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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces the essay
De vitando aere alieno


as published in Vol. X
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. X) Plutarch, Moralia

That We Ought Not to Borrow


The work appears in pp315‑339 of Vol. X of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by H. N. Fowler) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1964 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)


Loeb Edition Introduction

The brief essay consists of repeated warnings, enlivened by numerous examples and anecdotes, against running into debt. There is nothing to indicate that it was delivered as a lecture, but it would probably have been interesting to an audience of Plutarch's time, and may have been written with an audience in mind. It contains no profound or original doctrines, but is simply an agreeable presentation of somewhat commonplace thoughts — rather learned, rather literary, rather sensible, and, to the modern reader, rather amusing.

 p317  1 827d
Plato in the Laws1 forbids people to take any water from a neighbour's land unless they have dug on their own land down to a layer of potter's clay, as it is called, and found that the place will not produce a flow of water; for the potter's clay, being by nature oily and solid, holds back the water that reaches it and does not let it through; but, he says, those shall have a share of others' water who cannot get any of their own, for the law gives relief to those in want. Ought there not, then, to be a law about money also, that people shall not borrow from others for resort to other people's springs who have not first examined their resources at home and brought together, as from little trickles, what is useful and necessary to themselves? But now, because of their luxury and effeminacy or their extravagance, they make no use of what is their own, though they possess it, but take from others at a high rate of interest, though they have no need of doing so. There is strong evidence of this: loans are not made to people in need, but to those who wish to acquire some superfluity for themselves. And a man produces a witness and a surety to aver that,  p319 since the man has property, he deserves credit, whereas, since he has it, he ought not to be borrowing.

2 1 Why do you pay court to the banker or broker? 828Borrow of your own table;2 you have drinking-cups, silver dishes, bonbonnières. Pawn these for your needs. Beautiful Aulis or Tenedos will adorn their table in their stead with pottery that is cleaner than the silver ware; it does not have the heavy, disagreeable smell of interest defiling every day like rust the surface of your extravagance, nor will it keep reminding you of the first of the month and the new moon,3 which, though really the holiest day of the month, the money-lenders have made accursed and detested. For as to those who, instead of selling their belongings, give them as security, not even the God of Property could save them. bThey are ashamed to accept a price, but not ashamed to pay interest on what is their own. And yet the great Pericles made the ornaments of the Goddess, which weighed forty talents of refined gold,4 so that they could be taken off, "in order," he said, "that we may use it for the expenses of the war, and then pay back an equal amount." And so let us likewise, when we are, as it were, besieged by our needs, refuse to admit the garrison of a money-lender, our enemy, or to allow our property to be sold into slavery. No, let us preserve our liberty by taking off what is useless from our table, our bed, our vehicles, and our daily expenses, intending to pay it back if we are fortunate.

c 3 1 Now the Roman women gave their ornaments as an offering to Pythian Apollo and from them made the  p321 golden bowl which was sent to Delphi; and the women of Carthage shore their heads and gave their hair to make ropes for the tension of machines and instruments5 in defence of their native city. But we, ashamed to be independent, enslave ourselves by mortgages and notes, when we ought to limit and restrict ourselves to actual necessities and from the proceeds of the breaking up or the sale of useless superfluities to found a sanctuary of Liberty for ourselves, our children, and our wives. dThe goddess Artemis at Ephesus grants to debtors when they take refuge in her sanctuary protection and safety from their debts, but the protecting and inviolable sanctuary of Frugality is everywhere wide open to sensible men, offering them a joyous and honourable expanse of plentiful leisure. For just as the Pythian prophetess6a in the time of Persian wars told the Athenians that the God offered them a wooden wall, and they, giving up their land, their city, their possessions, and their houses, took refuge in their ships for the sake of liberty, so to us God offers a wooden table, a pottery dish, and a coarse cloak if we wish to live as free men.

eDo not abide the attack of the horsemen,6b

nor of yoked chariots adorned with horn or silver, which rapid interest overtakes and outruns. No, make use of any chance donkey or nag and flee from your enemy and tyrant, the money-lender, who does  p323 not, like the Persian, demand earth and water, but attacks your liberty and brings suit against your honour. If you will not pay him, he duns you; if you have funds, he won't accept payment; if you sell, he beats down the price; if you will not sell, he forces you to do so; if you sue him, he meets you in court; if you take your oath, he orders you to do so; fif you go to his door, he shuts it in your face; if you stay at home, he installs himself there and keeps knocking at your door.

