The Virtue Of A Full Amphora

The humanist Bartolomeo Scala wrote a consolatory essay to Cosimo de Medici upon the death of Cosimo’s son Giovanni in 1463. The essay (Dialogus de consolatione) is presented in the form of a dialogue between Cosimo and the author. As the conversation progresses, Scala separates the “goods” (i.e., the good things which make life happy) of this world into three classes: goods of the body, goods of the soul, and a third category of what he calls “external goods.”  External goods are such tangibles as wealth, riches, or glory. We can list our “goods” as follows:

1. Goods of the body: Health, strength, beauty, and associated positive physical traits

2. Goods of the soul: The transcendent love of the Divine Principle, the love of wisdom and virtue, and the pursuit of the philosophic life

3. External goods: Wealth (riches), glory (honor)

Of the goods of the body, much has been said by different writers on this subject. Perhaps no blessing is as important as a sound body and regular health; before one can philosophize, one must be blessed with corporeal salubrity. And yet it is strange how some of the best philosophers have been distinctly unsound of body.

Blaise Pascal’s autopsy showed a body wracked by the most terrible ailments and an abnormal cerebral cortex: his internal organs were found to be diseased, and the surface of his brain contained two depressions in it, each the size of a finger. Perhaps this was the origin of the headaches that tormented him for most of his adult life.


Descartes battled sickness from childhood. Nietzsche knew few days of health before being overtaken by insanity. We can speculate that an excess of health likely discourages the pursuit of strenuous mental effort. Plato himself seemed to think so, since (we are told) he supposedly established his Academy in a place uncongenial to physical vitality, so that his pupils would not be distracted by sensual pleasures. They might thereby, he believed, feel more incentive to sharpen their mental acuities.

As any follower of the popular celebrity culture knows, beauty has had a middling record of “goodness.” It has harmed as much as it has helped. It confers great social benefits on its holders, while cursing them with vanity and neurotic disorders. Physical gifts are a blessing, but ultimately they cannot be relied upon, for Fortune can revoke them just as readily as they have been granted.

And since the gifts of beauty or health have not been earned, but rather conferred by divine decree, their holders will not readily appreciate them. They thus can often prove to be an impediment to higher achievement. Because beautiful people are treated with such automatic deference by others, they lose the incentive to cultivate their own personal virtues. Reliance on inborn traits stunts the growth and enfeebles the will, leaving them ill-equipped to withstand the inevitable shocks of life.

But what of the external goods, riches and glory? Wealth is something we all wish for, as it enables us to indulge our ambitions, insulates us (we hope) from calamity, and soothes our avarice. It is neutral, in the sense that wealth in itself will neither corrupt nor ennoble us. It only magnifies the pre-existing traits of its holders. The flawed man will become worse with wealth, and the man of good virtue will become better with it.

Wealth can thus be seen as a fertilizer for the plant that already has germinated. Where wealth does its greatest damage is when it falls into the hands of those who are not equipped to deal with it. The young, the immature, the addictive personality, the defective personality: in these hands, wealth can corrupt and destroy with startling speed. Just as one would not hand the keys to a racecar to a youth of fifteen, it would be equally hazardous to grant vast riches to one who is ill-equipped to handle it.

The excessive pursuit of wealth promotes effeminacy in men. Monetary pursuits are mostly sedentary and indoor, and an obsession with these types of activities causes the body to deteriorate, and the soul to atrophy. Wealth whets the appetite for delicacies, whether it be rich foods or sumptuous clothing.  Sallust says the following about avarice:

Avarice means the studied pursuit of money, and this no wise man obsesses over. Greed, as if imbued with a fatal poison, feminizes mind and body. It is infinite and insatiable. Neither abundance nor lack thereof can diminish it.[1]

Wealth also promotes vanity and voluptuousness, as Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights III.5) noted in a story about the philosopher Arcesilaus, who taunted a rich man for his vanity. Archesilaus disdainfully observed the dandyish qualities of his target (his speech, affected mannerisms, dress, and hair), and said to him (with a pointed sexual double entendre), “It makes no difference with what parts of your body you debauch yourself, your front or your rear.”

And what of glory? The desire for glory also seems to be ingrained in the human psyche. Perhaps it is the desire for social approval taken to the extreme. How often in history has ambition proved to be the undoing of a great leader? How often has a man of otherwise prudent judgment been led to ruin by an unnecessary indulgence in glory’s vain temptations? There are examples here beyond number.

