The Lacedaemonians forbid their young men to contend in the pancratium or with the caestus, where the weaker contestant is shown by his own admission that he has been conquered. A runner wins by being the first to reach the chalk-line; he surpasses his opponent, not in pluck but in speed. A wrestler who has been thrown three times, though he does not surrender the palm, loses it. Since the Lacedaemonians thought it highly important to have their citizens invincible, they kept them out of those contests in which the victor is determined, not by a judge, or purely by the outcome itself, but by the cry of the vanquished proclaiming surrender., This quality of never being conquered, which the Lacedaemonians safeguard for their citizens, is bestowed on all men by virtue and virtuous desire, since the spirit is unconquered even in the midst of defeat. For this reason no one speaks of the three hundred Fabii as conquered, but slaughtered; and Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians, not conquered, nor is any other man who, though overwhelmed by the strength and weight of angry Fortune, does not yield in spirit. The same is true of benefits. A man may have received more than he gave, greater ones, more frequent ones, yet, for all that, he has not been conquered. If you reckon those that you have given over against those that you have received, it is true, perhaps, that benefits are surpassed by benefits; but, if you match the giver against the recipient, taking into consideration, as you must, their intentions in themselves, the palm will belong to neither. For, even when one combatant has been pierced by many wounds, while the other has been but slightly wounded, it is customary to say that they left the arena evenly matched, although it is evident that one of them is the weaker man. xxx No one, therefore, can be outdone in benefits if he knows how to owe a debt, if he desires to make return - if he matches his benefactor in spirit, even though he cannot match him in deeds. So long as he continues in this state of mind, so long as he holds the desire to give proof of a grateful heart, what difference does it make on which side the greater number of gifts is reckoned? You are able to give much, and I am able only to receive; on your side stands good fortune, on my side good desire; yet I am as much your peer as naked or lightly armed soldiers are the peers of the many who are fully armed. No one, therefore, is outdone in benefits because each man's gratitude is to be measured by his desire. For, if it is disgraceful to be outdone in benefits it is not right to accept a benefit from most powerful men whose kindness you are unable to return - I mean princes and kings, who have been placed by Fortune in a position that enables them to bestow many gifts, and are likely to receive very few and very inadequate returns for what they have given. I have spoken of kings and princes, to whom, nevertheless, it is possible for us to render assistance, and whose preeminent power rests upon the consent and service of their inferiors. But there are some men who, withdrawn beyond.the reach of every lust, are scarcely touched at all by any human desires; upon whom Fortune herself has nothing that she can bestow. In benefits I must of necessity be outdone by Socrates, of necessity by Diogenes, who marched naked through the midst of the treasures of the Macedonians, treading under foot the wealth of kings. O! in very truth, how rightly did he seem then, both to himself and to all others who had not been rendered blind to the perception of truth, to tower above the man beneath whose feet lay the whole world! Far more powerful, far richer was he than Alexander, who then was master of the whole world; for what Diogenes refused to receive was even more than Alexander was able to give.
It is not disgraceful to be outdone by such as these for it is not proved that I am the less brave if you pit me against an enemy that is invulnerable, nor that fire is the less able to burn if it falls upon a substance that flames cannot harm, nor that iron has lost its power of cutting if it attempts to cleave stone that is solid, impervious to a blow, and by its very nature invincible to hard instruments. In regard to the grateful man I would answer you in the same way. He is not disgracefully outdone in benefits if he has become indebted to those whose exalted station or exceeding merit blocks the approach to any benefits that might return to them. Our parents almost always outdo us. For, so long as we count them severe, so long as we fail to understand the benefits they give us, we have them with us. When at last with age we have acquired some wisdom, and it begins to be evident that we ought to love them for the very things that kept us from loving them - their admonitions, their strictness, and their careful watch over our heedless youth - they are snatched from us. Few reach the age when they can reap some true reward from their children; the rest are aware of their sons by their burden. Yet there is no disgrace in being outdone in benefits by a parent; how should there be, seeing that there is no disgrace in being outdone by anyone? For there are some men to whom we are both equal and unequal - equal in intention, which is all that they require, unequal in fortune, and, if it is this that prevents anyone from repaying a favour, he has no need to blush on the ground that he has been outdone. It is no disgrace to fail to attain provided you keep striving. Very often it is necessary to ask for new benefits before we have returned older ones, and yet we do not fail to ask for them or feel any disgrace because we shall be indebted for them with no prospect of returning them, for, if we are prevented from showing ourselves most grateful, it will be the fault, not of ourselves, but of something from without that intervenes and deters us. Yet in intention we shall not be outdone, nor shall we be disgraced if we are overpowered by things that are beyond our control. Alexander, king of the Macedonians, used to boast that no one had outdone him in benefits. But there is no reason why, in the excess of his pride, he should look up to the Macedonians and the Greeks and the Carians and the Persians and the other nations who were enrolled in his army, nor suppose that it was their benefit that had bestowed upon him a kingdom that extended from a corner of Thrace to the shore of the unknown sea! Socrates could have had the same reason to boast, and Diogenes the same reason, by whom, in any case, he was outdone. Why was he not outdone on that day when, puffed up as he was beyond the limits of human pride, he saw someone to whom he could give nothing, from whom he could take nothing away?
Source: Lucius Annasus Seneca. Moral Essays. Translated by John W. Basore. The Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann,1928-1935.