. From this day let there be a beginning of friendship between us; let us put to the test which one of us acts in better faith — I in granting you your life, or you in owing it to me. Later he, unsolicited, bestowed upon him the consulship, chiding him because he did not boldly stand for the office. He found Cinna most friendly and loyal, and became his sole heir. No one plotted against him further.
Your great-great-grandfather spared the vanquished; for if he had not spared them, whom would he have had to rule? Sallustius and a Cocceius and a Deillius and the whole inner circle of his court he recruited from the camp of his opponents; and now it was his own mercifulness that gave him a Domitius, a Messala, an Asinius, a Cicero, and all the flower of the state. What a long time was granted even Lepidus to die! For many years he suffered him to retain the insignia of a ruler, and only after the other’s death did he permit the office of chief pontiff to be transferred to himself; for he preferred to have it called an honor rather than a spoil. This mercifulness led him on to safety and security, this made him popular and beloved, although the necks of the Roman people had not yet been humbled when he laid hand upon them; and today this preserves for him a reputation which is scareely within the power of rulers even while they live. A god we believe him to be, but not because we are bidden; that Augustus was a good prince, that he well deserved the name of father, this we confess for no other reason than because he did not avenge with cruelty even the personal insults which usually sting a prince more than wrongs, because when he was the victim of lampoons he smiled, because he seemed to suffer punishment when he was exacting it, because he was so far from killing the various men whom he had convicted of intriguing with his daughter that he banished them for their greater safety, and gave them their credentials. Not merely to grant deliverance, but to guarantee it, when you know that there will be many to take up your quarrel and do you the favor of shedding an enemy’s blood — this is really to forgive.
Such was Augustus when he was old, or just upon the verge of old age. In youth he was hot-headed, flared up with anger, and did many things which he looked back upon with regret. To compare the mildness of the deified Augustus with yours no one will dare, even if the years of youth shall be brought into competition with an old age that was more than ripe. Granted that he was restrained and merciful — yes, to be sure, but it was after Actium’s waters had been stained a with Roman blood, after his own and an enemy’s fleet had been wrecked off Sicily, after the holocaust of Perusia and the proscriptions. I, surely, do not call weariness of cruelty merey. True mercy, Caesar, is this which you display, which arises from no regret for violence, that bears no stain and never shed a compatriot’s blood. In a position of unlimited power this is in the truest sense self-control and an all-embracing love of the human race even as of oneself — not to be perverted by any low desire, or by hastiness of nature, or by the precedent of earlier princes into testing by experiment what licence one may employ against fellow-citizens, but rather to dull the edge of supreme power. Your gift, Caesar, is a state unstained by blood, and your prideful boast that in the whole world you have shed not a drop of human blood is the more significant and wonderful because no one ever had the sword put into his hands at an earlier age.
Mercy, then, makes rulers not only more honored, but safer, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power and its surest protection. For why is it that kings have grown old and have handed on their thrones to children and grandchildren, while tyrants’ sway is accursed and short? What difference is there between a tyrant and a king (for they are alike in the mere outward show of fortune and extent of power), except that tyrants are cruel to serve their pleasure, kings only for a reason and by necessity?
What then? you say;
do not kings also often kill? Yes, but only when they are induced to do so for the good of the state. Tyrants take delight in cruelty. But the difference between a tyrant and a king is one of deeds, not of name; for while the elder Dionysius a may justly and deservedly be counted better than many kings, what keeps Lucius Sulla from being styled a tyrant, whose killing was stopped only by a dearth of foes? Though he abdicated the dictatorship and returned to private life, yet what tyrant ever drank so greedily of human blood as he, who ordered seven thousand Roman citizens to be butchered at one time, and who, as he sat nearby at the temple of Bellona and heard the mingled cry of the many thousands moaning beneath the sword, said to the terror-stricken senate,
Let us attend to business, Gentlemen of the Senate; only a few seditious persons are being killed by my order? This was no lie; to Sulla they seemed a few. But more about Sulla by and by, when we shall take up the question of the sort of anger we should have for enemies, particularly if fellow-countrymen have broken away from the body politic and passed over into the category of enemies. Meanwhile, as I was saying, it is mercy that makes the distinction between a king and a tyrant as great as it is, though both are equally fenced about with arms; but the one uses the arms which he has to fortify good-will, the other to curb great hatred by great fear, and yet the very hands to which he has entrusted himself he cannot view without concern. Conflicting causes force him to conflicting courses; for since he is hated because he is feared, he wishes to be feared because he is hated, and not knowing what frenzy is engendered when hatred grows too great, he takes as a motto that accursed verse which has driven many to their fall:
Let them hate, if only they fear.
Now fear in moderation restrains men’s passions, but the fear that is constant and sharp and brings desperation arouses the sluggish to boldness, and urges them to stop at nothing. In the same way, a string of feathers may keep wild beasts hemmed in, but let a horseman come upon them from behind with javelins, and they will try to escape through the very objects that had made them run, and will trample down their fear. No courage is so bold as that forced by utter desperation. Fear should leave some sense of security, and hold out much more of hope than of peril; otherwise, if an inoffensive man is made to fear the same peril as others, he takes pleasure in rushing into peril and making an end of a life that is forfeit.
A king that is peaceable and gentle finds his guards trusty, since he employs them for the common safety, and the soldier, seeing that he is giving his service for the security of the state, is proud and willing to undergo any hardship as a protector of the father of his country; but he that is harsh and bloodthirsty inevitably gets the ill-will of his own henchmen. It is impossible for any one to hold the good-will and loyalty of servitors whom he uses, like the rack and the axe, as instruments of torture and death, to whom he flings men as he would to wild beasts; no prisoner at the bar is so troubled and anxious as he, seeing that he is in fear of men and gods, the witnesses and the avengers of crimes, yet has reached a point where he has not the power to change his conduct. For added to all the rest, this is still cruelty’s greatest curse — that one must persist in it, and no return to better things is open; for crime must be safeguarded by crime. But what creature is more unhappy than the man who now cannot help being wicked? A wretch to be pitied, at least by himself! for that others should pity him would be a crime — a man who has utilized his power for murder and pillage, who has caused mistrust of all his dealings whether at home or abroad, who resorts to the sword because he fears the sword, who trusts neither the loyalty of friends nor the affection of his children; who, when he has surveyed what he has done and what he intends to do, and has laid bare his conscience burdened with crimes and torturings, often fears to die but more often prays for death, more hateful as he is to himself than to his servitors. On the other hand, he whose care embraces all, who, while guarding here with greater vigilance, there with less, yet fosters each and every part of the state as a portion of himself; who is inclined to the milder course even if it would profit him to punish, showing thus how loath he is to turn his hand to harsh correction; whose mind is free from all hostility, from all brutality; who so covets the approbation of his countrymen upon his acts as ruler that he wields his power with mildness and for their good; who thinks himself aboundingly happy if he can make the public sharers in his own good fortune; who is affable in speech, easy of approach and access, lovable in countenance, which most of all wins the affection of the masses, well-disposed to just petitions and even to the unjust not harsh — such a one the whole state loves, defends, and reveres. What people say of such a man is the same in secret as in public. They are eager to rear up sons, and the childlessness once imposed by public ills is now relaxed; no one doubts that his children will have cause to thank him for permitting them to see so happy an age. Such a prince, protected by his own good deeds, needs no bodyguard; the arms he wears are for adornment only.
What, then, is his duty? It is that of the good parent who is wont to reprove Ms children sometimes gently, sometimes with threats, who at times admonishes them even by stripes. Does any father in his senses disinherit a son for his first offence? Only when great and repeated wrong-doing has overcome his patience, only when what he fears outweighs what he reprimands, does he resort to the decisive penalty; but first he makes many an effort to reclaim a character that is still unformed, though inclined now to the more evil side; when the case is hopeless, he tries extreme measures. No one resorts to the exaction of punishment until he has exhausted all the means of correction. This is the duty of a father, and it is also the duty of a prince, whom not in empty flattery we have been led to call
the Father of his Country. For other designations have been granted merely by way of honor; some we have styled
the Fortunate, and
the August, and we have heaped upon pretentious greatness all possible titles as a tribute to such men; but to
the Father of his Country we have given the name in order that he way know that he has been entrusted with a father’s power, which is most forbearing in its care for the interests of his children and subordinates his own to theirs. Slow would a father be to sever his own flesh and blood; aye, after severing he would yearn to restore them, and while severing he would moan aloud, hesitating often and long; for he comes near to condemning gladly who condemns swiftly, and to punishing unjustly who punishes unduly.
Within my memory the people in the forum stabbed Tricho, a Roman knight, with their writing-styles because he had flogged his son to death; Augustus Caesar’s authority barely rescued him from the indignant hands of fathers no less than of sons. Tarius, on the other hand, having detected his son in a plot against his life, when after investigating the case he found him guilty, won the admiration of every one because, satisfying himself with exile — and a luxurious exile — he detained the parricide at Marseilles, furnishing him with the same liberal allowance that he had been in the habit of giving him before his guilt; the effect of this generosity was that, in a community where a villain never lacks a defender, no one doubted that the accused man had been justly condemned, since the father who could not hate him had found it possible to condemn him.
