[Translated by G. G. Ramsay]
The Vanity of Human Wishes
In all the lands that stretch from Gades to the Ganges and the Morn, there are but few who can distinguish true blessings from their opposites, putting aside the mists of error. For when does Reason direct our desires or our fears? What project do we form so auspiciously that we do not repent us of our effort and of the granted wish? Whole households have been destroyed by the compliant Gods in answer to the masters' prayers; in camp and city alike we ask for things that will be our ruin. Many a man has met death from the rushing flood of his own eloquence; others from the strength and wondrous thews in which they have trusted. More still have been ruined by money too carefully amassed, and by fortunes that surpass all patrimonies by as much as the British whale exceeds the dolphin. It was for this that in the dire days Nero ordered Longinus 1 and the great gardens of the over-wealthy Seneca 2 to be put under siege; for this was it that the noble Palace of the Laterani 3 was beset by an entire cohort; it is but seldom that soldiers find their way into a garret!
Though you carry but few silver vessels with you in a night journey, you will be afraid of the sword and cudgel of a freebooter, you will tremble at the shadow of a reed shaking in the moonlight; but the empty-handed traveller will whistle in the robber's face.
The foremost of all petitions----the one best known to every temple----is for riches and their increase, that our money-chest may be the biggest in the Forum. But you will drink no aconite out of an earthenware cup; you may dread it when a jewelled cup is offered you, or when Setine wine sparkles in a golden bowl. Then will you not commend the two wise men, one of whom 4 would laugh while the opposite sage 5 would weep every time he set a foot outside the door? To condemn by a cutting laugh comes readily to us all; the wonder is how the other sage's eyes were supplied with all that water. The sides of Democritus shook with unceasing laughter, although in the cities of his day there were no purple-bordered or purple-striped robes, no fasces, no palanquins, no tribunals. What if he had seen the Praetor uplifted in his lofty car amid the dust of the Circus, attired in the tunic 6 of Jove, hitching an embroidered Tyrian toga 6 on to his shoulders, and carrying a crown so big that no neck could bear the weight of it? For a public slave is sweating under the burden; and that the Consul may not fancy himself overmuch, the slave rides in the same chariot with his master. Add to all this the bird that is perched on his ivory staff; on this side the horn-blowers, on that the duteous clients preceding him in long array, with white-robed Roman citizens, whose friendship has been gained by the dinner-dole snugly lying in their purses,7 marching at his bridle-rein. Even then the philosopher found food for laughter at every meeting with his kind: his wisdom shows us that men of high distinction and destined to set great examples may be born in a dullard air, and in the land of mutton-heads.8 He laughed at the troubles, ay and at the pleasures, of the crowd, sometimes too at their tears, while for himself he would bid frowning fortune go hang, and point at her the finger of derision.
Thus it is that the things for which we pray, and for which it is right and proper to load the knees of the Gods with wax, are either profitless or pernicious! Some men are hurled headlong by over-great power and the envy to which it exposes them; they are wrecked by the long and illustrious roll of their honours: down come their statues, obedient to the rope; the axe hews in pieces their chariot wheels and the legs of the unoffending horses. And now the flames are hissing, and amid the roar of furnace and of bellows the head of the mighty Sejanus,9 the darling of the mob, is burning and crackling, and from that face, which was but lately second in the entire...