Of all the goods discussed here, I am inclined to believe that glory is the most useless, and indeed the most harmful. Like a summer shower, it falls suddenly, and evaporates quickly in the suns of circumstance, leaving us with a damp and hollow feeling. And this is why Roman generals in the republican period, when granted a triumph after a foreign campaign, were careful to have their slaves remind them that all glory was fleeting. But enough of these matters.

We have discussed the nature and qualities of external goods. A question which hovers on the margins here is whether virtue alone is sufficient to impart a happy life. The Stoics placed so much emphasis on virtue that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that a life devoted solely to its pursuit is an arid, unfulfilling one. The body has its own needs, which it alone knows. The mind may master the body, but the body remains the instrument for our exertion of control over our physical environment.

Endurance of pain is all well and good, but just as much evil arises from the suppression of pain as from its outward expression. To claim a proud indifference to pain, or to emotion, is to numb our sensitivity to the joys of life. It is a futile attempt to deny Nature’s power over our physical form, and this can only viewed as vanity on our part.


There is an amusing anecdote which illustrates the inadequacy of virtue alone for a fulfilling life. Aulus Gellius describes a scene (Attic Nights XVIII.1) where he was walking with a group of friends along the shoreline at Ostia on a spring evening. One of the group was his close friend Favorinus, another a follower of the Stoic school, and a third friend was a Peripatetic (a follower of the Aristotelian school).

The Stoic happened to state that virtue alone was sufficient to enjoy a happy life. The Peripatetic disagreed, responding that the use and enjoyment of one’s limbs, health, and similar accompaniments of good fortune were also necessary.

The Peripatetic posed this question to the Stoic. “Do you believe that an amphora of wine from which a congius has been taken, is still an amphora?”[2]

“No,” said the Stoic. “You certainly could not call that an amphora.”

“Then you must admit that one congius makes an amphora,” replied the Peripatetic. “For if its presence makes an amphora, but its absence disqualifies it from being an amphora, then it is the deciding factor. But if it is absurd to say that one congius makes an amphora, then it is equally absurd to say that life can be made happy by virtue alone, or that removing virtue automatically prevents life from being happy.”

Here Favorinus interjected. To the Peripatetic he said, “You are using a clever trick here. When an amphora lacks a congius, this makes the amphora not full.  When we add a congius, it completes, rather than makes, the amphora. You should understand the key difference here. The Stoics believe that virtue is not some supplement or ingredient to be added. They believe that virtue, by itself, is what makes a happy life. It alone is the deciding factor, when it is present or absent.”

Gellius does not tell us who won this argument. Perhaps both philosophers were missing the point. As for myself, I would prefer to have my amphora as full of wine as possible. Confronting the world with a full jar of wine gladdens my heart far more readily than having a jar from which someone has lifted a drink or two. A full amphora fortifies the spirit, and perhaps this feeling of confidence is virtue’s handmaiden.

More wisdom is to be found in multiple glasses of wine than in many books of the philosophers.

Read More: The Fears Of Being A World Traveler

[1] Bellum Catilinae XI.3.

[2] An amphora was an storage vessel used for wine, olive oil, and other liquids.  A congius was a unit of measure amounting to about six pints.

26 thoughts on “The Virtue Of A Full Amphora”

    1. No. Virtue is just a word that signifies masculine qualities, and the other qualities that make for a good life.
      You don’t follow them what someone else thinks, Gundog. You do it for yourself.

  1. Humans seem to dwell in a perpetual state of discontent from which they are always seeking momentary release. While there are many possible explanations, the most plausible one is that evolution
    favors individuals who are driven by an inner disquietude to various forms of achievement and conquest. If we imagine a tribe of placid and contented individuals in the past, no doubt they would have been exterminated by their more ambitious and belligerent neighbors.
    So perhaps, all mental aspirations and ambitions—even the desire for “enlightenment” or
    union with God—arise from the mind’s inherent inability to remain in a state of contented inactivity. The closest I ever came to pure bliss was while under the influence of opium. And yet, for obvious reasons, it’s not refuge where I can seek solace very often. But it made me realize that most of human existence is
    nothing but a flight from boredom—that we are always endeavoring to escape from the apparent darkness and confinement of our own mind.

