On noticing that his eldest son, Lamprocles, was out of humour with his mother, he said: “Tell me, my boy, do you know that some men are called ungrateful?”
“Indeed I do,” replied the young man.
“Do you realise how they come to have this bad name?”
“I do; the word is used of those who do not show the gratitude that it is in their power to show for benefits received.”
“You take it, then, that the ungrateful are reckoned among the unjust?”
“Now, seeing that enslavement is considered a just or an unjust act according as the victims are friends or enemies, have you ever considered whether the case of ingratitude is analogous, ingratitude being unjust towards friends, but just towards enemies?”
“Indeed I have; and I think that it is always unjust not to show gratitude for a favour from whomsoever it is received, be he friend or enemy.”
“If that is so, must not ingratitude be injustice pure and simple?”
“Therefore the greater the benefits received the greater the injustice of not showing gratitude?”
He agreed again.
“Now what deeper obligation can we find than that of children to their parents? To their parents children owe their being and their portion of all fair sights and all blessings that the gods bestow on men — gifts so highly prized by us that all will sacrifice anything rather than lose them; and the reason why governments have made death the penalty for the greatest crimes is that the fear of it is the strongest deterrent against crime.
Of course you don't suppose that lust provokes men to beget children, when the streets and the stews are full of means to satisfy that? We obviously select for wives the women who will bear us the best children, and then marry them to raise a family.
The man supports the woman who is to share with him the duty of parentage and provides for the expected children whatever he thinks will contribute to their benefit in life, and accumulates as much of it as he can. The woman conceives and bears her burden in travail, risking her life, and giving of her own food; and, with much labour, having endured to the end and brought forth her child, she rears and cares for it, although she has not received any good thing, and the babe neither recognises its benefactress nor can make its wants known to her: still she guesses what is good for it and what it likes, and seeks to supply these things, and rears it for a long season, enduring toil day and night, nothing knowing what return she will get.
“Nor are the parents content just to supply food, but so soon as their children seem capable of learning they teach them what they can for their good, and if they think that another is more competent to teach them anything, they send them to him at a cost, and strive their utmost that the children may turn out as well as possible.”
To this the young man replied:
“Nay, but even if she has done all this and far more than this, no one could put up with her vile temper.”
“Which, think you,” asked Socrates
, “is the harder to bear, a wild beast's brutality or a mother's?”
“I should say a mother's, when she is like mine.”
“Well now, many people get bitten or kicked by wild beasts; has she ever done you an injury of that sort?”
“Oh no, but she says things one wouldn't listen to for anything in the world.”
“Well, how much trouble do you think you have given her by your peevish words and froward acts day and night since you were a little child; and how much pain when you were ill?”
“But I have never yet said or done anything to cause her shame.”
“Now do you really think it harder for you to listen to what she says than for actors when they abuse one another in a tragedy?”
“But an actor, I suppose, doesn't think that a question put to him will lead to punishment, or that a threat means any harm: and so he makes light of it.”
“And why should you be annoyed? You know well that there is no malice in what your mother says to you; on the contrary, she wishes you to be blessed above all other beings — unless, indeed, you suppose that your mother is maliciously set against you?”
“Oh no, I don't think that.”
“So this mother of yours is kindly disposed towards you; she nurses you devotedly in sickness and sees that you want for nothing; more than that, she prays the gods to bless you abundantly and pays vows on your behalf; and yet you say she is a trial! It seems to me that, if you can't endure a mother like her, you can't endure a good thing.
Now tell me, is there any other being whom you feel bound to regard? Or are you set on trying to please nobody, and obeying neither general nor other ruler?”
“Of course not!”
“Do you want to please your neighbour, for instance, so that he may kindle a fire for you at your need, may support you in prosperity, and in case of accident or failure may be ready to hold out a helping hand?”
“Yes, I do.”
“When you find yourself with a travelling companion on land or at sea, or happen to meet anyone, is it a matter of indifference to you whether he prove a friend or an enemy? Or do you think his goodwill worth cultivating?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And yet, when you are resolved to cultivate these, you don't think courtesy is due to your mother, who loves you more than all? Don't you know that even the state ignores all other forms of ingratitude and pronounces no judgment on them,1
caring nothing if the recipient of a favour neglects to thank his benefactor, but inflicts penalties on the man who is discourteous to his parents and rejects him as unworthy of office, holding that it would be a sin for him to offer sacrifices on behalf of the state and that he is unlikely to do anything else honourably and rightly? Aye, and if one fail to honour his parents' graves, the state inquires into that too, when it examines the candidates for office.
Therefore, my boy, if you are prudent, you will pray the gods to pardon your neglect of your mother, lest they in turn refuse to be kind to you, thinking you an ingrate; and you will beware of men, lest all cast you out, perceiving that you care nothing for your parents, and in the end you are found to be without a friend. For, should men suppose you to be ungrateful to your parents, none would think you would be grateful for any kindness he might show you.”