I will now use this very case to show you an example of a good prince with whom you may compare the good father. When Tarius was ready to open the inquiry on his son, he invited Augustus Caesar to attend the council; Augustus came to the hearth of a private citizen, sat beside him, and took part in the deliberation of another household. He did not say,
Rather, let the man come to my house; for, if he had, the inquiry would have been conducted by Caesar and not by the father. When the case had been heard and all the evidence had been sifted — what the young fellow said in his defense, and what was brought up in accusation against him Caesar requested each man to give his verdict in writing, lest all should vote according to his lead. Then, before the tablets were opened, he solemnly declared that he would accept no bequest from Tarius, who was a rich man. Some will say,
He showed weakness in fearing that he might seem to be trying to clear the field for his own prospects by sentencing the son. I think differently; any one of us might well have had enough faith in his own good conscience to withstand hostile criticism, but princes are bound to give much heed even to report. He solemnly declared that he would not accept a bequest. Tarius did indeed on one and the same day lose a second heir also, but Caesar saved the integrity of his vote; and after he had proved that his severity was disinterested — for a prince should always have regard for this — he said that the son ought to be banished to whatever place the father should decide. His sentence was not the sack, nor serpents, nor prison, since his thought was not of the man on whom he was passing sentence, but of him for whom he was acting as counsellor. He said that the mildest sort of punishment ought to satisfy a father in the case of a son who was very youthful and had been moved to commit this crime, but in committing it had shown himself faint-hearted — which was next door to being innocent; therefore the son should be banished from the city and from his father’s sight.
How worthy he was of being asked by parents to share their counsels! How worthy of being recorded a co-heir with the children who were innocent! This is the spirit of mercy that graces the prince; wherever he goes he should make everything more peaceable.
In the eyes of a ruler let no man count for so little that his destruction is not noted; be he what he may, he is part of the realm. From the forms of lesser power let us draw a parallel for great power. There is more than one kind of power, a prince has power over his subjects, a father over his children, a teacher over his pupils, a tribune or a centurion over his soldiers. Will he not seem the worst sort of father who controls his children by constant whippings for even the most trifling offences? And of teachers, which will reflect more credit upon the liberal studies — the one who will draw the blood of his pupils if their memory is weak, or if the eye is not quick and lags in reading, or the one who chooses rather by kind admonition and a sense of shame to correct, and so to teach, his pupils? Show me a tribune or centurion that is harsh; he will cause deserters, who all the same are pardonable. Is it just, I ask, that man should be subjected to severer and harsher rule than dumb beasts? And yet the horse is not plied with the lash and terrified by the horse-breaker who is an expert; for it will grow fearful and obstinate unless it is soothed with caressing hand. The same is true of the hunter, whether he is teaching young dogs to follow the trail, or makes use of those already trained for routing out the game or running it down: he neither employs constant threats (for that will break their spirit, and all their native qualities will be gradually lost in a timidity unworthy of their breed), nor does he allow them to range and roam around without restraint. This applies again to drivers of the more sluggish beasts of burden, which, though they are born to abuse and misery, may be driven to refuse the yoke by too much cruelty.
No creature is more difficult of temper, none needs to be handled with greater skill, than man, and to none should more mercy be shown. For what is more senseless than to subject man to the foulest treatment at the hands of man, while one will blush to vent his anger on beasts of burden and dogs? Diseases do not make us angry — we try to cure them; yet here too is a disease, but of the mind; it requires gentle treatment, and one to treat it who is anything but hostile to his patient. It is a poor physician that lacks faith in his ability to cure; and he who has been entrusted with the life of all the people ought to act upon the same principle in dealing with those whose mind is diseased; he ought not to be too quick to give up hope or to pronounce the symptoms fatal; he should wrestle with their troubles and stay them; some he should reproach with their malady, some he should dupe by a sugared dose in order to make a quicker and a better cure by using deceptive remedies; the aim of the prince should be not merely to restore the health, but also to leave no shameful scar. No glory redounds to a ruler from cruel punislinient — for who doubts his ability to give it? — but, on the other hand, the greatest glory is his if he holds his power in check, if he rescues many from the wrath of others, if he sacrifices none to his own.
It is praiseworthy to use authority over slaves with moderation. Even in the case of i. human chattel you should consider not how much he can be made to suffer without retaliating, but how much you are permitted to inflict by the principles of equity and right, which require that mercy should be shown even to captives and purchased slaves. With how much more justice do they require that free, free-born, and reputable men should not be treated as mere chattels, but as those who, outstripped by you in rank, have been committed to your charge to be, not your slaves, but your wards. Even slaves have the right of refuge at the statue of a god; and although the law allows anything in dealing with a slave, yet in dealing with a human being there is an extreme which the right common to all living creatures refuses to allow. Who did not hate Vedius Pollio even more than his own slaves did, because he would fattten his lampreys on human blood, and order those who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond — or why not say his snake-preserve? The monster! He deserved to die a thousand deaths, whether he threw his slaves as food to lampreys he meant to eat, or whether he kept lampreys only to feed them on such food!
