On the Commonwealth, Book VI




—To the wise, the consciousness of good deeds is the noblest reward of virtue. This divine virtue desires not statues with leaden supporters, (statuas plumbo inhærentes), nor triumphs, with their fading laurels; but a far more enduring recompence of ever verdant glories.


—What glories do you mean?


—Allow me, since it is the third day of our vacation, to relate to you a remarkable dream, which is connected with the history of our family. (Note I.)

When I arrived in Africa, where I was, as you are aware, tribune in the fourth legion under the Consul Manilius, my most earnest desire was to see King Masinissa, who, for very just reasons, had been always the especial friend of the Scipios. When I was introduced to him, the old man embraced me, shed tears, and then looking up to heaven, exclaimed—“I thank thee, O supreme [298]Sun, and ye other celestials, that before I depart from this life I behold in my kingdom and my palace, Publius Cornelius Scipio. His very name seems to re–animate me; for, from my soul, never escapes the memorial of that best and bravest of men, Africanus, your ancestor.

After this, I inquired of him concerning the affairs of his kingdom. He, on the other hand, questioned me about the condition of our Commonwealth, and in this kind of conversation we past the whole day. Towards evening, being entertained in a manner worthy the magnificence of a king, we carried on our discourse for a considerable part of the night. All this time, the good old monarch spoke of nothing but Scipio Africanus, whose actions, and even remarkable sayings, he remembered distinctly. At last, when we retired to bed, I fell into a more profound sleep than usual, both on account of my journey and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.

Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation—for it commonly happens that the meditation and discourse which employ us in the day time, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom in his waking hours he used frequently to think and speak.

My ancestor Africanus, I thought, appeared to [299]me in a shape, with which I was better acquainted from his picture, than from any personal knowledge of him. When I perceived it was he, I confess I trembled with consternation—but he addressed me, saying, take courage, my Scipio, be not afraid, and carefully remember what I shall say to you.

Do you see that city Carthage, which though brought under the Roman yoke by me, is now renewing former wars, and cannot live in peace? He pointed to Carthage, from a lofty region of the firmament, where I conceived myself transported with him into a sphere, all glittering with refulgent constellations.

It is to attack that city (continued he,) that you are this day arrived in a station not much superior to that of a private soldier. Before two years however are elapsed, you shall be consul, and complete its overthrow; whence you shall obtain by your own merit the surname of Africanus, which, as yet, belongs to you no otherwise than as derived from me.

After the destruction of Carthage, you shall receive the honour of a triumph; be advanced to the censorship, and in quality of ambassador, visit Egypt, Syria, Asia, and Greece. You shall be elected second time consul in your absence, and by utterly destroying Numantia, put an end to a most dangerous war.


But in entering the Capitol in your triumphal car, you shall find the Roman Commonwealth all in a ferment, through the intrigues of my grandson Tiberius Gracchus. ’Tis on this occasion, my dear Africanus, that you must show your country the greatness of your understanding, capacity, and prudence.

The destiny however, of that time appears uncertain, which way it shall turn. For when your age shall have accomplished seven times eight revolutions of the sun, and your fatal hours shall be marked out by the natural product of these two numbers, each of which is esteemed a perfect one, but for different reasons,—then shall the whole city have recourse to you alone, and place its hopes in your auspicious name. On you the senate, all good citizens, the allies, the people of Latium, shall cast their eyes; on you the preservation of the state shall entirely depend. In a word, if you escape the impious machinations of your relatives, you will, in quality of dictator, establish order and tranquillity in the Commonwealth. (Note II.)

Here Lælius wept bitterly, and the rest of the company gave vent to their sorrow by deep groans. On which Scipio, with a gentle smile, said, “Pray, gentleman, don’t wake me out of my dream, have patience, and hear the rest.”

