Distichs of Cato

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Distichs of Cato (1922)
by Dionysius Cato, translated by Wayland Johnson Chase
Dionysius Cato229667Distichs of Cato1922Wayland Johnson Chase


When I noticed how very many go seriously wrong in their manner of living I concluded that I must apply a corrective to their belief and take counsel of the experience of mankind in order that they may live most gloriously and attain honor. Now I will teach thee, dearest son, in what way thou mayest fashion a rule for thy life. Therefore, so read my precepts that thou mayest understand them, for to read and not to understand is equivalent to not reading.


Pray to God.

Love thy parents.

Cherish those of kin to thee.

Guard that entrusted to thee.

Shun the market place.

Walk with the upright.

Attack not until you have challenged.

Be neat.

Salute freely.

Yield to him who is older than thou.

Respect the magistrate.

Preserve thy sense of shame.

Guard well thine own interests.

Practice diligence.

Care for thy family.

Return like for like.

Consider well to whom to make presents.

Indulge rarely in banquets.

Sleep enough.

Love thy wife.

Keep thy word.

Be moderate with wine.

Fight for thy country.

Be not easily imposed upon.

Shun the harlot.

Read books.

Remember what thou readest.

See to the instruction of thy children.

Be kind.

Be angry when the affair requires it.

Ridicule no one.

Attend the law court.

Frequent the residence of the praetor.

Be conversant with the law.

Practice virtue.

Play with a hoop.

Eschew the dice.

Learn to read.

Show favor to the good.

Give sound counsel.

Be not abusive.

Hold to thy opinion.

Judge fairly.

Never lie.

Keep thy temper.

Overcome thy parent with patience.

Despise not thy inferior.

Do nothing under the pressure of force.

Respect the law that thou thyself hast made.

Be mindful of favor received.

Say little at banquets.

Deride not the unhappy.

Never pass judgment.

Covet not the possessions of another.

Seek that which is right.

Feel affection freely.

Strive after noble things.

Book I[edit]

1. If God a spirit is as poets sing,
With mind kept pure make thou thy offering.

2. Be oft awake: from too much sleep abstain,
For vice from sloth doth ever nurture gain.

3. Who rules his tongue doth highest praises reap:
Godlike is he who silence well doth keep.

4. Ne'er with thyself perversely disagree;
Who's out with self in peace with none will be.

5. If on men's lives and deeds thou look'st, thou'lt see
That from those faults they blame, not one is free.

6. Shun that which harms, e'en tho thy love is caught;
Before mere wealth should safety first be sought.

7. Be ever kind or stern to suit the time:
The wise may change his practice without crime.

8. Heed not when of thy slave thy wife complains,
For whom her husband loves, she aye disdains.

9. When thou giv'st counsel, cease not till the end,
Though it unwelcome be, e'en to thy friend.

10. Try not with words the talker to outdo;
On all is speech bestowed: good sense on few.

11. Love others so that thou'rt to self a friend;
Prefer the good and thus dire harm forfend.

12. Spread not vain talk lest thou be thought its spring;
Silence ne'er harms but speech may trouble bring.

13. On others' promise do not base thine own;
Talk doth abound: good faith is rarely shown.

14. When praised, thou of thyself the judge must be;
Accept no praise not spoken truthfully.

15. Fail not another's kindness to proclaim;
Thine own good deeds 't is better not to name.

16. Dost thou when old another's faults proclaim?
Recall that young thou gavest cause for blame.

17. 'T is self-conceit the whisperer to mind,
As if what's whispered were for thee designed.

