Book 9: Friendship or Love—Continued.

Chapter 2: Of the conflict of duties.

There are some further questions that here suggest themselves, such as whether the father’s claims to service ought to be unlimited, and the son should obey him in everything, or whether in sickness he should obey the physician, and in the election of a general should choose him who is skilled in war; and, similarly, whether one ought to help one’s friend rather than a good man, and repay a benefactor rather than make a present to a comrade, if one cannot do both.

We may, perhaps, say that to lay down precise rules for all such cases is scarcely possible; for the different cases differ in all sorts of ways, according to the importance or unimportance, the nobility or necessity of the act. But it is tolerably evident that no single person’s claims can override all others; and that, as a general rule, we ought to repay benefits received before we do a favour to a comrade—just as, if we had borrowed money, we ought to pay our creditors before we make presents to our comrades.

But it may be that even this rule will not hold good in all cases; for instance, if a man has been ransomed from a band of brigands, ought he in turn to ransom his ransomer, whoever he may be, or repay him when he demands it, even though he be not captured, in preference to ransoming his father? For it would seem that a man ought to ransom his father even before himself.

As we said then, generally speaking, we should repay what we owe: but if giving [instead of repaying] be more noble or meet a more pressing need, it is right to incline in this direction; for sometimes it is not even fair to repay the original service, e.g. when one man has helped another, knowing him to be a good man, while the latter in repaying him would be helping one whom he believes to be a bad man. And so a man is sometimes not bound to lend in turn to one who has lent him money: A may have lent to B in full expectation of being repaid, as B is an honourable man; but B may have no hope of being repaid by A, who is a rascal. If this be the real state of the case, the demand for a loan in return is not fair; but even if the facts be otherwise, yet, if they think thus of each other, their conduct would be regarded as natural.

As we have often said, statements concerning human affections and actions must share the indefiniteness of their subject.

It is tolerably plain, then, that, on the one hand, the claims of all men are not the same, but that, on the other hand, the father’s claims do not override all others, just as Zeus does not receive all our sacrifices; the claims of parents, brothers, comrades, and benefactors are all different, and to each must be rendered that which is his own and his due.

And this is the way in which men appear to act: to a wedding they invite their kinsfolk; for they have a share in the family, and therefore in all acts relating thereto: and for the same reason it is held that kinsfolk have more claim than any others to be invited to funerals.

Parents would seem to have a special claim upon us for sustenance, as we owe it them, and as it is nobler to preserve the life of those to whom we are indebted for our own than to preserve ourselves.

Honour, also, we should pay to our parents, as to the gods; but not all honour: for the honour due to a father is not the same as that due to a mother; nor do we owe them the honour due to a wise man or a good general, but that which is due to a father and that which is due to a mother.

To all our elders, again, we should pay the honour due to their age, by rising up at their approach and by giving them the place of honour at the table, and so forth. But between comrades and brothers there should be freedom of speech and community in everything. And to kinsfolk and fellow-tribesmen and fellow-citizens, and all other persons, we should always try to give their due, and to assign to each what properly belongs to him, according to the closeness of his connection with us, and his goodness or usefulness. When the persons are of one kind this assignment is comparatively easy, but when they are of different kinds it is more difficult. We must not, however, on this account shirk the difficulty, but must distinguish as best as we can.


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