Now in order to encourage you, my dear Africanus [301](continued the shade of my ancestor), to defend the state with the greater cheerfulness,—be assured that for all those who have any way conduced to the preservation, defence, and enlargement of their native country, there is a certain place in heaven, where they shall enjoy an eternity of happiness. For nothing on earth is more agreeable to God, the Supreme Governor of the Universe, than the assemblies and societies of men united together by laws, which are called States. It is from heaven their rulers and preservers came, and thither they return.

Though at these words I was extremely troubled, not so much at the fear of death, as at the perfidy of my own relations,—yet I recollected myself enough to enquire, whether he himself, my father Paulus, and others whom are looked upon as dead, really enjoyed life.

Yes, truly, (replied he), they all enjoy life, who have escaped from the body as from a prison. But as to what you call life on earth, ’tis no more than one form of death. But see, here comes your father Paulus toward you!

As soon as I observed him, my eyes burst out into a flood of tears, but he took me in his arms, embraced me, and bade me not weep. When my first transports subsided, and I regained the liberty of speech, I addressed my father thus:—“Thou best and most venerable of parents, since this, as [302]I am informed by Africanus, is the only substantial life, why do I linger on earth, and not rather haste to come hither where you are?

That (replied he) is impossible: for unless the God whose Temple is all that vast expanse you behold, shall free you from the fetters of the body, you can have no admission into this place. Mankind have received their being on this very condition, that they should labour for the preservation of that globe, which is situated as you see, in the midst of this temple, and is called earth.

Men are likewise endowed with a soul, which is a portion of the eternal fires, which you call stars and constellations; and which being round spherical bodies, animated by divine intelligences, perform their revolutions with amazing rapidity. ’Tis therefore your duty, my Publius, and that of all who have any veneration for the gods, to preserve this wonderful union of soul and body; nor without the express command of him who gave you a soul, should the least thought be entertained of quitting human life, lest you seem to desert the post assigned you by God himself. (Note III.)

Follow the examples of your grandfather here, and of me, your father, in paying a strict regard to justice and piety; the influence of which, towards parents and relations is great indeed, but that to our country greatest of all. Such a life as this is the true way to heaven, and to the [303]company of those, who, after having lived on earth and escaped from the body, inhabit the place you now behold.

This was the shining circle or zone whose remarkable brightness distinguishes it among the constellations, and which after the Greeks you call the Milky Way.

From thence, as I took a view of the universe, every thing appeared beautiful and admirable,—For there, not only those stars are to be seen that are never visible from our globe; but all of them appear of such magnitude as we could not have imagined. The least of all the stars was that removed farthest from heaven, and situate next to the earth; I mean our moon, which shines with a borrowed light. Now the globes of the stars far surpass the magnitude of our earth, which at that distance, appeared so exceedingly small, that I could not but be sensibly affected on seeing our whole empire no larger than if we touched the earth as it were at a single point.

As I continued to observe the earth with still greater attention, how long, I pray you, (said Africanus) will your mind be fixed on that object—why don’t you rather take a view of the magnificent temples whither you have arrived? The universe is composed of nine circles or rather spheres, one of which is the most elevated, and is exterior to all the rest which it embraces; and [304]where the Supreme God resides, who bounds and contains the whole. In it are fixed those stars which revolve with never–varying courses. Below this are seven other spheres, which revolve in a contrary direction to that in the heavens. One of these is occupied by the globe, which on earth they call Saturn. Next to that, is the star of Jupiter, so benign and salutary to mankind. The third in order, is that fiery and terrible planet called Mars. Below this again, almost in the middle region, is the Sun,—the leader, governor, and prince of the other luminaries; the soul of the world, which it regulates and illumines, filling all things with its rays. Then follow Venus and Mercury, which attend as it were on the Sun. Lastly, the Moon, which shines only in the reflected beams of the Sun, moves in the lowest sphere of all. Below this, if we except that gift of the gods, human souls, every thing is mortal, and tends to dissolution, but above it all is eternal. For the Earth, which is the ninth globe, and occupies the centre, is immoveable, and being the lowest, all others gravitate towards it. (Note IV.)