Even as cruel masters are pointed at with scorn throughout the whole city, and are hated and loathed, so with kings; while the wrong they do extends more widely, the infamy and hatred which they incur is handed down to the ages. But how much better not to have been born than to be counted among those born to the public harm!
It will be impossible for one to imagine anything more seemly for a ruler than the quality of mercy, no matter in what manner or with what justice he has been set over other men. We shall admit, of course, that this quality is the more beautiful and wonderful, the greater the power under which it is displayed; and this power need not be harmful if it is adjusted to Nature’s law. For Nature herself conceived the idea of king, as we may recognize from the case of bees and other creatures; the king of the bees has the roomiest cell, placed in the central and safest spot; besides, he does no work, but superintends the work of the others, and if they lose their king, they all scatter; they never tolerate more than one at a time, and they discover the best one by means of a fight; moreover the appearance of the king is striking and different from that of the others both in size and beauty. His greatest mark of distinction, however, lies in this: bees are most easily provoked, and, for the size of their bodies, excellent fighters, and where they wound they leave their stings; but the king himself has no sting. Nature did not wish him to be cruel or to seek a revenge that would be so costly, and so she removed his weapon, and left his anger unarmed.
Great kings will find herein a mighty precedent; for it is Nature’s way to exercise herself in small matters, and to bestow the tiniest proofs of great principles. Shameful were it not to draw a lesson from the ways of the tiny creatures, since, as the mind of man has so much more power to do harm, it ought to show the greater self-control. Would at least that a man were subject to the same law, and that his anger broke off along with his weapon, and that he could not injure more than once or use the strength of ethers to wreak his hatred; for he would soon grow weary of his rage if he had no instrument to satisfy it but himself, and if by giving rein to his violence he ran the risk of death. But even as it is, such a man has no safe course; for he must fear as much as he wishes to be feared, must watch the hands of every person, and count himself assailed even when no one is for laying hold on him, and not a moment must he have that is free from dread. Would any one endure to live such a life when, doing no harm to others and consequently fearless, he might exercise beneficently his privilege of power to the happiness of all? For if any one thinks that a king can abide in safety where nothing is safe from the king, he is wrong; for the price of security is an interchange of security. He has no need to rear on high his towering castles, or to wall about steep hills against asceent, or to cut away the sides of mountains, or to encircle himself with rows of walls and turrets; through mercy a king will be assured of safety on an open plain. His one impregnable defence is the love of his countrymen.
And what is more glorious than to live a life which all men hope may last, and for which all voice their prayers when there is none to watch them? to excite men’s fears, not their hopes, if one’s health gives way a little? to have no one hold anything so precious that he would not gladly give it in exchange for his chieftain’s safety? Oh, surely a man so fortunate would owe it also to himself — to live; to that end he has shown by constant evidences of his goodness, not that the state is his, but that he is the state’s. Who would dare to devise any danger for such a man? Who would not wish to shield him if he could, even from the chance of ill — him beneath whose sway justice, peace, chastity, security, and honor flourish, under whom the state abounds in wealth and a store of all good things? Nor does it gaze upon its ruler with other emotion than, did they vouchsafe his the power of beholding them, we should gaze upon the immortal gods — with veneration and with worship. But tell me: he who bears himself in a godlike manner, who is beneficent and generous and uses his power for the better end — does he not hold a place second only to the gods? It is well that this should be your aim, this your ideal: to be considered the greatest man, only if at the same time you are considered the best.
A prince usually inflicts punishment for one of two reasons, to avenge either himself or another. I shall first discuss the situation in which he is personally concerned; for moderation is more difficult when vengeance serves the end of anger rather than of discipline. At this point it is needless to caution him to be slow in believing, to ferret out the truth, to befriend innocence, and to remember that to prove this is as much the business of the judge as of the man under trial; for all this concerns justice, not mercy. What I now urge is that, although he has been clearly injured, he should keep his feelings under control, and, if he can in safety, should remit the punishment; if not, that he should modify it, and be far more willing to forgive wrongs done to himself than to others. For just as the magnanimous man is not be who makes free with what is another’s, but he who deprives himself of what he gives to some one else, so I shall not call him merciful who is peaceable when the smart is another’s, but him who, though the spur galls himself, does not become restive, who understands that it is magnanimous to brook injuries even where authority is supreme, and that there is nothing more glorious than a prince who, though wronged, remains unavenged.