4 1 For what good did Solon do the Athenians when he put an end to giving one's person as security for debt? For debtors are slaves to all the men who ruin them, or rather not to them either (for what would be so terrible in that?), but to outrageous, barbarous, and savage slaves, like those who Plato says7 stand in Hades as fiery avengers and executioners over those who have been impious in life. 829For these money-lenders make the market-place a place of the damned for the wretched debtors; like vultures they devour and flay them, "entering into their entrails,"8 or in other instances they stand over them and inflict on them the tortures of Tantalus by preventing them from tasting their own produce which they reap and harvest. And as Dareius sent Datis and Artaphernes against Athens with chains and fetters in their hands for their captives, in similar fashion these men, bringing against Greece jars full of signatures and notes as fetters, march against and through the cities, bnot, like Triptolemus, sowing beneficent grain, but planting roots of debts, roots productive of much toil and much interest and hard to escape from, which, as they sprout and shoot up round about, press down and strangle the  p325 cities. They say that hares at one and the same time give birth to one litter, suckle another, and conceive again;a but the loans of these barbarous rascals give birth to interest before conception;9 for while they are giving they immediately demand payment, while they lay money down they take it up, and they lend what they receive for money lent.

5 1 There is a saying among the Messenians,

cPylos there is before Pylos, and Pylos, a third, there is also,10

but as to the money-lenders we may say

Int'rest there is before int'rest, and int'rest a third there is also.

And then they make a laughing-stock forsooth of the scientists, who say that nothing arises out of nothing; for with these men interest arises out of that which has as yet no being or existence. And they think it is a disgrace to be a tax-collector, which the law allows; for they themselves lend money contrary to law, collecting taxes from their debtors, or rather, if the truth be told, cheating them in the act of lending; for he who receives less than the face value of his note is cheated. And yet the Persians regard lying as the second among wrong-doings and being in debt as the first;11 for lying is often practised by debtors; dbut money-lenders lie more than debtors and cheat in their ledgers, when they write that they give so-and‑so much to so-and‑so, though they really give less; and the cause of their lie is avarice, not necessity or want, but insatiable  p327 greed, which in the end brings neither enjoyment nor profit to them and ruin to those whom they wrong. For they do not till the fields which they take from their debtors, nor do they live in their houses after evicting them, nor do they eat at their tables or wear their clothes, but they ruin one man first, then hunt a second, using the other as bait. eFor the savage practice spreads like fire, growing by the ruin and destruction of those who fall into it, consuming one after another. And the money-lender who fans and feeds this fire to the ruin of many men gains nothing, except that from time to time he can take his account-books and read how many men he has sold out, how many he has driven from their homes, and, in general, the sources from which his hoard of money, rolling in and piling up, has made such gains.

6 1 And do not think that I say this because I have declared war against the money-lenders;

Ne'er have they harried my cattle, nor ever made off with my horses;12

fbut that I am pointing out to those who are too ready to become borrowers how much disgrace and servility there is in the practice and that borrowing is an act of extreme folly and weakness. Have you money? Do not borrow, for you are not in need. Have you no money? Do not borrow, for you will not be able to pay. Let us look at each of these two alternatives separately. Cato once said to an old man who was behaving wickedly; "Sir, when old age has so many evils of its own, why do you add to them the disgrace of wickedness?" Therefore in your own case do not heap up upon poverty, 830which has many attendant evils, the perplexities which  p329 arise from borrowing and owing, and do not deprive poverty of the only advantage which it possesses over wealth, namely freedom from care; since by doing so you will incur the derision of the proverb,

I am unable to carry the goat, put the ox then upon me.13

Being unable to carry the burden of poverty you put the money-lender upon your back, a burden difficult for even the rich to bear. "How, then, am I to live?" Do you ask this, when you have hands and feet and a voice, when you are a man capable of loving and being loved, of doing favours and being grateful for them? bLive by teaching letters, by leading children to school, by being a door-keeper, by working as a sailor or a boatman; none of these is so disgraceful or disagreeable as hearing the order "Pay up."

