The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
WHEN an official came to Epictetus and inquired for special directions he asked whether he had a wife and children; and when the man said, 'Yes', he asked again, How do you get on?
'Miserably', he said.
What do you mean? said he; Men do not marry and have children to the end that they may be miserable, but rather that they may be happy.
'Ah', said he, 'but I am so miserable about my poor children, that lately when my daughter was ill and was thought to be in danger I could not bear to be near her, but fled away from her, until some one brought me news that she was well.'
Well, do you think you were right to do it?
'It was natural', he said.
Nay, said the master, only convince me that it was natural, and I will convince you that everything that is natural is right.
'All fathers', he said, 'or most of us, at least, feel like that.'
I do not deny, said Epictetus, that parents feel so, but the real question is whether it is right. No doubt as far as that goes, we must say that even tumours come into being for the good of the body, and in
a word that error is natural, for nearly all, or most of us at least, are prone to error. Prove to me then how it is natural.
'I cannot'; he said, 'rather do you prove to me how it is wrong or unnatural.'
He answered, Suppose we were discussing black and white, what test should we call in to distinguish between them?
'The sight', he said.
What if we were discussing things hot or cold, hard and soft, what test should we use?
Well then, as we are discussing what is natural and right and the opposite, what test would you have us take?
'I do not know', said he.
Look here, it is no great loss perhaps not to know the proper test for colours and smells, nay, and flavours too, but do you think it is a small loss to man not to know what is good and what is evil, what is natural and what is unnatural?
'No, the greatest possible loss.'
Tell me now, is everything right which seems noble and fitting to certain people? To-day, for instance, are the opinions of Jews and Syrians, Egyptians and Romans, as to food all of them right?
'How can they be?'
No, I suppose if the Egyptians' views are right the other nations' must of necessity be wrong; if the Jews' opinions are good, other people's must be bad.
And where there is ignorance, there is also want of insight and education as to necessary things.
When once you have realized this, then, said Epictetus, you will make this your one interest in the future, and to this alone devote your mind—to discover the means of judging what is natural and to use your criterion to distinguish each particular case as it arises.
For the present I can help you just so far as this in regard to what you wish: do you think family affection is natural and good? 'Of course.'
Again, is it true that affection is natural and good, and reason not good?
Is there a conflict then between reason and affection?
'I think not.'
If there were a conflict, then, as one of the two is natural, the other must needs be unnatural?
'Certainly', he said.
It follows then that whenever we find reason and affection united in an action, we confidently affirm that it is right and good.
'Granted', he said.
Mark what follows. I do not think you will deny that it is not reasonable to leave one's child when it is ill and to go away. The only question left for us is to consider whether it is affectionate.
'Let us consider it then.'
Was it right, I ask, for you, being affectionately disposed to your child, to run away and leave her? Is her mother not fond of the child?
'She is indeed.'
Should the mother then have left her too, or should she not?
'She should not.'
What of the nurse? Is she fond of the child?
'She is', he said.
Ought she then to have left her?
'By no means.'
Again, is not the child's attendant fond of her?
Ought he then to have gone away and left her? Was it right that as a consequence the child should be thus left desolate and helpless because of the great affection of you its parents and of those about it, or should die in the hands of those who had no love or care for it?
Once more, it is not fair or reasonable, is it, that a man should not allow others equally affectionate with himself to do what, because he is affectionate, he thinks proper for himself. It is absurd. Tell me, would you have liked, if you were ill, your relations and every one else, even your wife and children, to show their affection for you in such a way as to leave you alone and desolate?
Would you pray to be so loved by your own people, as to be always left alone by them when you were ill, because of their exceeding affection, or would you, if it were a question of being left alone, rather pray, supposing that were possible, to have the affection of your enemies? And if that is so, we are forced to the conclusion that your conduct was not that of affection.
What reason had you then? Was there nothing which moved and impelled you to abandon the child? How is that possible? It must have been the same sort of motive, which once made a man in Rome cover his eyes when the horse he had backed was running, and then again when the horse unexpectedly won made him faint so that he needed sponges to recover him. What is the motive? This perhaps is not the moment
to define it; but it is enough that we should be convinced of this —if what philosophers say is sound—that we must not look for it somewhere outside us, but that it is always one and the same motive which causes us to do or not to do a thing, to speak or not to speak, to be elated or depressed, to fly or to pursue—the very motive which has moved you and me at this moment, you to come and sit and listen to me, and me to say what I do. What is the motive? Surely it is nothing but this—that we are so minded?
And if things had looked different to us, we should still have done what we were minded to do and nothing else. So when Achilles mourned, his reason was, not the death of Patroclus—for another man, when his comrade dies, is not thus affected—but that he was so minded. So in your case, you ran away just because you were so minded; and again, if you stay it will be because you are so minded. And now you return to Rome, because you have a mind to do so; and if your mind changes, you will not depart thither. And in a word it is not death nor exile nor pain nor any such thing which is the cause of our action or inaction, but thoughts and judgements of the mind. Are you convinced of this or not?
'I am', he said.
Then on each occasion the effects of an action correspond to the causes. So henceforward whenever we do a thing wrong, we shall blame nothing else but the judgement which led us to do it, and we shall try to remove and extirpate this even more than we do tumours and abscesses from the body. And so also we shall assert that our right actions are determined in the same way; and we shall no longer blame neighbour or wife or children as though they caused evils to befall us, being convinced that, unless we make up our mind that things are such, we' do not act as though they were, but that whether we judge them to be so or not depends upon ourselves and not on anything outside us.
'True', he said.
From this day forward then we shall not investigate or examine the nature or condition of anything else—whether it be land or slaves or horses or dogs—but only our own judgements.
'I hope so', said he.
You see then that you must become a student—that creature whom all mock at—if you really wish to investigate your judgements. That this is not the work of an hour or a day you fully understand without my telling you.