    1. I really enjoy your take on this article. To me, the existential failure to rationalize one’s purpose in life comes down to one thing: cognitive dissonance.
      “We believe we are here for a higher purpose –> we don’t know what that purpose is so we try to define it –> our attempts are fallible –> confronted with ‘new’ information –> repeat cycle”
      We have no higher order purpose here from a fundamental standpoint; eat, sleep, reproduce, die. Since man has been quite successful in satiating these very important needs thus freeing up his mental faculties for other purposes i.e. higher order thinking, inventing, philosophy, etc. so begins the mental fallacy of our own inner prison we must “escape.”
      All troubles of man derived after meeting his most basic and necessary needs can be alleviated through contentment –> arriving at a long-term state of physical and mental harmony with reality. We as humans can only sense differences/changes with respect to our environment, both physically and mentally. This is both necessary for life and a detriment. Without changes, we cannot maintain homeostatic conditions and will fail to exist; however, the crusade for constant changes results in dulling of these homeostatic effects and circumvents the purpose they serve.
      In summation:
      1) Inherent inability to stay content keeps us alive in a environment of constantly changing conditions with regards to basal survival mechanisms.
      2) Inherent inability to stay content with regards to anything outside of these survival mechanisms equates to cognitive dissonance.
      I view human existence through a density-dependent lens. There is a whole pile of things that one must do and have to survive. This represents the exponential portion of the curve. Once those are met, we reach a “carrying capacity of needs and basic survival procedure.” This is the flat top portion of the curve. There is no protocol for what to do thereafter. This is where philosophy might have began.

      1. Thank you, for the thoughtful reply Millennial. Unfortunately, I cannot respond to every point you made within the limitations of this venue. Therefore, I shall have to limit myself to a few comments: Obviously, while mental activity is required for the purpose of survival, this does not necessitate the generation of so many superfluous desires which seem to be endemic to the human mind. Therefore, the only explanation I can offer is that mental discontent must confer some evolutionary advantage to humans. After all, why we may place a premium on our own happiness, nature only cares about survival and procreation. Also, while the capacity for abstract thought can be of great utility, it unfortunately comes with a cost. The mind is led to waste countless hours pondering over question which have no inherent meaning—Who am
        I?, What is the purpose of life?, and etc. But I suppose you already made this point. Finally, I don’t mean to
        suggest that all creative or intellectual activity is useless—even if it has no
        practical utility. But rather, we
        often use our mental powers in a vain attempt to transcend our underlying sense of isolation or enclosure, rather than confronting it.

    2. But it made me realize that most of human existence is nothing but a flight from boredom.
      You may want to check this book:
      Thought is Your Enemy: Conversations with U.G. Krishnamurti

    3. Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.
      Thomas A. Edison

      1. I suppose that would depend upon how you define “success” or “failure.” If you mean obtaining accolades or the approbation of your fellow men, then I suppose a man who has found inner contentment would likely be regarded as a failure. On the other hand, if you measure success—not by the standards of society—but upon
        your own mental state, then I would say that spiritual contentment should be
        standard for the evaluating one’s life.

    4. At best one can only be a fool, walking down the path. True pleasure maybe an illusion but so I suffering.

  2. Virtue for virtue’s sake is its own reward. However, you cannot fulfill virtue’s demands alone and all throughout your life.
    Hence the need for grace.

  3. I always find your posts refreshing Quintus, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise putrid cloud of a world. Its eloquence in prose like this that young men should not only read daily, but aspire to produce. Sadly, you and I both know this is not the case. Thank you for giving me more stimulating thoughts to turn over and ponder with dinner tonight.

  4. It seems my days as a bartender should not be thought as wasted. Some of the better male thinkers were red wine drinkers. Thank you for the fine piece Quintus

  5. If one were to strive for greatness, a relative imbalance of certain traits will be required.
    Furthermore, an indifference to the forces of nature could be a sign of strength and selflessness.
    Virtue should be weighed by the net positive difference between giving and taking.

