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Sallust on virtue versus passion

March 31, 2014

“It is unreasonable for men to complain that their nature is weak and short-lived, and ruled by chance, not by virtue. For, upon reflection, you would discover that, on the contrary, there is nothing greater or more excellent than man’s nature and that what is lacking is not strength or time, but rather energy. What guides and rules human life is the mind. If this pursues glory by the path of virtue, it has power, might and fame in abundance, and is independent of fortune, which can neither give anyone honesty, energy, and other good qualities, nor take them away. But if, enslaved by base passions, it has sunk into lethargy and the pleasures of the body, brief is the enjoyment of its ruinous appetites; then, when strength, time and talents have been frittered away through laziness, the weakness of human nature bears the blame, and the real culprits shift the responsibility from themselves to their circumstances. But if men pursued good things with as much eagerness as they show for what is against their interests and unprofitable – and often even dangerous – they would control events instead of being controlled by them, and would reach such a height of greatness and glory that from mere mortals they would become immortal.”

This is from the beginning of Sallust’s The War Against Jugurtha, from a new translation by Michael Comber and Catalina Balmaceda. Sallust was an areteicist, a follower of virtue ethics, who was already complaining about the declining ethical standard of the Roman senatus populusque before the Republic had fallen. He was roughly contemporary with Cicero, but they were not friends.

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