The Wisdom of the Ages “On Benefits”

When was the last time you read a 2000-year-old classic? In Latin?

Don’t bail on me just yet. As difficult as the language and translation may be, there often is much to be gained by calling on the ancients for a bit of grounding and to shed both light and inspiration on the timeless nature of our work.

I recently read the “On Benefits,” by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a reported contemporary and correspondent of St. Paul. The essence of this collection of seven books (total 140 pages in the English) is “the doing, receiving and requiting of good turns.” First translated in 1578, the piece is considered history’s greatest treatise on such subjects as giving and gratitude.

The dialog is particularly of interest to those of us who have made a career of benefiting others, of requesting that our fellows give to enrich lives and communities. What would Lucius Seneca have to say regarding our motives and methods in America’s philanthropic, fundraising and human/community services environment 2007?

If you have a deep interest in Seneca and Stoical thought, pick up a copy of the Hard Press publication. For those who are intrigued only in passing, I’ve selected a few of my favorite passages from the books and share them below. Not light reading, but worthy of substantive consideration.


“What, then, is a benefit? It is the art of doing a kindness which both bestows pleasure and gains it by bestowing it, and which does its office by natural and spontaneous impulse. It is not, therefore, the thing which is done or given, but the spirit in which it is done or given that must be considered. Because a benefit exists not in that which is done or given, but in the mind of the doer or giver.”

“A benefit is not to be felt and handled, it is a thing which exists only in the mind. There is a great difference between the subject-matter of a benefit, and the benefit itself. Wherefore neither gold nor silver, nor any of those things which are most highly esteemed are benefits, but the benefit lies in the goodwill of him who gives them. The ignorant take notice only of that which comes before their eyes, and which can be owned and passed from hand to hand, while they disregard that which gives these things their value. The things which we hold in our hands, which we see with our eyes, and which our avarice hugs, are transitory. They may be taken from us by ill luck or by violence, but a kindness lasts even after the loss of that by means of which it was bestowed; for it is a good deed, which no violence can undo.”

How to Give

“The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure. If anyone returns it, that is clear gain. If he does not return it, I gave it for the sake of giving. No one writes down his gifts in a ledger, or like a grasping creditor demands repayment to the day and hour. A good man never thinks of such matters, unless reminded of them by some one returning his gifts. Otherwise they become like debts owing to him. It is a base usury to regard a benefit as an investment.”

“All writers on ethical philosophy tell us that some benefits ought to be given in secret, others in public. Those things which it is glorious to receive, such as military decorations or public offices, and whatever else gains in value the more widely it is known, should be conferred in public. On the other hand, when they do not promote a man or add to his social standing, but help him when in weakness, in want or in disgrace, they should be given silently, and so as to be known only to those who profit by them.”

What to Give

“If we have a free choice as to what to give, we should above all choose lasting presents, in order that our gift may endure as long as possible. For few are so grateful as to think of what they have received even when they do not see it.”

“First let us give what is necessary, next what is useful and then what is pleasant, provided that they be lasting. We must begin with what is necessary, for those things which support life affect the mind very differently from those which adorn and improve it. Of necessary things, the first consists of things without which we cannot live, the second of things which we ought not to live, and the third of things without which we should not care to live. After these come useful things, which form a very wide and varied class, in which will be money (not in excess, but enough for living in a moderate style), public office and, for the ambitious, due advancement to higher posts. For nothing can be more useful to a man than to be placed in a position in which he can benefit himself.”

When to Give

“Above all, we should give willingly, quickly and without any hesitation. A benefit commands no gratitude if it has hung for a long time in the hands of the giver, if he seems unwilling to part with it and gives it as though here were being robbed of it. We prize much more what comes from a willing hand than what comes from a full one. He hesitated, he put it off, he grumbled when he gave it, he gave it haughtily, or he proclaimed it aloud, and did it to please others, not to please the person to whom he gave it. He offered it to his own pride, not to me.”

“It is unpleasant, burdensome and covers one with shame to have to say, ‘Give me.’ You should spare your friends and those whom you wish to make your friends from having to do this. However quick he may be, a man gives too late who gives what he has been asked for. We ought, therefore, to divine every man’s wishes and, when we have discovered them, to set him free from the hard necessary of asking. You may be sure that a benefit which comes unasked will be delightful and will not be forgotten.”

