Category: The Ancients


“If all officials indulge in studies, sons of the family are fond of debate, peddlars and shopkeepers hide money in foreign countries, and poor people suffer miseries at home, then ruin is possible.

If the ruler is fond of palatial decorations, raised kiosks, and embanked pools, is immersed in pleasures of having chariots, clothes, and curios, and thereby tires out the hundred surnames and exhausts public wealth, then ruin is possible.

If the ruler is greedy, insatiable, attracted to profit, and fond of gain, then ruin is possible.

If the ruler enjoys inflicting unjust punishment and does not uphold the law, likes debate and persuasion but never sees to their practicability, and indulges in style and wordiness but never considers their effect, then ruin is possible.

If the ruler is stubborn-minded, uncompromising, and apt to dispute every remonstrance and fond of surpassing everybody else, and never thinks of the welfare of the Altar of the Spirits of Land and Grain but sticks to self-confidence without due consideration, then ruin is possible.

The ruler who relies on friendship and support from distant countries, makes light of his relations with close neighbours, counts on the aid from big powers, and provokes surrounding countries, is liable to ruin.

If the ruler is boastful but never regretful, makes much of himself despite the disorder prevailing in his country, and insults the neighbouring enemies without estimating the resources within the boundaries, then ruin is possible.

If words of maids and concubines are followed and the wisdom of favourites is used, and the ruler repeats committing unlawful acts regardless of the grievances and resentments inside and outside the court, then ruin is possible.

If the ruler is narrow-minded, quick-tempered, imprudent, easily affected, and, when provoked, becomes blind with rage, then ruin is possible.

If the state treasury is empty but the chief vassals have plenty of money, native subjects are poor but foreign residents are rich, farmers and warriors have hard times but people engaged in secondary professions are benefited, then ruin is possible.”

The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Indeed it is, and a rare thing at thatIndeed it is, and a rare thing at that

“The sage is the one who scrutinizes the facts of right and wrong and investigates the conditions of order and chaos. Therefore, when governing the state he rectifies laws clearly and establishes penalties severely in order to rescue all living beings from chaos, rid All-Under-Heaven of misfortune, prohibit the strong from exploiting the weak and the many from oppressing the few, enable the old and the infirm to die in peace and the young and the orphan to grow freely, and see to it that the frontiers be not invaded, that ruler and minister be intimate with each other, that father and son support each other, and that there be no worry about being killed in war or taken prisoner. Such is one of the greatest achievements.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

The state of affairsThe state of affairs

“Because King Ling of Ch`u liked slender waists, the country became full of starvelings; because Duke Huan of Ch`i was by nature jealous and fond of women, Shu Tiao castrated himself in order to administer the harem; because Duke Huan liked different tastes, Yi-ya steamed the head of his son and served Duke Huan with the rare taste.” – The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu (trans. and ed. W. K. Liao)

Long ago and far awayLong ago and far away

“When the Grand Way was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled All-under-Heaven; they chose worthy and able men; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. They accumulated articles of value, disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. They laboured with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it only with a view to their own advantage. In this way selfish schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, filchers, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was the period of what we call the Great Community.” – The Li Ki (trans. James Legge)

How it is to be doneHow it is to be done

“To obtain the right training for virtue from youth up is difficult, unless one has been brought up under the right laws. To live a life of self-control and tenacity is not pleasant for most people, especially for the young. Therefore, their upbringing and pursuits must be regulated by laws; for once they have become familiar, they will no longer be painful. But it is perhaps not enough that they receive the right upbringing and attention only in their youth. Since they must carry on these pursuits and cultivate them by habit when they have grown up, we probably need laws for this, too, and for the whole of life in general. For most people are swayed rather by compulsion that argument, and by punishment rather than by a sense of what is noble. This is why some believe that lawgivers ought to exhort and try to influence people toward a life of virtue because of its inherent nobility, in the hope that those who have made good progress through their habits will listen to them. Chastisement and penalties, they think, should be imposed upon those who do not obey and are of an inferior nature, while the incorrigible ought to be banished abroad. A good man, they think, who orients his life by what is noble will accept the guidance of reason, while a bad man, whose desire is for pleasure, is corrected by pain like a beast of burden. For the same reason, they say that the pains inflicted must be those that are most directly opposed to the pleasures he loves.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, Ch. 9

Go figureGo figure

“Some people believe that it is nature that makes men good, others that it is habit, and others again that it is teaching. Now, whatever goodness comes from nature is obviously not in our power, but is present in truly fortunate men as the result of some divine cause. Argument and teaching, I am afraid, are not effective in all cases: the soul of the listener must first have been conditioned by habits to the right kind of likes and dislikes, just as land must be cultivated before it is able to foster the seed. For a man whose life is guided by emotion will not listen to an argument that dissuades him, nor will he understand it. How can we possibly persuade a man like that to change his ways? And in general it seems that emotion does not yield to argument but only to force. Therefore, there must first be a character that somehow has an affinity for excellence or virtue, a character that loves what is noble and feels disgust at what is base.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, Ch. 9