7 1 The well-known Roman Rutilius went up to Musonius and said, "Musonius, Zeus the Saviour, whom you imitate and emulate, is no borrower"; and Musonius answered with a smile, "He is no lender, either." For Rutilius, who was himself a lender, was finding fault with Musonius for borrowing. This is an example of the vanity of the Stoics; for why should you bring in Zeus the Saviour, when you can use as examples things that are here before your eyes? Swallows do not borrow, ants do not borrow, creatures upon which nature has bestowed neither hands, reason, nor art; cbut men, with their superior intellect, support through their ingenuity horses, dogs, partridges, hares, and jackdaws in addition to themselves. Why, then, have you come to the poor opinion of yourself, that you are less  p331 persuasive than a jackdaw, more dumb than a partridge, less well-born than a dog, so that you can obtain no help from any human being by waiting on him, entertaining him, guarding him, or fighting for him? Do you not see how many opportunities are offered on land and on the sea?

Lo, even Miccylus I beheld,14

says Crates,

Carding the wool, and his wife too carding the wool along with him,

Striving in terrible conflict to 'scape from the onslaught of famine.

King Antigonus asked Cleanthes, when he met him in Athens after not seeing him for a while, "Are you still grinding corn,º Cleanthes?" d"Yes, Your Majesty," he replied; "I do it in order not to be a deserter from Zeno's instruction, nor from philosophy either." What a great spirit the man had who came from the mill and the kneading-trough, and with the hand which ground the flour and baked the bread wrote about the gods, the moon, the stars, and the sun! But to us such labours seem slavish. And therefore, in order to be free, we contract debts and pay court to men who are ruiners of homes, we act as bodyguard to them, dine them, make them presents, and pay them tribute, not because of our poverty (for no one lends to poor men), but because of our extravagance. For if we were content with the necessaries of life,  p333 the race of money-lenders would be as non-existent as that of Centaurs and Gorgons; ebut luxury produced money-lenders just as it did goldsmiths, silversmiths, perfumers, and dyers in gay colours; for our debts are incurred, not to pay for bread or wine, but for country-seats, slaves, mules, banquet-halls, and tables,b and because we give shows to the cities with unrestrained expenditure, contending in fruitless and thankless rivalries. But the man who is once involved remains a debtor all his life, exchanging, like a horse that has once been bridled, one rider for another. fAnd there is no escape to those former pastures and meadows, but they wander like the spirits described by Empedocles, who have been expelled by the gods and thrown out from heaven:

Into the waves of the sea they are driv'n by the might of the ether;

Then on the floor of the earth the sea vomits them; earth then ejects them

Into the untiring sun's rays; and he hurls them to eddying ether.15

831 And so "one after another takes over"16 the borrower, first a usurer or broker of Corinth, then one of Patrae, then an Athenian, until, attacked on all sides by all of them, he is dissolved and chopped up into the small change of interest payments. For just as a man who has fallen into the mire must either get up or stay where he is, but he who turns and rolls over covers his wet and drenched person with more dirt; so in their transfers and changes of loans, by assuming additional interest payments  p335 band plastering themselves with them,17 they weigh themselves down more and more; and they are much like persons ill with cholera, who do not accept treatment, but vomit up the prescribed medicine and then continue constantly to collect more disease.c Similarly these borrowers refuse to be purged, and always, at every season of the year, when painfully and with convulsions they cough up the interest while another payment immediately accrues and presses upon them, they suffer a fresh attack of nausea and headache. What they ought to do is to get rid of debts and become healthy and free again.

8 1 From now on my words are addressed to those who are more well-to‑do and accustomed to a softer way of living, those who say "Am I, then, to be without slaves, without hearth and home?", cas if a sick man who is swollen up with dropsy should say to his physician "Am I, then, to be made thin and empty?" Why not, to make you get well? And so you should do without slaves, that you may not be a slave yourself, and without property, that you may not be the property of another. Hear the tale of the vultures: One of them had an attack of vomiting and said he was spewing out bowels, but the other, who was there, said "What harm is there in that? For you are not spewing out your own bowels, but those of the corpse we tore to pieces a little while ago." So any man in debt sells, not his own plot of land, nor his own house, but those of his creditor whom by law he has made their owner. d"Not so, by Zeus," he says; "why, my father left me this field." Yes, and your father left you your liberty and your civil rights, which you ought to  p337 to value more. So, too, he who begat you made your foot and your hand, but when it is mortified, you pay a surgeon for cutting it off. Calypso clothed Odysseus in her garment, "putting fragrant raiment upon him"18 that breathed of her divine person, as a gift and a memento of her love; but when he was capsized and engulfed by the waves and could hardly keep himself up since the garment had become soaked and heavy, he took it off and threw it from him, then, binding a wimple about his naked breast,

eLong-shore he swam looking landward,19

and when he reached safety he had no lack of garment or food. Well, then, is it not a tempest that arises about debtors when the lender after a while comes up to them saying "Pay"?