Vengeance accomplishes usually one of two purposes: if a person has been injured, it gives him either a compensation or immunity for the future. But a prince’s fortune is too exalted for him to feel the need of compensation, and his power is too evident to lead him to seek a reputation for power by injury to another. That, I say, is so, when he has been assailed and outraged by his inferiors; for in the case of foes whom he once counted his equals, he has vengeance enough if he sees them beneath Ms heel. A slave, a snake, or an arrow may slay even a king; but no one has saved a life who was not greater than the one whom he saved. Consequently he who has the power to give and to take away life ought to use this great gift of the gods in a noble spirit. If he attains this mastery over those who, as he knows, once occupied a pinnacle that matched his own, upon such especially he has already sated his revenge and accomplished all that genuine punishment required; for that man has lost his life who owes it to another, and whosoever, having been cast down from high estate at his enemy’s feet, has awaited the verdict of another upon his life and throne, lives on to the glory of his preserver, and by being saved confers more upon the other’s name than if he had been removed from the eyes of men. For he is a lasting spectacle of another’s prowess; in a triumph he could have passed quickly out of sight. If, however, it has been possible in safety to leave also his throne in his possession, and to restore him to the height from which he fell, the praise of him who was content to take from a conquered king nothingg but his glory will rise in increasing greatness. This is to triumph even over his own victory, and to attest that he found among the vanquished nothing that was worthy of the victor. To his fellow-countrymen, to the obscure, and to the lowly he should show the greater moderation, as he has the less to gain by crushing them. Some men we should be glad to spare, on some we should scorn to be avenged, and we should recoil from them as from the tiny insects which defile the hand that crushes them; but in the case of those whose names will be upon the lips of the community, whether they are spared or punished, the opportunity for a notable clemency should be made use of.
Let us, pass now to the injuries done to others, in the punishment of which these three aims, which the law has had in view, should be kept in view also by the prince: either to reform the man that is punished, or by punishing him to make the rest better, or by removing bad men to let the rest live in greater security. You will more easily reform the culprits themselves by the lighter form of punishment; for he will live more guardedly who has something left to lose. No one is sparing of a ruined reputation; it brings a sort of exemption from punishment to have no room left for punishment. The morals of the state, moreover, are better mended by the sparing use of punitive measures; for sin becomes familiar from the multitude of those who sin, and the official stigma is less weighty if its force is weakened by the very number that it condemns, and severity, which provides the best corrective, loses its potency by repeated application. Good morals are established in the state and vice is wiped out if a prince is patient with vice, not as if he approved of it, but as if unwillingly and with great pain he had resort to chastisement. The very mercifulness of the ruler makes men shrink from doing wrong; the punishment which a kindly man decrees seems all the more severe.
You will notice, besides, that the sins repeatedly punished are the sins repeatedly committed. Your father within five years had more men sewed up in the sack than, by all accounts, there had been victims of the sack throughout all time. Children ventured much less often to incur the supreme sin so long as the crime lay outside the pale of the law. For by supreme wisdom the men of the highest distinction and of the deepest insight into the ways of nature chose rather to ignore the outrage as one incredible and passing the bounds of boldness, than by punishing it to point out the possibility of its being done; and so the crime of parricide began with the law against it, and punishment showed children the way to the deed; filial piety was truly at its lowest ebb after the sack became a more common sight than the cross. In that state in which men are rarely punished a sympathy for uprightness is formed, and encouragement is given to this virtue as to a common good. Let a state think itself blameless, and it will be so; its anger against those who depart from the general sobriety will be greater if it sees that they are few. Believe me, it is dangerous to show a state in how great a majority evil men are.
A proposal was once made in the senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves should begin to count our number. Be sure that we have a like danger to fear if no man’s guilt is pardoned; it will soon become apparent how greatly the worse element of the state preponderates. Numerous executions are not less discreditable to a prince than are numerous funerals to a physician; the more indulgent the ruler, the better he is obeyed. Man’s spirit is by nature refractory, it struggles against opposition and difficulty, and is more ready to follow than to be led; and as well-bred and high-spirited horses are better managed by a loose rein, so a voluntary uprightness follows upon mercy under its own impulse, and the state accounts it worthy to be maintained for the state’s own sake. By this course, therefore, more good is accomplished.