Keeping them in lineKeeping them in line

“The natural tendency of most people is to be swayed not by a sense of shame but by fear, and to refrain from acting basely not because it is disgraceful, but because of the punishment it brings. Living under the sway of emotion, they pursue their own proper pleasures and the means by which they can obtain them, and they avoid the pains that are opposed to them. But they do not even have a notion of what is noble and truly pleasant, since they have never tasted it. What argument indeed can transform people like that? To change by argument what has long been ingrained in a character is impossible or, at least, not easy. Perhaps we must be satisfied if we have whatever we think it takes to become good an attain a modicum of excellence.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, Ch. 9

That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huhThat’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh

“Pleasure is considered to be deeply ingrained in the human race, and that is why in educating the young we use pleasure and pain as rudders with which to steer them straight. Moreover, to like and to dislike what one should is thought to be of greatest importance in developing excellence of character. For in view of the fact that people choose the pleasant and avoid the painful, pleasure and pain pervade the whole of life and have the capacity of exerting a decisive influence for a life of excellence or virtue and happiness.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, Ch. 1

Let not their name be legionLet not their name be legion

“Ought we to make as many friends as possible? Or will the mot juste about hospitality, ‘not too many guests, nor yet none,’ also fit friendship in the sense that a person should neither be friendless nor have an excessive number of friends? The saying would seem to fit exactly those who become friends with a view to their mutual usefulness. To accommodate many people in return for what they have done to us is troublesome, and life is not long enough to do that. Accordingly, more friends than are sufficient for one’s own life are superfluous and are an obstacle to the good life, so that there is no need of them. To give us pleasure a few friends are sufficient.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Ch. 10

Down, boys, downDown, boys, down

“In a way, anger seems to listen to reason, but to hear wrong, like hasty servants, who run off before they have heard everything their master tells them, and fail to do what they were ordered, or like dogs, which bark as soon as there is a knock without waiting to see if the visitor is a friend.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 7, Ch. 6

Tending in this directionTending in this direction

“In our transactions with other men it is by action that some become just and others unjust, and it is by acting in the face of danger and by developing the habit of feeling fear or cowardice that some become brave men and others cowards. The same applies to the appetites and feelings of anger: by reacting in one way or in another to given circumstances some people become self-controlled and gentle, and others self-indulgent and short-tempered. In a word, characteristics develop from corresponding activities. For that reason, we must see to it that our activities are of a certain kind, since any variations in them will be reflected in our characteristics. Hence it is no small matter whether one habit or another in inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Ch. 1

Helluva way to win a warHelluva way to win a war

“Forget about the level of training, the implementation of draconian punitive measures or the socialization of troops – during any engagement both sides are naturally leaning towards retreat. The side whose soldiers are able to suppress that instinctive response longer is usually victorious.” – Łukasz Różycki, “Fear – Elements of Slavic ‘Psychological Warfare’ in the Context of Selected Late Roman Sources”

Ordering the goodOrdering the good

“There are three orders of good ; viz. that which is imparticipable and superessential ; that which is imparticipable and essential ; and that which is essential and participable. Of these, the last is such as our nature contains; the good which ranks among forms is essential; and that which is beyond essence is superessential. Or we say that the good which subsists in us may be considered as a habit, in consequence of subsisting in a subject; the next to this ranks as essence, and a part of essence, I mean the good which ranks among forms; and the good which is beyond essence, is neither a habit, nor a part. With respect to the good, also, which subsists according to essence, it must be observed, that since forms are twofold, some alone distinguishing the essences of the things fashioned by form, but others their perfections, the genus of essence, same and different, and the form of animal, horse, and man, and every thing of this kind, give distinction to essence and subjects; but the form of the good, the beautiful, and the just, and in like manner the form of virtue, of health, strength, and every thing of a similar nature, are perfective of the beings to which they belong: and of some, essence is the leader, but of others the good.” – Thomas Taylor, On the Mysteries

No telling what they may chooseNo telling what they may choose

“Since the ignorance of, and deception about, divine natures is impiety and impurity, but a scientific knowledge of the Gods is holy and beneficial, the ignorance of things honourable and beautiful will be darkness, but the knowledge of them will be light. And the former, indeed, will fill men with all evils, through the want of erudition, and through audacity; but the latter will be the cause to them of every good.” – Porphyry, “The Epistle of Porphyry to the Egyptian Anebo” (trans. Thomas Taylor)

What a piece of workWhat a piece of work

“How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man? for it is very soon swallowed up in the eternal. And how small a part of the whole substance? and how small a part of the universal soul? and on what a small clod of the whole earth you creep? Reflecting on all this consider nothing to be great, except to act as your nature leads you, and to endure what the common nature brings.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (trans. George Long)

One and the sameOne and the same

“The God of Plato and Aristotle, of Plotinus and Augustine, of Aquinas and Bonaventure, of Newman and C. S. Lewis; the eternal immutable, infinite, ubiquitous, omnipotent, omniscient Supreme Being, Unmoved Mover, ens realissimum, whose existence is identical with His essence and who is without body, parts, or passions, is one of the sublimest achievements of the human imagination. He, not Yahweh, is the deepest mystery, for metaphysics (as His reluctant admire Nietzsche pointed out) is the subtlest psychology, the supreme fiction.” – George Scialabba, “God: A Biography”