18. When fortune smiles, beware lest some ill strike;
End and beginning often are unlike.

19. Since with so frail a thread thy life is spun,
Thou hope of gain from other's death shouldst shun.

20. Thy poor friend's present from his scanty store,
Take gratefully as if the gift were more.

21. Since naked thou wast bom, then patient be
If doomed to bear the load of poverty.

22. Dread not the day that endeth all life's ills;
For fear of death all joy in living kills.

23. When in thy time of need friends fail to come,
Blame not the gods, because the fault's at home.

24. Nurse what thou hast, that it may farther go;
Deem thyself poor and thus miss being so.

25. Promise no more than thou canst sure redeem,
Lest thus thou fail to be what thou wouldst seem.

26. Him who is smooth in speech, but false in heart,
In his own coin repay, with art for art.

27. No trust in smooth-tongued men's professions lay;
Sweet sounds the fowler's pipe to lure the prey.

28. If to thy sons thou canst not riches give,
Then teach them trades that they may safely live.

29. Despise the dear and value the mean thing;
So harm to none thy greed and lust shall bring.

30. Do not thyself what thou art wont to blame;
When teachers slip themselves, 't is double shame.

31. Ask what is right and fair, no more beside;
'T is vain to crave what may be well denied.

32. Change not known friends for those thou dost not know;
Tried friends are sure, untried may not be so.

33. Since naught is sure but life's uncertainty,
Prize well the day that now is given thee.

34. Though thou canst win, yield sometimes to thy friend;
Thus yielding, strength to friendship thou wilt lend.

35. In quest of greater matters spare not small;
On those by trifles ruled fame doth not call.

36. Strive not with him whom friendship bound to thee;
Anger breeds hate, love thrives in harmony.

37. When thy slaves' failings make thine anger warm,
Thine anger check, lest thou thy interests harm.

3S. Tho' thou at once couldst win, a while await,
Of human virtues patience is most great.

39. Save what thou'st earned: when thou must needs replace
A loss incurred, dire want comes on apace.

40. To all thy friends give freely of thy pelf;
But always duly mind the needs of self.

Book II[edit]

[If it chances that thou desirest to learn farming, read Virgil.
But if thou strivest rather to know the potency of herbs, Macer
tells thee of this in his poems. If thou wishest to know about the
Roman and Punic wars, enquire of Lucan who tells of the combats
of Mars. If it takes thy fancy to love something or to
learn by reading how to love, have recourse to Naso. But if
thy chief desire is to live wisely, hear what thou canst learn
about those things through which an old age free from vice is
produced. So come and learn by reading what wisdom is.]