When I had recovered myself from the astonishment occasioned by such a wonderful prospect, I thus bespoke Africanus:—Pray what is this sound that strikes my ears in so loud and agreeable a manner? To which he replied—It is that which is called the music of the spheres, being produced [305]by their motion and impulse; and being formed by unequal intervals, but such as are divided according to the justest proportion, it produces, by duly tempering acute with grave sounds, various concerts of harmony. For it is impossible that motions so great should be performed without any noise; and it is agreeable to nature that the extremes on one side should produce sharp, and on the other, flat sounds. For which reason the sphere of the fixed stars, being the highest, and carried with a more rapid velocity, moves with a shrill and acute sound; whereas that of the moon, being the lowest, moves with a very flat one. As to the Earth, which makes the ninth sphere, it remains immoveably fixed in the middle or lowest part of the universe. But those eight revolutionary circles, in which both Mercury and Venus are moved with the same celerity, give out sounds that are divided by seven distinct intervals, which is generally the regulating number of all things.

“This celestial harmony has been imitated by learned musicians, both on stringed instruments and with the voice, whereby they have opened to themselves a way to return to the celestial regions, as have likewise many others who have employed their sublime genius while on earth in cultivating the divine sciences. (Note V.)

“By the amazing noise of this sound, the ears of mankind have been in some degree deafened, and [306]indeed hearing is the dullest of all the human senses. Thus the people who dwell near the Cataracts of the Nile, are by the excessive roar which that river makes in precipitating itself from those lofty mountains, entirely deprived of the sense of hearing. Now, so inconceivably great is the sound produced by the rapid motion of the whole universe that the human ear is no more capable of receiving it, than the eye is able to look stedfastly and directly on the sun, whose beams easily dazzle the strongest sight.

“While I was busied in admiring this scene of wonders, I could not help casting my eyes every now and then on the earth. On which, says Africanus, I perceive you are still employed in contemplating the seat and residence of mankind. Now if it appears to you so small, as in fact it really is, despise its vanities, and fix your attention for ever on these heavenly objects. Is it possible that you should attain any human applause or glory that are worth the contending for? The earth, you see, is peopled but in a very few places, and those too of small extent; and they appear like so many little spots of green, scattered through vast uncultivated deserts. Its inhabitants are not only so remote from each other as to cut off all mutual correspondence; but their situation being in oblique or contrary parts of the globe, or perhaps in those diametrically opposite to yours, all expectations [307]of universal fame must fall to the ground. You may likewise observe that the same globe of the earth is girt and surrounded with certain zones, whereof those two that are most remote from each other, and lie under the opposite poles of heaven, are congealed with frost; but that one in the middle, which is far the largest, is scorched with the intense heat of the sun. The other two are habitable, one towards the south,—the inhabitants of which are your Antipodes, with whom you have no connection;—the other, towards the north, is that you inhabit, whereof a very small part, as you may see, falls to your share. For the whole extent of what you see, is as it were but a little island, narrow at both ends and wide towards the middle, which is surrounded by the sea, which on earth you call the great Atlantic Ocean, and which, notwithstanding this magnificent name, you see is very insignificant. And even in these cultivated and well–known countries, has yours, or any of our names, ever past the heights of the Caucasus, or the currents of the Ganges? In what other parts to the north or the south, or where the sun rises and sets, will your names ever be heard? And excluding these, how small a space is there left for your glory to spread itself abroad? and how long will it remain in the memory of those whose minds are now full of it?

“Besides all this, if the progeny of any future [308]generation should wish to transmit to their posterity the praises of any one of us which they have heard from their forefathers; yet the deluges and combustions of the earth which must necessarily happenat their destined periods, will prevent our obtaining not only an eternal, but even a durable glory. And after all, what does it signify whether those who shall hereafter be born talk of you, when many of your cotemporaries whose number was not perhaps less, and whose merit certainly greater, were not so much as acquainted with your name?

