Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

That the art of reasoning is indispensable

Since it is reason that analyzes and perfects all else, and reason itself ought not to remain unanalyzed, wherewithal shall it be analyzed? Why, clearly, either by itself, or by something else. This latter is assuredly either reason, or it will prove to be something else superior to reason, which is impossible. If it be reason, who again will analyze that reason? For if it analyzes its own self, the reason with which we started can do as much. If we are going to require something else at each step, our process will be endless and unceasing.[1]

"Yes," says someone, "but the cure (of the decisions of our will) is a much more pressing need (than the study of logic),"[2] and the like. Do you then wish to hear about this other matter? Very well, listen. 5But if you say to me, "I do not know whether your argument is true or false," and, if I use some ambiguous term, and you should then say, "Distinguish," I shall bear with you no longer, but shall tell you, "'Nay, but there is a much more pressing need.'" This is the reason, I suppose, why the Stoic philosophers put Logic first, just as in the measuring of grain we put first the examination of the measure. And if we do not define first what a modius[3] is, and do not define first what a scale is, how shall we be able to proceed with measuring or weighing anything? So, in the field of our present enquiry, if we have neglected the thorough knowledge and intellectual mastery of our standard of judgement for all other things, whereby they come to be known thoroughly, shall we ever be able to attain intellectual mastery and thorough knowledge of the rest of the world? And how could we possibly? 10"Yes," we are told, "but the modius is made out of wood and bears no fruit." True, but it is something with which we can measure grain. "Logic also bears no fruit." Now as for this statement we shall see later; but if one should grant even this, it is enough to say in defence of Logic that it has the power to discriminate and examine everything else, and. as one might say, to measure and weigh them. Who says this? Only Chrysippus and Zeno and Cleanthes? Well, does not Antisthenes say it? And who is it that wrote, "The beginning of education is the examination of terms"? Does not Socrates,[4] too, say the same thing? And of whom does Xenophon write, that he began with the examination of terms, asking about each, "What does it mean?"

Is this, then, your great and admirable achievement—the ability to understand and to interpret Chrysippus? And who says that? What, then, is your admirable achievement? To understand the will of nature. Very well; do you understand it all by yourself? And if that is the case, what more do you need? For if it is true that "all men err involuntarily,"[5] and you have learned the truth, it must needs be that you are doing right already. 15But, so help me Zeus, I do not comprehend the will of nature. Who, then, interprets it? Men say, Chrysippus. I go and try to find out what this interpreter of nature says. I begin not to understand what he says, and look for the man who can interpret him. "Look and consider what this passage means," says the interpreter, "just as if it were in Latin!"[6] What place is there here, then, for pride on the part of the interpreter? Why, there is no just place for pride even on the part of Chrysippus, if he merely interprets the will of nature, but himself does not follow it; how much less place for pride, then, in the case of his interpreter! For we have no need of Chrysippus on his own account, but only to enable us to follow nature. No more have we need of him who divines through sacrifice, considered on his own account, but simply because we think that through his instrumentality we shall understand the future and the signs given by the gods; nor do we need the entrails on their own account, but only because through them the signs are given; nor do we admire the crow or the raven, but God, who gives His signs through them.

20Wherefore, I go to this interpreter and diviner and say, "Examine for me the entrails, and tell me what signs they give." The fellow takes and spreads them out and then interprets: "Man, you have a moral purpose free by nature from hindrances and constraint. This stands written here in these entrails. I will prove you that first in the sphere of assent. Can anyone prevent you from assenting to truth? No one at all. Can anyone force you to accept the false? No one at all. Do you see that in this sphere you have a moral purpose free from hindrance, constraint, obstruction? Come, in the sphere of desire and choice is it otherwise? And what can overcome one impulse but another impulse? And what can overcome one desire or aversion but another desire or aversion?" 25"But," says someone, "if a person subjects me to the fear of death, he compels me." "No, it is not what you are subjected to that impels you, but the fact that you decide it is better for you to do something of the sort than to die. Once more, then, it is the decision of your own will which compelled you, that is, moral purpose compelled moral purpose. For if God had so constructed that part of His own being which He has taken from Himself and bestowed upon us, that it could be subjected to hindrance or constraint either from Himself or from some other. He were no longer God, nor would He be caring for us as He ought. This is what I find," says the diviner, "in the sacrifice. These are the signs vouchsafed you. If you will, you are free; if you will, you will not have to blame anyone, or complain against anyone; everything will be in accordance with what is not merely your own will, but at the same time the will of God." This is the prophecy for the sake of which I go to this diviner—in other words, the philosopher,—not admiring him because of his interpretation, but rather the interpretation which he gives.

FootnotesEdit

  1. Reason, therefore, can be analyzed only by itself.
  2. The course of the argument is highly condensed here, but this is the plain sense of the passage.
  3. A Roman dry measure, slightly less than half a bushel.
  4. See Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV. 6, 1.
  5. The famous dictum of Socrates, formulated as, "No man errs voluntarily," in Plato, Protagoras, 345 D.
  6. Epictetus seems to be placing himself in the position of one of his Roman pupils, who would understand Chrysippus more easily if translated into Latin.