1. Help if thou canst e'en those thou dost not know;
More precious than a crown are friends won so.

2. Ask not if gods there be above the earth;
For earth care thou who art of mortal birth.

3. Cease death to fear: none but a fool would choose
Thro' fear of death the joys of life to lose.

4. Strive not in wrath o'er something wrapped in doubt;
Wrath clouds the mind and puts good sense to rout.

5. Be quick at opportunity's demand;
When time requires, the price must be at hand.

6. Excess avoid: let little satisfy;
Safest the ships which smallest waters ply.

7. Hide well those acts of thine which cause thee shame,
Lest some make worse thy plight by words of blame.

8. Think not that evil-doers surely win;
Tho' hidden for a while, time shows their sin.

9. No small man's want of body's strength despise;
Oft nature wit in place of strength supplies.

10. Yield to defeat awhile: for often we
The victor beaten by the vanquished see.

11. Dispute not with thy friend, for often so
From trifling words most serious discords grow.

12. Ask not the lot what doth the god intend;
Without thy help he will decide thy end.

13. Though envy roused by pomp doth not destroy,
Forbear to stir it, for it doth annoy.

14. Bear with brave spirit every unjust wrong;
The joy that's won unfairly lasts not long.

15. Revive not memories of former strife;
T is shame to bring old hatreds back to life.

16. Nor praise nor blame thyself. Fools thus have erred,
When by vain hope of glory they were stirred.

17. Spend sparingly thy gains: with wasting vain
Soon wealth is lost that took long time to gain.

18. To fit th' occasion laughable appear;
'T is sometimes wisdom folly's mask to wear.

19. No spendthrift be, nor gain a miser's name;
For either fault is sure to hurt thy fame.

20. Since those who much to thee are wont to tell
Deserve but little faith, distrust them welL

21. Condone not what thou dost, o'ercome with wine;
'T is not the liquor's fault: the blame is thine.

22. Thy secret thoughts to trusted friend declare;
Thy body trust to wise physician's care.

23. Vex not thyself when bad men win, for so
Doth fortune go about to lay them low.

24. For what the day may bring, thy mind prepare;
So with more ease thou ills foreseen wilt bear.

25. Let not despair o'er ill thy courage take;
Not e'en at death doth hope a man forsake.

26. Fail not when opportunity is fair;
Behind Time's bald, his forehead's thick with hair.

27. Observe what's past and what may next ensue
And Janus-like keep both ways under view.

28. For health's sake, when on pleasure bent be slow;
Less unto pleasure than to health we owe.

29. Disdain not, arrogant, what most advise;
> Thou none canst please while thou dost all despise.

30. Guard well thy health with special care and skill;
Thyself and not the seasons blame when ill.

31. Trust not in dreams, which make seem real and true
Just what awake was most desired by you.

Book III[edit]

[Whatever reader shall desire to know this poem, will gain
many advantages, since it contains maxims which are very
applicable to life. But if he reject it, he will hurt not me, the
writer, but himself.]

1. Learn what both life and precepts teach, and so
Life's fulness have which th' untaught never know.

2. Upright, care not if bad men thee deride;
'T is not within our power men's tongues to guide.

3. When as a witness thou must needs appear,
Favor thy friend, but keep thy good name clear.

4. Deem soft cajoling speech an empty cheat;
Truth naked is, but flatt'ry cloaks deceit.

5. Inaction's sure to waste one's life away;
Sloth in the mind doth on the body prey.

6. With pleasure lighten now and then thy care.
That so life's burdens thou mayst better bear.

7. Blame not what other men may say or do,
Lest thee they jeer and for the same thing, too.

8. Thy heritage preserve and multiply,
Lest thou the world's harsh censure justify.

9. If wealth abounds, when life draws near its end,
Be not a stingy, but a generous friend.

10. Thy slave's wise counsel, do not proudly scorn
But prize good sense e'en in the lowly born.

11. If from thy wealth and place thou dost descend,
Still be content with what the seasons send.

12. For dowry take not to thyself a wife.
Nor keep her with thee if she spoils thy life.

13. From others' actions seek to find the clue
To what thou best mayst shun and best mayst do.

14. Begin what thou canst end, without avail
Is that begun which speedily doth fail.

15. Speak out when wrong thou knowest hath been done,
Lest thou thro' silence urge the culprit on.

16. When sued unjustly to the judge apply;
I The Law's intent is wrong to rectify.

17. To what thou dost deserve with calm submit;
If thou hast guilt, chastise thyself for it.

18. Read much and much of it forget: 'T is well
T' admire but not believe what poets tell.

19. Talk little at thy feasts lest men esteem
Thee wordy, though thou fain wouldst witty seem.

20. Thy wroth wife's speech fear not. But have a care;
A woman by her weeping can ensnare.

21. Use without waste whatever gains thou'st made;
Who wastes his own, will others' rights invade.

22. Judge not that death's a thing to apprehend;
If 't is not good, yet 't is of bad the end.

23. Bear thy wife's tongue when she hath useful been;
Impatience and retort alike are sin.

24. For both dear parents equal love e'er hold;
Be not to father fond: to mother cold.

Book IV[edit]

[If thou wishest to lead a life free from cares, cling not to
faults which injure character. Remember that these precepts
must be read often by thee. Thou wilt find in them a teacher
through whom thou wilt be able to transform thyself.]

