Jim Poterba to Head National Bureau of Economic Research
Memo Question for February 27: Colonialism

Buce on Plutarch on Kindness

Buce writes:

Underbelly: Plutarch on Kindness: Plutarch’s... discussion of Cato the Elder. Cato was the archetypical “old republican”—hard-working, thrifty, honest and just. Plutarch thought Cato a good man in so many ways, but he does notice one odd or unexpected quirk. When Cato’s slaves “became too old to work,” Plutarch says, “he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths.” Plutarch sees fit to pause and reflect on the point:

For my own part I regard his conduct towards his slaves in treating them like beasts of burden, exploiting them to the limits of their strength, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a thoroughly ungenerous nature, which cannot recognize any bond between man and man but that of necessity. And yet we see that kindness possesses a far wider sphere of action than justice, for it is in the nature of things that law and justice are confined to our dealings with our fellow men, whereas kindness and charity, which often flow from a gentle nature like water form an abundant spring, may be extended even to dumb animals. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out in his service, and will look after his dogs not only when they are puppies, but when they need special treatment.

For my part, I would not sell even my draught ox simply because of his age, far less turn out an old man from the home and the way of life to which he has grown accustomed for the sake of a few paltry coins, especially since he would be of no more use to the buyer than he was to the seller...