Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

Of family affection

When an official came to see him, Epictetus, after making some special enquiries about other matters, asked him if he had children and a wife, and when the other replied that he had, Epictetus asked the further question, What, then, is your experience with marriage?—Wretched, he said.—To which Epictetus, How so? For men do not marry and beget children just for this surely, to be wretched, but rather to be happy.—And yet, as for me, the other replied, I feel so wretched about the little children, that recently when my little daughter was sick and was thought to be in danger, I could not bear even to stay by her sick bed, but I up and ran away, until someone brought me word that she was well again.—What then, do you feel that you were acting right in doing this?5—I was acting naturally, he said.—But really, you must first convince me of this, that you were acting naturally, said he, and then I will convince you that whatever is done in accordance with nature is rightly done.—This is the way, said the man, all, or at least most, of us fathers feel.—And I do not contradict you either, answered Epictetus, and say that it is not done, but the point at issue between us is the other, whether it is rightly done. For by your style of reasoning we should have to say of tumours also that they are produced for the good of the body, just because they occur, and in brief, that to err is in accordance with nature, just because practically all of us, or at least most of us, do err. Do you show me, therefore, how your conduct is in accordance with nature.—I cannot, said the man; but do you rather show me how it is not in accordance with nature, and not rightly done. And Epictetus said: Well, if we were enquiring about white and black objects, what sort of criterion should we summon in order to distinguish between them?—The sight, said the man.—And if about hot and cold, and hard and soft objects, what criterion?—The touch.10—Very well, then, since we are disputing about things which are in accordance with nature and things which are rightly or not rightly done, what criterion would you have us take?—I do not know, he said.—And yet, though it is, perhaps, no great harm for one not to know the criterion of colours and odours, and so, too, of flavours, still do you think that it is a slight harm for a man to be ignorant of the criterion of good and evil things, and of those in accordance with nature and those contrary to nature?—On the contrary, it is the very greatest harm. Come, tell me, are all the things that certain persons regard as good and fitting, rightly so regarded? And is it possible at this present time that all the opinions which Jews, and Syrians, and Egyptians and Romans hold on the subject of food are rightly held?—And how can it be possible?—But, I fancy, it is absolutely necessary, if the views of the Egyptians are right, that those of the others are not right; if those of the Jews are well founded, that those of the others are not.—Yes, certainly.—Now where there is ignorance, there is also lack of knowledge and the lack of instruction in matters which are indispensable.—He agreed.15—You, then, said he, now that you perceive this, will henceforth study no other have learned the criterion of what is in accordance with nature, you shall apply that criterion and thus determine each special case.

But for the present[1] I can give you the following assistance toward the attainment of what you desire. Does family affection seem to you to be in accordance with nature and good?—Of course.—What then? Is it possible that, while family affection is in accordance with nature and good, that which is reasonable is not good?—By no means.—That which is reasonable is not, therefore, incompatible with family affection?—It is not, I think.—Otherwise, when two things are incompatible and one of them is in accordance with nature, the other must be contrary to nature, must it not?—Even so, said he.—Whatever, therefore, we find to be at the same time both affectionate and reasonable, this we confidently assert to be both right and good?—Granted, said he.20—What then? I suppose you will not deny that going away and leaving one's child when it is sick is at least not reasonable. But we have yet to consider whether it is affectionate.—Yes, let us consider that.—Were you, then, since you were affectionately disposed to your child, doing right when you ran away and left her? And has the mother no affection for her child?—On the contrary, she has affection.—Ought then the mother also to have left her child, or ought she not?—She ought not.—What of the nurse? Does she love her child?—She does, he said.—Ought, then, she also to have left her?—By no means.—What about the school attendant? Does not he love the child?—He does.—Ought, then, he as well to have gone away and left her, so that the child would thus have been left alone and helpless because of the great affection of you her parents and of those in charge of her, or, perhaps, have died in the arms of those who neither loved her nor cared for her?—Far from it!—And yet is it not unfair and unfeeling, when a man thinks certain conduct fitting for himself because of his affection, that he should not allow the same to others who have as much affection as he has?—That were absurd.25—Come, if it had been you who were sick, would you have wanted all your relatives, your children and your wife included, to show their affection in such a way that you would be left all alone and deserted by them?—By no means.—And would you pray to be so loved by your own that, because of their excessive affection, you would always be left alone in sickness? Or would you, so far as this is concerned, have prayed to be loved by your enemies rather, if that were possible, so as to be left alone by them? And if this is what you would have prayed for, the only conclusion left us is that your conduct was, in the end, not an act of affection at all.

What, then; was the motive nothing at all which actuated you and induced you to leave your child? And how can that be? But it was a motive like that which impelled a certain man in Rome to cover his head when the horse which he backed was running,—and then, when it won unexpectedly, they had to apply sponges to him to revive him from his faint! What motive, then, is this? The scientific explanation, perhaps, is not in place now; but it is enough for us to be convinced that, if what the philosophers say is sound, we ought not to look for the motive anywhere outside of ourselves, but that in all cases it is one and the same thing that is the cause of our doing a thing or of our not doing it, of our saying things, or of our not saying them, of our being elated, or of our being cast down, of our avoiding things, or of our pursuing them—the very thing, indeed, which has even now become a cause of my action and of yours; yours in coming to me and sitting here now listening, mine in saying these things. And what is that? 30Is it, indeed, anything else than that we wanted to do this?—Nothing.—And supposing that we had wanted to do something else, what else would we be doing than that which we wanted to do? Surely, then, in the case of Achilles also, it was this that was the cause of his grief—not the death of Patroclus (for other men do not act this way when their comrades die), but that he wanted to grieve. And in your case the other day, the cause of your running away was just that you wanted to do so; and another time, if you stay with her, it will be because you wanted to stay. And now you are going back to Rome, because you want to do so, and if you change your mind and want something else, you will not go. And, in brief, it is neither death, nor exile, nor toil, nor any such thing that is the cause of our doing, or of our not doing, anything, but only our opinions and the decisions of our will.

Do I convince you of this, or not?—You convince me, said he.—Of such sort, then, as are the causes in each case, such likewise are the effects. 35Very well, then, whenever we do anything wrongly, from this day forth we shall ascribe to this action no other cause than the decision of our will which led us to do it, and we shall endeavour to destroy and excise that cause more earnestly than we try to destroy and excise from the body its tumours and abscesses. And in the same way we shall declare the same thing to be the cause of our good actions. And we shall no longer blame either slave, or neighbour, or wife, or children, as being the causes of any evils to us, since we are persuaded that, unless we decide that things are thus-and-so,[2] we do not perform the corresponding actions; and of our decision, for or against something, we ourselves, and not things outside of ourselves, are the masters.—Even so, he said.—From this very day, therefore, the thing whose nature or condition we shall investigate and examine will be neither our farm, nor our slaves, nor our horses, nor our dogs, but only the decisions of our will.—I hope so, he said.—You see, then, that it is necessary for you to become a frequenter of the schools,—that animal at which all men laugh,—if you really desire to make an examination of the decisions of your own will. And that this is not the work of a single hour or day you know as well as I do.

FootnotesEdit

  1. The course of thought is, "You will have to do much studying before you have mastered this subject; but for the present," etc.
  2. As, for example, good, or pleasant.