My friend Sossius Senecio,

Is it possible, do you think, that all the arguments in the world can make a man sensibly assured that he is a proficient in virtue, upon this supposition, that his proceedings do not in the least alleviate and abate his folly, but that the vice in him, weighing in equal balance against his good inclinations, holds him down, as
Heavy lead pulls down the yielding net?

In the study of music or grammar, I am sure, such a conclusion would be very absurd; for the scholar could never be certain that he had made any improvement in those sciences, if all the while he is a learning he did not exhaust by little and little his former ignorance about them, but remained during the whole progress of his application under the same degree of unskilfulness as at first setting out.

The like may be said of those that are under the hands of a physician. According to this assertion, if the patient take physic which does not recruit his strength or give him ease by abating the severity of the distemper, it is absolutely impossible that he should discern any alteration in himself, before the contrary habit is perfectly and in the highest degree induced, and his body thoroughly sound and well. As in these instances you cannot say the persons have advanced any thing, so long as they perceive no sensible [p. 447] change in themselves by the abatement of the contrary weight, and do not find that their minds are elevated, as it were, in the opposite scale; just so, in truth, is it with those that profess philosophy. They cannot be assured of any progress or improvement, if the soul do not gradually advance and purge off the rest of its former imperfections, but still lie under the like equal pressure and grievance of pure, absolute, unmixed evil, till it have attained the state of perfect, supreme good; for the truth of it is, a wise man cannot in a moment of time change from the lowest degree of vice imaginable to the most heroic perfection of virtue, if he only make a brisk attempt to throw off vice all at once, and do not constantly and resolutely endeavor by little and little to lighten the burthen and dispossess the evil habit of it.

You know very well how much trouble those give themselves who maintain this assertion, and what strange questions they raise with regard to it,—for instance, why a wise virtuous man should never perceive how he became such, but should either be quite ignorant, or at least doubt, that ever by little and little, now adding something, now subtracting and removing others, he advanced to the aggregate perfection of virtue. Now if (as they affirm) the change from bad to good were either so quick and sudden, as that he was extremely vicious in the morning may become eminently virtuous at night, or that any one going to bed wicked might chance to rise a virtuous man next morning, and, having all the former day's errors and imperfections absolutely removed out of his mind, might say to them, as it is in the poet,

Vain dreams ! farewell, like spectres haste away,
At the new light of virtue's glorious day;

do you think that any one in the world could be ignorant of so extraordinary a conversion, and perfectly shut his [p. 448] eyes upon the beams of virtue and wisdom so fully and manifestly breaking in upon his soul? In my opinion, if any person should have Caeneus's foolish wish, and be changed (as it is reported he was) from one sex to the other, it is more probable that such a one should be altogether ignorant of the metamorphosis, than that any should, from a lazy, unthinking, debauched fellow, commence a wise, prudent, and valiant hero, and from a sottish bestiality advance to the perfection of divine life, and yet know nothing at all of the change.

1 Eurip. Iph. Taur. 669.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus English (Frank Cole Babbitt, 1927)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: