CHAPTER 10: Preferment at Rome
If we philosophers applied ourselves as busily to our own work as the politicians at Rome do to those matters about which they are employed, perhaps we also might accomplish something. I am acquainted with a man older than myself who is now superintendent of corn at Rome, and remember the time when he came here on his way back from exile. I remember what he said as he related the events of his former life, and how he declared that with respect to the future, after his return, he would look after nothing else than passing the rest of his life in quiet and tranquility. "For how little of life," he said, "remains to me." I replied, "You will not do it, but as soon as you smell Rome, you will forget all that you have said. If admission is allowed even into the imperial palace, you will gladly thrust yourself in and thank God." "If you find me, Epictetus," he answered, "setting even one foot within the palace, think what you please." Well, what then did he do? Before he entered the city he was met by letters from Caesar, and as soon as he received them he forgot all, and ever after has added one piece of business to another. I wish that I were now by his side to remind him of what he said when he was passing this way and to tell him how much better a seer I am than he is.
Rome was, for all intents and purposes, the capital of the world. It was the place where ambitious men traveled to compete for power and property. Epictetus tells us this story of an aging acquaintance on his way to Rome. The man intended to retire in the luxury of the capital. But on his arrival he was offered a powerful position by the Emperor, "Superintendent of Corn".
Corn for the Romans was what we think of as grain or wheat. Bread was the basic food for the mass of humanity. In Rome, grain was given out to citizens for free in order to keep them docile. As such, anyone who controlled the flow of grain, also controlled the people. He had the power of life and death and could acquire wealth and property. However, this was also a heavy responsibility and required tremendous exertions on the part of the superintendent.
This friend of Epictetus snatched up the proffered post in a second. Throwing away all his intentions of living the remainder of the short years left to him in contemplation.
Power, fame and wealth are addictive and alluring, so much so that they spur us on to work hard and well in order to attain them. Sometimes we pursue them with such vigor that we forget more important things, like our families and our souls.
And when power and wealth have been attained? Lord Acton famously said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He meant corruption in both the legal and the moral sense. It causes us to forget our fellow man and what is our true mission on this Earth. When power comes to us, we revel in it. We would do anything to keep it.
Yet is power itself evil? No. Epictetus did not think it necessarily so. Power and wealth can be used for good. It is merely a tool. Yet, this is not the point that Epictetus is driving toward. He brings up this case to illustrate a point:
Stoicism and Christianity Index
- Preferment at Rome
- Priorities (2a)