Plutarch’s Thanksgiving

The ancient biographer Plutarch has an interesting commentary on the nature of gratitude. In his life of Gaius Marius he describes the Roman leader as a man consumed with vanity who ended his days grasping for more honor and power to the point of desperation.

Thoughtless and forgetful people… let everything that happens to them slip away as time passes. And so, laying hold of and retaining nothing, real good always eludes them; instead they fill themselves with hopes, and neglect the present while they fix their eyes on the future. Yet what happens in the future is subject to fortune, whereas the present is here and cannot be taken away. But still these people throw away the present gift of fortune as though it did not belong to them, and do nothing but dream of the future which is quite uncertain.

Plutarch is here contrasting the violent and ultimately pathetic career of Marius with Antipater of Tarsus, an early Stoic thinker who believed in a God who was “a Being blessed, incorruptible, and of goodwill to men.” According to Plutarch, when he was near death

[Antipater] counted up all the blessings of his life and did not even forget to mention the good weather he had had on his voyage out to Athens, thus showing how deeply grateful he was to a benevolent fortune for everyone one of her gifts, and how he had laid them up safely in that most secure of human treasure-houses, the memory, to the very end.

Excepts are taken from the Fall of the Roman Republic (Penguin Classics). For related comments, see Stoic Piety and Johnson on Gratitude.

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