History as the Soul’s Path to Glory

“What guides and controls human life is man’s soul.  If it pursues glory by the path of virtue, it has all the resources and abilities it needs for winning fame, and is independent of fortune, which can neither give any man uprightness, energy, and other good qualities, not deprive any man of them.  But if the soul is enslaved by base desires and sinks into the corruption of sloth and carnal pleasures, it enjoys a ruinous indulgence for a brief season; then, when idleness has wasted strength, youth, and intelligence, the blame is put on the weakness of our nature, and each man excuses himself for his own shortcomings by imputing his failure to adverse circumstances.  If men pursue good things with the same ardour with which they seek what is unedifying and unprofitable – often, indeed, actually dangerous and pernicious – they would control events instead of being controlled by them, and would rise to such heights of greatness and glory that their mortality would put on immortality.” Sallust, Chap. 1 in The Jugurthine War, trans. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 35.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust) lived during the first century BC and wrote histories of the Roman Republic.  His works on the Jugurthine War, the conspiracy of Catiline, and fragments of other histories survive.  Sallust allied with Julius Caesar in the populares faction against the aristocratic Senators and Pompey in the Civil War from 49-45 BC.  In the last years of his ten years of his life (assuming he died c. 35) he spent writing historical works.  In this quote we observe Sallust’s moral understanding of the study of human history and its relationship to the nature of the human soul.  He continued:

“As man consists of body and soul, all our possessions and pursuits partake of the nature of one or the other.  Thus personal beauty and great wealth, bodily strength, and all similar things, soon pass away; the noble achievements of the intellect are immortal like the soul itself.  Physical advantages, and the material gifts of fortune, begin and end; all that comes into existence, perishes; all that grows, must one day decay.  But the soul, incorruptible and eternal, is the ruler of mankind; it guides and controls everything, subject itself to no control.  Wherefore we can but marvel the more at the unnatural conduct of those who abandon themselves to bodily pleasures and pass their time in riotous living and idleness, neglecting their intelligence – the best and noblest element in man’s nature – and letting it become dull through lack of effort; and that, too, when the mind is capable of so many different accomplishments that can win the highest distinction.” Ibid., pp. 35-36. [Emphasis added]

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