How to Receive

“When we have decided to accept, let us accept with cheerfulness, showing pleasure and letting the giver see it, so that he may at once receive some return for his goodness. For as it is a good reason for rejoicing to see our friend happy, it is a better one to have made him so. Let us, therefore, show how acceptable a gift is by loudly expressing our gratitude for it; and let us do so not only in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere. He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment of it.”

“I am not so unjust as to feel no gratitude to a man because, while he was helping me, he helped himself also. For I do not insist upon his consulting my interests to the exclusion of his own. Nay, I should prefer that the benefit which I receive may be of even greater advantage to the giver, provided that he thought of us both when giving it, and meant to divide it between me and himself. Even should he possess the larger portion of it, still, if he admits me to a share, if he meant it for both of us, I am not only unjust but ungrateful if I do not rejoice in what has benefited me benefiting him also. It is the essence of spitefulness to say that nothing can be a benefit which does not cause some inconvenience to the giver.”

What to Receive

“Thus, as I ought not to make an unworthy man my friend, so I ought not to admit an unworthy man into that most holy bond of gratitude for benefits from which friendship arises. You reply, ‘I cannot always say No. Sometimes I must receive a benefit even against my will. Suppose I were given something by a cruel and easily offended tyrant who would take it as an affront if his bounty were slighted? Am I not to accept it? Suppose it were offered by a pirate, or a brigand, or a king of the temper of a pirate or brigand. What ought I to do? Such a man is not a worthy object for me to owe a benefit to.’ If you are free, if it lies with you to decide whether you will or not, then you will turn over in your own mind whether you will take a gift from a man or not.

“Can you call anything a benefit if you feel ashamed to mention the person who gave it to you? How far more grateful is a benefit, how far more deeply does it impress itself upon the mind, never to be forgotten when we rejoice to think not so much of what it is, as from whom we have received it!”

On Gratitude

“There always will be homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, ravishers, sacrilegious traitors. Worse than all these is the ungrateful man, except we consider that all these crimes flow from ingratitude, without which hardly any great wickedness has ever grown to full stature. Be sure that you guard against this as the greatest of crimes in yourself, but pardon it as the least of crimes in another. For all the injury you will suffer is this: you have lost the subject-matter of a benefit, not the benefit itself, for you possess unimpaired the best part of it, in that you have given it.”

“While the greatest vices are common, none is more common than ingratitude. For this, I see, is brought about by various causes. The first of these is that we do not choose worthy persons upon whom to bestow our bounty.

“The main cause of ingratitude is excessive self-esteem, by that fault innate in all mortals of taking a partial view of ourselves and our own acts, by greed or by jealousy. Greed does not permit any one to be grateful, for what is given is never equal to its base desires, and the more we receive the more we covet. Ambition, in like manner, suffers no man to rest satisfied with that measure of public honors to gain which was once the limit of his wildest hope. Always intent on new objects of desire, we think not of what we have, but of what we are striving to obtain. Those whose mind is fixed entirely upon what they hope to gain regard with contempt all that is their own already. It follows that since men’s eagerness for something new makes them undervalue whatever they have received, they do not esteem those from whom they have received it.”

On Repaying a Benefit to the Giver

“For a benefit is repaid by being acknowledged. He who does not repay a benefit sins more, but he who does not bestow one sins earlier:
‘If thou at random dost thy bounties waste,
Much must be lost, for one that’s rightly placed.’”

“That benefit which consists of the action is repaid when we receive it graciously; that other, which consists of something material, we have not then repaid, but we hope to do so. The debt of goodwill has been discharged by a return of goodwill; the material debt demands a material return. Do you wish to return the benefit? Then receive it graciously; you have then returned the favor. Not, indeed, so that you can think yourself to have repaid it, but so that you can owe it with a quieter conscience.”

Final Words

“Men must be taught to be willing to give, willing to receive, willing to return, and to place before themselves the high aim, not merely of equaling, but even of surpassing those to whom they are indebted, both in good offices and in good feeling. Teach me how I may bestow more good things, and be more grateful to those who have earned my gratitude, and how the minds of both parties may vie with one another – the giver in forgetting, the receiver in remembering his debt.”

“Consider within yourself whether you have always shown gratitude to those to whom you owe it, whether no one’s kindness has ever been wasted upon you, whether you constantly bear in mind all the benefits which you have received. You will find that those which you received as a boy were forgotten before you became a man, that those bestowed upon you as a young man slipped from your memory when you became an old one. Some we have lost, some we have thrown away, some have by degrees passed out of our sight, to some we have willfully shut our eyes.”

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