The Skin of an Ass – Masters and Slaves with Mozart and Seneca

“I am glad to learn, through those who come from you, that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. “They are slaves,” people declare. Nay, rather they are men. “Slaves!” No, comrades. “Slaves!” No, they are unpretentious friends. “Slaves!” No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike.” Seneca

“… shame, humiliation, dangers and death may be avoided with the skin of an ass…” This quote taken from Mozart’s opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) describes a lesson in humility that was learnt by one of the characters Basilio. He narrated how he used to be full of himself and stubborn, until Dame Caution taught him a lesson. One day, Dame caution took Basilio into a squalid place, and gifted him ‘the skin of an ass’, and then disappeared. While he was still wondering what to do with such a lowly gift, a storm broke out, so he used it to cover himself, and no sooner had he done this that a wild beast appeared and tried to attack him. When the beast noticed his humble cover however, it lost appetite and went back into the woods. But for that humble cover, the beast would have made a meal out of him. Since then he learnt to cover himself with humility. Basilio narrated this lesson to his friends because of a young man, Figaro, who would not defer to an oppressive and powerful Count; ironically Seneca gives this same advice to oppressive masters. These examples, coupled with all that is happening in the world shows that humility and humanity by all – big or small, leader or led, boss or servant – is beneficial to all; the opposite spells doom for all, none is spared.

An Ass

“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave….

… Invite some to your table because they deserve the honor, and others that they may come to deserve it…

… Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. And as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you. “But I have no master,” you say. You are still young; perhaps you will have one. Do you not know at what age Hecuba entered captivity, or Croesus, or the mother of Darius, or Plato, or Diogenes?” Seneca

The quote above by Seneca is a reminder to all, that as long as life persists, unknown events can happen to bring low (into captivity), those who otherwise would have never thought it possible; thus the need to show humility and humanity.

A Hovel

You need not, my dear Lucilius, hunt for friends only in the forum or in the Senate-house; if you are careful and attentive, you will find them at home also. Good material often stands idle for want of an artist; make the experiment, and you will find it so….

… “He is a slave.” His soul, however, may be that of a freeman. “He is a slave.” But shall that stand in his way? Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed…

For they, too, forgetful alike of their own strength and of other men’s weakness, grow white-hot with rage, as if they had received an injury, when they are entirely protected from danger of such injury by their exalted station. They are not unaware that this is true, but by finding fault they seize upon opportunities to do harm; they insist that they have received injuries, in order that they may inflict them.” Seneca

I think a good question to ask oneself would be “who am I? Master or slave or both? How do I wish to be treated in each situation? Implement the answers you get, and always remember that humility will not only protect us from storms, but will save us from shame, humiliation, dangers and death.

Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher

Excerpts from

Letters from a Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca