Tragic Benefaction

It’s terribly hard, Seneca thinks, for a beneficiary to escape the debt of gratitude he owes. The benefactor goes first, and his gift is gratuitous, not a response to a prior gift. The recipient can only catch up if he outstrips the original gift ( On Benefits (The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca) , 1.4.3).

This means psychic if not social slavery. Beneficiaries in the Roman world are almost by definition social and economic and political inferiors to their benefactors. Beneficiaries wouldn’t have to ask and receive benefactions unless they had needs they couldn’t fulfill. How can a connectionless, resourceless, powerless client ever hope to outstrip his patron?

Like most everything else in the ancient world, benefaction is front-loaded. The first shall be first, and the last shall be last. Things are purest at the source, always polluted and impure downstream. Benefaction, like so much else, has a tragic trajectory. (For more, see Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, & Hope In Western Literature .)

But what if someone says instead “The first shall be last and the last first”? What if someone reserves the best wine for the end? Won’t that be as much as to say “the last gift will surpass the first”?

And won’t that be a message of liberation?

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