“And the more, since not one of those who shall hear of us, is able to retain in his memory the transactions of a single year. The bulk of mankind indeed measure their year by the return of the sun, which is only one star. But the Annus Magnus, the true and complete year, is when all the stars shall have returned to the place whence they set out; and after long periods shall again exhibit the same aspect of the whole heavens. Indeed, I scarcely dare attempt to enumerate the vast multitude of ages contained in it. For as the sun was eclipsed and seemed to be extinguished at the time when the soul of Romulus penetrated into these eternal mansions—so when all the constellations and stars shall revert to their primary position, and the sun shall at the same point and time be again eclipsed—the grand year shall be [309]completed. Be assured, however, that the twentieth part of it is not yet elapsed.

“Now, had you no hopes of returning to this place, where great and good men enjoy all that their souls can wish for, of what, pray, would be the signification of all human glory, which can hardly endure for a small portion of one year?

“If, then, you wish to elevate your views to the contemplation of this eternal seat of splendour, you will not be satisfied with the praises of your fellow–mortals, nor with any human rewards that your exploits can obtain; but Virtue herself will point out to you the true and only object worthy of your pursuit. Leave to others to speak of you as they may, for speak they will. Their discourses will be confined to the narrow limits of the countries you see, nor will their duration be very extensive, for they will perish like those who utter them, and will be no more remembered by their posterity.

“When he ceased to speak, I said, “Oh, Africanus, if indeed the door of heaven is open to those who have deserved well of their country, whatever progress I may have made since my childhood in following your’s and my father’s steps, I will from henceforth strive to follow them more closely.”

“Follow them, then (said he), and consider your body only, not yourself, as mortal. For it [310]is not your outward form which constitutes your being, but your mind; not that substance which is palpable to the senses, but your spiritual nature. Know, then, that you are a god—for a god it must be that vivifies, and gives sensation, memory, and foresight to the body to which it is attached, and which it governs and regulates, as the Supreme Ruler does the world which is subject to him. As that Eternal Being moves whatever is mortal in this world, so the immortal mind of man moves the frail body with which it is connected; for what always moves must be eternal, but what derives its motion from a power which is foreign to itself, when that motion ceases, must itself lose its animation.

“That alone, then, which moves itself, can never cease to be moved, because it can never desert itself. It must be the source and origin of motion in all the rest. There can be nothing prior to this origin, for all things must originate from it—itself cannot derive its existence from any other source; for if it did, it would no longer be primary. And if it had no beginning, it can have no end; for a beginning that is put an end to, will neither be renewed by any other cause, nor will it produce any thing else of itself. All things, therefore, must originate from one source. Thus it follows, that motion must have its source in what is moved by itself, and which can neither [311]have a beginning nor an end. Otherwise all the heavens and all nature must perish; for it is impossible that they can of themselves acquire any power of producing motion in themselves.

“As, therefore, it is plain that what is moved by itself must be eternal, who will deny that this is the general condition of minds? For, as every thing is inanimate which is moved by an impulse exterior to itself, so what is animated is moved by an interior impulse of its own; for this is the peculiar nature and power of mind. And if that alone has the power of self–motion, it can neither have had a beginning, nor can it have an end.

“Do you, therefore, exercise this mind of yours in the best pursuits, which consist in promoting the good of your country. Such employments will speed the flight of your mind to this its proper abode; and its flight will be still more rapid, if it will look abroad and disengage itself from its bodily dwelling, in the contemplation of things which are external to itself.

“This it should do to the utmost of its power. For the minds of those who have given themselves up to the pleasures of the body, paying as it were a servile obedience to their lustful impulses, have violated the laws of God and man; and therefore when they are separated from their bodies, flutter continually round the earth on which they lived, and are not allowed to return to this celestial [312]region, till they have been purified by the revolution of many ages.” (Corporibus elapsi circum terram ipsam volutantur, nec hunc in locum nisi multis exagitati sœculis revertuntur.) (Note VI.)

Thus saying he vanished, and I awoke from my dream.

It is more desirable that fortune should be constant than brilliant; but the equability of life excites less interest than those changeable conditions, wherein prosperity suddenly revives out of the most desperate and ruinous circumstances.