1. Wouldst happy be, scorn wealth. Those always seem
To beg it greedily who wealth esteem.

2. Nature her favors never will deny
If what thy needs require will satisfy.

3. When to poor judgment thou dost failure owe,
Say not that Fortune's blind, for 't is not so.

4. Love nard, but use it sparingly; refrain
From perfumes which all decent men disdain.

5. When rich, well for thy body care. One's wealth
Is of but small avail if he lack health.

6. Since thou at school thy teacher's blows hast known,
Thou'lt better bear thy father's angry tone.

7. What certain profit brings, let that be done;
Uncertain risks and unsafe projects shun.

8. Give as thou canst to those who ask, for know
Thou didst well gain when thou didst well bestow.

9. Seek quick the truth when once thou dost suspect,
Dangers grow large when nourished by neglect.

10. When hurtful lust hath hold of thee, refrain
From giving to thy appetites free rein.

11. Thy fear of beasts declares their rule o'er thee;
Know thou that man alone should dreaded be.

12. Not strength alone, but wisdom, too, possess;
Thus thou canst gain a name for manliness.

13. When sick, from friends seek thou relief. Be sure
Thy trusted friend can give thee certain cure.

14. Why for thy guilt should guiltless victims bleed?
'T is vain to think their blood doth cleanse thy deed.

15. Whene'er a trusty friend thou dost desire,
Not of his wealth but of his life enquire.

16. Employ thy gains; the name of miser flee;
What good is wealth when want still lives with thee?

17. If through thy life thou wouldst a good name save,
Be not to pleasure base an abject slave.

18. Flout not old age while thou dost sense possess;
Age ever brings to all some childishness.

19. Learn thou a trade lest wealth may fly away;
For skill, once gained, shall ever with thee stay.

20. What's said to thee with caution ponder well;
Men's practice words may hide as well as tell.

21. Practice with zeal the skill thou'st learned. Thou'It find,
Use trains the hand as study does the mind.

22. Let not death's sure approach thee terrify;
Who life despises doth not fear to die.

23. Learn only of the learned : teach th' untaught;
Knowledge of truth must to all men be brought.

24. If thou wouldst sanely live, take this to heart,—
Avoid excesses; thence diseases start.

25. Condemn not thou with inconsistency
What once thou hast approved full publicly.

26. When fortune smiles, forget not she may frown;
When fortune frowns, be not too much cast down.

27. Cease not to learn; wisdom's through study gained;
By lapse of years alone 't is ne'er attained.

28. Praise not o'ermuch: one day's enough to show
If he, oft claimed thy friend, is really so.

29. To wish for knowledge is no cause for shame;
To have it merits praise; to scorn it, blame.

30. With love and wine pleasure and strife are knit;
Cleave to the good in these; the bad omit.

31. Who silent is and melancholy, shun;
Perchance the quiet rivers too deep run.

32. When fortune's favor seems not thine, take thought
Of him to whom Dame Fortune less hath brought.

33. Begin what thou to finish canst not fail;
Safer near shore than on the deep to sail.

34. Break not against the righteous man the laws,
For God's th' avenger of the righteous cause.

35. When wealth takes wings thou shouldst not then repine;
Rejoice the more that anything is thine.

36. Sad is the fate to lose one's hard-won gains,
But much is saved if only health remains.

37. Count not on life: howe'er thy way may wend,
Death shadowlike will everywhere attend.

38. The calf's the plow's; incense doth heaven please;
Think not the god by slaughter to appease.

39. If thou art beaten, cease then to resist;
Who could o'ercome will able be t' assist.

40. When thou hast sinned, at once thyself chastise;
To cure the hurt thy grief will well suffice.

41 . To thy old friend never unfriendly prove;
Though he be changed, forget not former love.

42. To show thy gratitude take ev'ry care,
Lest on thee fall the shame that ingrates bear.

43. A life of naught but dread can not be sweet:
For those by terror held, death is most meet.

44. When servants thou hast bought, remember then,
Altho' thou term'st them slaves, they still are men.

45. Secure thy chance when first it be at hand.
Lest that once scorned thou dost in vain demand.

46. In bad men's sudden death take not delight.
Those only die well who have lived aright.

47. Having a wife, be watchful of thy friend,
Lest false to thee, thy fame and goods he spend.

48. When thou at last from study hast much lore,
Recall there's much to learn from life's vast store.

49. Dost ask why I this form of verses choose?
Know brevity did bid me couplets use.

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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