Cruelty is an evil thing befitting least of all a man, and is unworthy of his spirit that is so kindly; for one to take delight in blood and wounds and, throwing off the man, to change into a creature of the woods, is the madness of a wild beast. For what difference does it make, I beg of you, Alexander, whether you throw Lysimachus to a lion, or yourself tear lion to pieces with your teeth? That lion’s maw is yours, and yours its savagery. How pleased you would have been had its claws been yours instead, and yours those gaping jaws, big enough to swallow men! We do not require of you that that hand of yours, the surest destruction of familiar friends, should save the life of any man, that your savage spirit, the insatiate curse of nations, should sate itself with anything short of blood and slaughter; we call it now a mercy if to kill a friend the butcher is chosen among mankind. The reason why brutality is most of all abhorred is this: because it transgresses first all ordinary, and then all human, bounds, searches out new kinds of torture, calls ingenuity into play to invent devices by which suffering may be varied and prolonged, and takes delight in the afflictions of mankind; then indeed the dread disease of that man’s mind has reached the farthest limit of insanity, when cruelty has changed into pleasure and to kill a human being now becomes a joy. Hot upon the heels of such a man follow loathing, hatred, poison, and the sword; he is assailed by as many perils as there are many men to whom he is himself a peril, and he is beset sometimes by the plots of individuals, at times, indeed, by an uprising of the community. For whole cities are not roused by the trivial, destruction of single individuals; but that which begins to rage widespread and aims at all becomes the mark of every weapon. Tiny snakes pass unnoticed and no organized hunt is made for them; but when one exceeds the usual size and grows into a monster, when it poisons springs with its venom, with its breath scorches and destroys, then, wherever it advances, it is attacked with engines of war. Petty evils may elude us and escape, but we go out against the great ones. So, too, one sick person causes no confusion even in his own household; but when repeated deaths show that a plague prevails, there is a general outcry and flight of the community, and threatening hands are lifted toward the gods themselves. If a fire is discovered beneath some single roof, the family and the neighbors pour on water; but a widespread conflagration that has now consumed many homes is put down only by the destruction of half the city.
The cruelty even of men in private station has been avenged by the hands of slaves despite their certain risk of crucifixion; nations and peoples have set to work to extirpate the cruelty of tyrants, when some were suffering from it and others felt its menace. At times the tyrants’ own guards have risen up against them, and have practised upon their persons the treachery and disloyalty and brutality and all else that they themselves had taught them. For what can any one expect from him whom he himself has taught to be bad? Wickedness is not obsequious long, nor guilty of crime only to the extent that it is bid. But suppose that cruel rule is safe, what sort of a kingdom has it? Nothing but the bare outlines of captured cities and the terror-stricken countenances of widespread fear. Everywhere is sorrow, panic, and disorder; even pleasures give rise to fear; men are not safe when they go to the festal board, for there the tongue even of the drunkard must award itself with ears, nor to the public shows where the material is sought for accusation and ruin. Provided though they are at huge expense, in regal opulence, and with artists of the choicest reputation, yet whom would games delight in prison?
Ye gods! what curse is this — to kill, to rage, to take delight in the clank of chains and in cutting off the heads of fellow-countrymen, to spill streams of blood wherever one may go and by one’s appearance to terrify and repel? What else would living be if lions and bears held sway, if serpents and all the creatures that are most destructive were given supremacy over us? These, devoid of reason and doomed to death by us on the plea of their ferocity, yet spare their kind, and even among wild beasts likeness forms a safeguard; but tyrants do not withhold their fury even from their kin, strangers and friends are treated just alike, and the more they indulge their fury, the more violent it becomes. Then from the murder of one and again another it creeps on to the wiping out of nations, and to hurl the firebrand on the roofs of houses and to drive the plough over ancient cities are considered a sign of power, and to order the killing of one or two is believed to be too small a show of royal might; unless at one time a herd of poor wretches stands beneath the blade, rage counts its cruelty forced under control.
True happiness consists in giving safety to many in calling back to life from the very verge of death, and in earning the civic crown by showing mercy. No decoration is more worthy of the eminence of a prince or more beautiful than that crown bestowed for saving the lives of fellow-citizens; not trophies torn from a vanquished enemy, nor chariots stained with barbarian blood, nor spoils acquired in war. To save life by crowds and universally, this is a godlike use of power; but to kill in multitudes and without distinction is the power of conflagration and of ruin.
I have been especially induced to write on mercy by a single utterance of yours, Nero Caesar, which I remember, when it was made, I heard not without admiration and afterwards repeated to others — a noble, high-minded utterance, showing great gentleness, which unpremeditated and not intended for others’ ears suddenly burst from you, and brought into the open your kind-heartedness chafing against your lot. Burrus, your prefect, a rare man, born to serve a prince like you, was about to execute two brigands, and was bringing pressure upon you to record their names and the reasons why you wished their execution; this, often deferred, he was insisting should at last be done. He was reluctant, you were reluctant, and, when he had produced the paper and was handing it to you, you exclaimed,
Would that I had not learned to write. What an utterance! All nations should have heard it — those who dwell within the Roman empire, and those on its borders who are scarcely assured of their liberty, and those who through strength or courage rise up against it. What an utterance! It should have been spoken before a gathering of all mankind, that unto it princes and kings might pledge allegiance. What an utterance! Worthy of the universal innocence of mankind, in favor whereof that long past age should be renewed. Now assuredly it were fitting that men, thrusting out covetousness from which springs every evil of the heart, should conspire for righteousness and goodness, that piety and uprightness along with honor and temperance should rise again, and that vice, having misused its long reign, should at length give place to an age of happiness and purity.