  6. The stoics reputedly said that the goal of life was “living in accord with virtue” or human excellence. In other words , they believed that we’re all born with the responsibility of excelling by bringing our own nature to perfection . This means completing the job left unfinished by nature , by voluntarily making the best use of our highest faculty : reason

  7. Quintus –
    You are mistaken to include honor with external goods and to conflate it with glory. Glory, yes, is an external. But honor is one of the goods of the soul which is sometimes but infrequently rewarded with glory, and then usually posthumously. Honor is often combined with duty, which is proper, but not invariable. We are familiar with the duty of fathers and brothers to kill daughters/sisters who have dishonored the family with – usually – fornication, but sometimes with merely a meeting with an infidel. The males have been dutiful, but not honorable in the more common sense of family solidarity and protectiveness. Honor demands fidelity to a code more universal than personal gain or reputation, or obedience to an impersonal supernatural dictator. Death before dishonor is more than a trivial platitude. It does not require the imprimatur of religion, but it does require a degree of personal integrity which is unusual in modern society, and found most often in the military, where one often enough gives one’s life for one’s brothers.

  8. Wonderful article! Here are some more thoughts on this subject:
    You are bored with your life, with your existence, because it’s very repetitive. First of all, your physical needs are very well taken care of, you see, here in this part of the world, at least. So, there is no need for you to spend any more energy to survive. That part is taken care of.
    When that is taken care of, the natural question that arises is a very simple question: is that all that is there? Going to the office every morning, or just being a housewife doing all the chores of the house, or sleeping, having sex — everything, you see — is that all? It is that demand on your part that is being exploited by these holy men. Is that all? So, those are some of the gimmicks that you are trying to fill the boredom with there.
    [But] it’s an empty, bottomless cup. It’s not even a bottomless cup, it is a bottomless pit. You can fill that all the time with every conceivable thing that you can imagine or that others can come up with, but yet the boredom is a reality; it’s a fact. Sure. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do anything. You are just bored. Simply bored with doing the same thing again and again and again. And you don’t see any meaning in this.
    Not quite conscious of that boredom, because you are looking for something to free you from what is not there. That’s all that I have been emphasizing all the time. The problem is not really the boredom. You are not conscious of the existence of boredom either on the conscious level of your thinking or on the conscious level of your existence.
    The attractiveness of those things [which you use] to free yourself from the non-existing boredom has really created the boredom. And those things really cannot fill this boredom (created by that). So it goes on and on and on and on — the newer and still newer techniques and methods. Every year we have a new guru coming from India with a new gimmick, with a new technique or some new therapy, you know. All kinds of things.
    Your naturalness is something that you don’t have to know. You just have to let that function in its own way. Your wanting to know that demands some know-how, which you want from somebody. The functioning of the heart is a natural thing; the functioning of all the organs in your body is very natural. They are not for one moment asking themselves the question “How am I functioning?” The whole living organism has this tremendous intelligence which makes it function in a very natural way. You have separated what you call life from [that]. What you call life is living, which is in no way related to the functioning of this living organism.
    So, naturally, you are asking the question, “How to live?” You see, it is the “How to live” that has really destroyed the natural way the whole thing is going on. That is where the culture steps in and tells you, “This is the way you should act and live. This is the one and the only thing that is good for you and good for the society.” You want to change that [state of affairs], you see. What is it that you want to change? That is all that I am asking.
    The discussion has no meaning, because the object or the purpose of a discussion or a conversation is to understand something. So, that [discussion] is not the means to understand anything. Ultimately, what I am emphasizing all the time is, “Look here, there is nothing to understand.” When that is understood, that there is nothing to understand, all these conversations become meaningless. So you get up and walk away once and for all. So I say, “Nice meeting you, and goodbye.” That’s all that I am saying all the time. “Nice meeting you, and goodbye.”
    The Courage to Stand Alone
    conversations in Amsterdam
    between Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and U.G. Krishnamurti

  9. I am reminded of a frequent point we make to each other in church. Coming to church alone is not sufficient to live righteously. The church is an important meeting place to explore our understanding of God and ourselves, and we must come together to do so because we need exposure to differing views to challenge our assumptions, to try to keep some humility, and to avoid stagnating on flawed conceptions. However, we must also act outside the church for all our thought and discussion to have meaning, because the Holy Spirit is within us. We have to make the world we want instead of sitting idle and hoping external forces will act in our favor.

  10. I think you might need to apply Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean to all of these different things. Too much of a good thing (like glory) leads to something bad (hubris). Too little leaves you unfulfilled. Much like wine itself.

    1. Or perhaps the Buddhist doctrine of the “Middle Way”. It is when we attempt to deny some of aspect of our nature that we become unbalanced. Why should solitude be incompatible with conviviality? Why should repose be incompatible with activity? Why should the sensual be incompatible with the spiritual—no matter what St. Paul or St. Augustine may have taught.

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