Better a life of private dignity
April 18, 2013 4:30 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a quote extolling the virtues of a private life over "fame" ?

I feel like somewhere I've read a quote from a Roman (possibly but less likely Greek) author in which they says (something like) "better a private life of quite dignity than one of public acclaim"

I've made those words up to cover the concept in my head so don't feel your answer won't fit if the words are quite different.

I'm thinking if might have been a Roman Senator, for instance, who had given up public life and "retired to the farm" ?

I'm not well read in classical literature so it won't be anything too obscure.

(I'd be interested in any quotes that cover this concept in a pithy manner - classical or not)
posted by southof40 to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"they says" = "they say"
posted by southof40 at 4:30 PM on April 18, 2013

You are thinking of Cincinnatus but I don't think he made any quotes (or had quotes made about him).
posted by lungtaworld at 4:39 PM on April 18, 2013

Not Greek or Roman, but this Thomas Hardy poem hits the theme:

A Private Man on Public Men

When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour's tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.
posted by Corvid at 4:57 PM on April 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

Cincinnatus was well known as a Roman leader of great ability and integrity, and during one particularly tumultuous period, the people believed that their only salvation was for him to be appointed the dictator of Rome. Important persons were dispatched to find Cincinnatus, and when they finally located him, he was plowing the fields of his small farm. He accepted the office of dictator, successfully resolved the crisis, and then returned to humble circumstances to work the land on his own small property. The Romans, who were always wary of great men seizing too much power, held him up as a model of probity and correct behavior for milennia, and passed that feeling on to most of classical western civilization-- for example Cincinnatus was a particular hero of George Washington, who very consciously modeled his own approach to power after the old Roman general. He even started a society of Cincinnatus in the United States, to make sure that humble public service was the ideal for the new nation.

Also, since Corvid got to quote a non-Roman poem that fits in with your theme, I feel allowed to do the same:

Fame is a Food that Dead Men Eat

Fame is a food that dead men eat,—
I have no stomach for such meat.
In little light and narrow room,
They eat it in the silent tomb,
With no kind voice of comrade near
To bid the banquet be of cheer.

But Friendship is a nobler thing,—
Of Friendship it is good to sing.
For truly, when a man shall end,
He lives in memory of his friend,
Who doth his better part recall,
And of his faults make funeral.

-- Henry Austin Dobson
posted by seasparrow at 5:10 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also along the same lines, I'm pretty sure it was Henry Clay who said, "I'd rather be right than President."
posted by seasparrow at 5:12 PM on April 18, 2013

Obliquely related sentiment: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
posted by limeonaire at 6:11 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Adlai Stevenson: "The best reason I can think of for not running for President of the United States is that you have to shave twice a day."
posted by politikitty at 7:43 PM on April 18, 2013

I can't find any quotation to support this, but this reminds me of some probably half-baked memory of a story of Odysseus in the afterworld, searching among possibilities for his next life, searching long and hard for a quiet, pastoral one.
posted by bricoleur at 8:04 PM on April 18, 2013

Classical Chinese literature rather Greek or Roman, but, from the Zhuangzi:

Zhuangzi was fishing in the waters of the Pu River. The king of Chu had sent two high ranking officials to find him, and they approached saying: "It is wished that you'll come and become a Minister within the borders of our country."

Zhuangzi kept holding his pole and without turning around said: "I've heard there's a sacred tortoise in Chu that's been dead for three thousand years. The king has it stashed away in a basket hidden beneath the imperial courthouse. As for this tortoise, would it rather be dead and turn into a skeleton and be considered valuable? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail through the mud?"

The two officials said: "It'd rather be alive and dragging its tail through the mud."

Zhuangzi said: "Go away! I'd rather be dragging my tail through the mud."
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:17 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success of failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Tao Te Ching
posted by jcworth at 9:02 PM on April 18, 2013

Cincinnatus, yes. For the quotation, you may be thinking of Horace Epode 2:-

'Beatus ille qui procul negotiis,
ut prisca gens mortalium,
paterna rura bubus exercet suis
solutus omni faenore ...

'Blessed is he who, far from the world of business,
as earlier generations of men,
cultivates his father's farms with his oxen,
free from all debt...

It's a famous poem, particularly the first line, and worth reading in full - the theme is exactly as you outline above. (This is not a great translation. Quite difficult to find it in English online.)
posted by genesta at 12:26 AM on April 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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