Thus having spoken he gathered the clouds and stirred up the great waters;

East wind and South wind and West with furious blasts raged together,20

as interest rolled upon interest; and the debtor, overwhelmed, continues to clutch them as they weigh him down, for he cannot swim away and escape; no, he sinks down to the bottom and disappears along with the friends who have endorsed his notes. fCrates the Theban, when he was not pressed for payment and did not even owe anything, because he disliked the mere administration of property, its cares and distractions, abandoned an estate valued at eight talents and, donning cloak and wallet, took refuge in philosophy and poverty. Anaxagoras also left his land to be grazed over by  p339 sheep.21 But what need is there of mentioning these men, when Philoxenus the lyric poet, who shared in the allotment of lands in a colony in Sicily, which ensured him a livelihood and a household furnished with abundant resources, when he saw that luxury, indulgence in a life of pleasure, and lack of culture were prevalent there, said, "By the Gods, these good things shall not make me lose myself; I will rather lose them," and leaving his allotment to others, he sailed away. 832But people in debt are content to be dunned, mulcted of tribute, enslaved, and cheated; they endure, like Phineus, to feed winged harpies which carry off their food and devour it, buying their grain, not at the proper season, but before it is harvested, and purchasing the oil before the olives have been plucked. And "I have wine," says the borrower, "at such and such a price," and he gives its note for its value; but the cluster still hangs clinging on the vine and waiting for the rising of Arcturus.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Plato, Laws, 844B.

2 The Greek word means bank, as well as table.

3 That interest was due on the first of the month is amply attested. Cf. Aristophanes, Clouds, 17, 1134, Horace, Satires I.3.87 (tristes kalendae), for the detestation of the day.

4 Thucydides, ii.13.

5 Beginning with the fourth century B.C. the ancients employed various machines to hurl projectiles. They are commonly called catapults (καταπέλτης). Their power lay in the elasticity of wooden beams which were bent by means of ropes rendered taut by twisting, whence the Latin name tormentum. The story is found in Appian, VIII.13.93.

6a 6b Herodotus, VII.141. The quotation is from the oracle in hexameters delivered to the Athenians by the priestess at Delphi when the Persians invaded Attica in 480 B.C. before the battle of Salamis.

7 Plato, Republic, 615E.

8 Homer, Od. XI.578.

9 There is here, and also above and below, a play on the word τόκος, which means "offspring" and also "interest," the offspring of debt.

10 Strabo, VIII.7, p339; Aristophanes, Knights, 1059.

11 Herodotus, I.138, puts lying first and debt second.

12 Homer, Il. I.154.

13 Paroemiographi Graeci, ii.592.

14 Crates, Frag. 6, Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. ed. 4, ii. p366. The last three words occur also in Homer, Od. XII.257.

15 Mullach, Frag. Phil. Graec. i. p2, vss. 32 ff.; quoted also in Moralia, 361C.

16 Mullach, ibid. vs. 35.

17 Evidently the man in debt is supposed to borrow from one lender in order to pay another.

18 Homer, Od. V.264.

19 Homer, Od. V.439.

20 Homer, Od. V.291, 292.

21 Cf. Himerius, Eclogues, iii.18.

Thayer's Notes:

a For a good summary and critique of ancient notions on the sexuality, superfetation, and retromingency or opisthuresia of hares (in which this passage is quoted), with citations of the passages in the ancient authors, see Sir Thomas Browne, Pseud. Ep. III.17.

b To the modern reader, tables seem reasonable enough, and their inclusion among the appurtenances of extravagant luxury sounds odd; but Plutarch's listeners would have understood exactly what he meant.

c For the vomiting in the disease translated here as "cholera", see Celsus, IV.18 — and notice that the writer prescribes no oral medications.

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