We are pleased to hope and trust, Caesar, that in large measure this will happen. That kindness of your heart will be recounted, will be diffused little by little throughout the whole body of the empire, and all things will be moulded into your likeness. It is from the head that comes the health of the body; it is through it that all the parts are lively and alert or languid and drooping according as their animating spirit has life or withers. There will be citizens, there will be allies worthy of this goodness, and uprightness will return to the whole world; your hands will everywhere be spared. Permit me to linger longer on this point, but not merely to please your ears; for that is not my way. I would rather offend with the truth than please by flattery. What then is my reason? Besides wishing you to be as familiar as possible with your own good deeds and words in order that what is now a natural impulse may become a principle, I reflect upon this, that many striking but odious sayings have made their entry into human life and are bandied about as famous; as for example,
Let them hate if only they fear, and the Greek verse similar to it, in which a man would have the earth convulsed with flame when once he is dead, and others of this type. And somehow or other gifted men when dealing with a cruel and hateful theme have moulded violent and passionate thoughts into more felicitous phrase; never before have I heard from good and gentle lips an utterance that was full of spirit. What then is the conclusion? Though it be seldom, against your will, and after great reluctance, yet there are times when you must write the sort of thing that made you hate all writing, but you must do it, as you now do, after great reluctance, after much procrastination.
And in order that we may not perchance be deceived at times by the plausible name of mercy and led into an opposite quality, let us see what mercy is, what is its nature, and what its limitations.
Mercy means restraining the mind from vengeance when it has the power to take it, or the leniency of a superior toward an inferior in fixing punishment. In the fear that one definition may not be comprehensive enough, and, so to speak, the case be lost, it is safer to offer several; and so mercy may also be termed the inclination of the mind toward leniency in exacting punishment. The following definition will encounter objections, however closely it approaches the truth; if we shall say that mercy is the moderation which remits something from the punishment that is deserved and due, it will be objected that no virtue gives to any man less than his due. Everybody, however, understands that the fact of the case is that mercy consists in stopping short of what might have been deservedly proposed.
The ill-informed think that its opposite is strictness; but no virtue is the opposite of a virtue. What then is set over against mercy? It is cruelty, which is nothing else than harshness of mind in exacting punishment.
But, you say,
there are some who do not exact punishment, and yet are cruel, such as those who kill the strangers they meet, not for the sake of gain, but for the sake of killing, and, not content with killing, they torture, as the notorious Busiris and Procrustes, and the pirates who lash their captives and commit them to the flames alive. This indeed is cruelty; but because it does not result from vengeance — for no injury was suffered and no sin stirs its wrath — for no crime preceded it — it falls outside of our definition; for by the definition the mental excess was limited to the exaction of punishment. That which finds pleasure in torture we may say is not cruelty, but savagery — we may even call it madness; for there are various kinds of madness, and none is more unmistakable than that which reaches the point of murdering and mutilating men. Those, then, that I shall call cruel are those who have a reason for punishing, but do not have moderation in it, like Phalaris, who, they say, tortured men, even though they were not innocent, in a manner that was inhuman and incredible. Avoiding sophistry we may define cruelty to be the inclination of the mind toward the side of harshness. This quality mercy repels and bids it stand afar from her; with strictness she is in harmony.
At this point it is pertinent to ask what pity is. For many commend it as a virtue, and call a pitiful man good. But this too is a mental defect. We ought to avoid both, closely related as they are to strictness and to mercy. For under the guise of strictness we fall into cruelty, under the guise of mercy into pity. In the latter case a lighter risk is involved, it is true, but the error is equal in both, since in both we fall short of what is right.
Consequently, just as religion does honor to the gods, while superstition wrongs them, so good men will all display mercy and gentleness, but pity they will avoid; for it is the failing of a weak nature that succumbs to the sight of others’ ills. And so it is most often seen in the poorest types of persons; there are old women and wretched females who are moved by the tears of the worst criminals, who, if they could, would break open their prison. Pity regards the plight, not the cause of it; mercy is combined with reason.
I am aware that among the ill-informed the Stoic school is unpopular on the ground that it is excessively harsh and not at all likely to give good counsel to princes and kings; the criticism is made that it does not permit a wise man to be pitiful, does not permit him to pardon. Such doctrine, if stated in the abstract, is hateful; for, seemingly, no hope is left to human error, but all failures are brought to punishment. And if this is so, what kind of a theory is it that bids us unlearn the lesson of humanity, and closes the surest refuge against ill-fortune, the haven of mutual help? But the fact is, no school is more kindly and gentle, none more full of love to man and more concerned for the common good, so that it is its avowed object to be of service and assistance, and to regard not merely self-interest, but the interest of each and all. Pity is the sorrow of the mind brought about by the sight of the distress of others, or sadness caused by the ills of others which it believes come undeservedly. But no sorrow befalls the wise man; his mind is serene, and nothing can happen to becloud it. Nothing, too, so much befits a man as superiority of mind; but the mind cannot at the same time be superior and sad. Sorrow blunts its powers, dissipates and hampers them; this will not happen to a wise man even in the case of personal calamity, but he will beat back all the rage of fortune and crush it first; he will maintain always the same calm, unshaken appearance, and he could not do this if he were accessible to sadness.
Consider, further, that the wise man uses foresight, and keeps in readiness a plan of action; but what comes from a troubled source is never clear and pure. Sorrow is not adapted to the discernment of fact, to the discovery of expedients, to the avoidance of dangers, or the weighing of justice; he, consequently, will not suffer pity, because there cannot be pity without mental suffering. All else which I would have those who feel pity do, he will do gladly and with a lofty spirit; he will bring relief to another’s tears, but will not add his own; to the shipwrecked man he will give a hand, to the exile shelter, to the needy alms; he will not do as most of those who wish to be thought pitiful do — fling insultingly their alms, and scorn those whom they help and shrink from contact with them — but he will give as a man to his fellow-man out of the common store; he will grant to a mother’s tears the life of her son, the captive’s chains he will order to be broken, he will release the gladiator from his training, he will bury the carcass even of a criminal, but he will do these things with unruffled mind, and a countenance under control. The wise man, therefore, will not pity, but will succor, will benefit, and since he is born to be of help to all and to serve the common good, he will give to each his share thereof. He will extend a due measure of his goodness even to the unfortunates who deserve to be censured and disciplined; but much more gladly will he come to the rescue of the distressed and those struggling with mishap. Whenever he can, he will parry Fortune’s stroke; for in what way will he make better use of his resources or his strength than in restoring what chance has overthrown? And, too, he will not avert his countenance or his sympathy from any one because he has a withered leg, or is emaciated and in rags, and is old and leans upon a staff; but all the worthy he will aid, and will, like a god, look graciously upon the unfortunate.
Pity is akin to wretchedness; for it is partly composed of it and partly derived from it. One knows that his eyes are weak if they too are suffused at the sight of another’s blear eyes, just as always to laugh when other people laugh is, in faith, not merriment, but a disease, and for one to stretch his jaws too when everybody else yawns is a disease. Pity is a weakness of the mind that is over-much perturbed by suffering, and if anyone requires it from a wise man, that is very much like requiring him to wail and moan at the funerals of strangers.
But, you ask,
why will he not pardon? Come then, let us now also decide what pardon is, and we shall perceive that the wise man ought not to grant it. Pardon is the remission of a deserved punishment. Why a wise man ought not to give this is explained more at length by those who make a point of the doctrine; I, to speak briefly as if giving another’s opinion, explain it thus:
Pardon is given to a man who ought to be punished; but a wise man does nothing which he ought not to do, omits to do nothing which he ought to do; therefore he does not remit a punishment which he ought to exact. But in a more honorable way he will bestow upon you that which you wish to obtain by pardon; for the wise man will show mercy, be considerate, and rectify; he will do the same that he would do if he pardoned, and yet he will not pardon, since he who pardons admits that he has omitted to do something which he ought to have done. To one man he will give merely a reproof in words, and he will not inflict punishment if he sees that the other’s age will permit reformation; another who is clearly suffering from the odium of crime he will order to go free, because he was misled, because wine made him fall; he will let his enemies go unharmed, sometimes even with praise if they were stirred to fight by honorable motives — to maintain their loyalty, a treaty, or their liberty. These are all the operations of mercy, not of forgiveness. Mercy has freedom in decision; it sentences not by the letter of the law, but in accordance with what is fair and good; it may acquit and it may assess the damages at any value it pleases. It does none of these things as if it were doing less than is just, but as if the justest thing were that which it has resolved upon. But to pardon is to fail to punish one whom you judge worthy of punishment; pardon is the remission of punishment that is due. Mercy is superior primarily in this, that it declares that those who are let off did not deserve any different treatment; it is more complete than pardon, more creditable. In my opinion the dispute is about words, but concerning the fact there is agreement. The wise man will remit many punishments, he will save many whose character though unsound can yet be freed from unsoundness. He will be like the good husbandman who tends, not merely the trees that are straight and tall, but also applies props to those that for some reason have grown crooked in order that they may be straightened; others he will trim, in order that their branching may not hamper their height; some that are weak because set in poor soil he will fertilize; to some suffering from the shade of the others he will open up the sky. So the wise man will see what method of treatment a given character should have, how the crooked may be made straight. . . .
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