Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 27

CHAPTER XXVII.

In how many ways do the external impressions arise, and what aids should we have ready at hand to deal with them?

The external impressions come to us in four ways; for either things are, and seem so to be; or they are not, and do not seem to be, either; or they are, and do not seem to be; or they are not, and yet seem to be. Consequently, in all these cases it is the business of the educated man to hit the mark. But whatever be the thing that distresses us, against that we ought to bring up our reinforcements. If the things that distress us are sophisms of Pyrrho and the Academy, let us bring up our reinforcements against them; if they are the plausibilities of things, whereby we are led to think that certain things are good when they are not, let us seek reinforcements at that point; if the thing that distresses us is a habit, we should try to hunt up the reinforcements with which to oppose that. What reinforcements, then, is it possible to find with which to oppose habit? Why, the contrary habit. 5You hear the common folk saying, "That poor man! He is dead; his father perished, and his mother; he was cut off, yes, and before his time, and in a foreign land." Listen to the arguments on the other side, tear yourself away from these expressions, set over against one habit the contrary habit. To meet sophistic arguments we must have the processes of logic and the exercise and the familiarity with these; against the plausibilities of things we must have our preconceptions clear, polished like weapons, and ready at hand.

When death appears to be an evil, we must have ready at hand the argument that it is our duty to avoid evils, and that death is an inevitable thing.[1] For what can I do? Where shall I go to escape it? Suppose that I am Sarpedon the son of Zeus, in order that I may nobly say, as he did: "Seeing that I have left my home for the war, I wish either to win the prize of valour myself, or else to give someone else the chance to win it; if I am unable to succeed in something myself, I shall not begrudge another the achievement of some noble deed."[2] Granted that such an act as Sarpedon's is beyond us, does not the other alternative fall within the compass of our powers?[3] And where can I go to escape death? Show me the country, show me the people to whom I may go, upon whom death does not come; show me a magic charm against it. If I have none, what do you wish me to do? I cannot avoid death. 10Instead of avoiding the fear of it, shall I die in lamentation and trembling? For the origin of sorrow is this—to wish for something that does not come to pass. Therefore, if I can change externals according to my own wish, I change them; but if I cannot, I am ready to tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way. For it is man's nature not to endure to be deprived of the good, not to endure to fall into the evil. Then, finally, when I can neither change the circumstances, nor tear out the eyes of the man who stands in my way, I sit down and groan, and revile whom I can—Zeus and the rest of the gods; for if they do not care for me, what are they to me? "Yes," you say, "but that will be impious of you." What, then, shall I get that is worse than what I have now? In short, we must remember this—that unless piety and self-interest be conjoined, piety cannot be maintained in any man. Do not these considerations seem urgent?

15Let the follower of Pyrrho or of the Academy come and oppose us. Indeed I, for my part, have no leisure for such matters, nor can I act as advocate to the commonly received opinion. If I had a petty suit about a mere bit of land, I should have called in some one else to be my advocate. With what evidence, then, am I satisfied? With that which belongs to the matter in hand. To the question how perception arises, whether through the whole body, or from some particular part, perhaps I do not know how to give a reasonable answer, and both views perplex me. But that you and I are not the same persons, I know very certainly. Whence do I get this knowledge? When I want to swallow something, I never take the morsel to that place but to this[4]; when I wish to take bread I never take sweepings, but I always go after the bread as to a mark. And do you yourselves,[5] who take away the evidence of the senses, do anything else? Who among you when he wishes to go to a bath goes to a mill instead?20—What then? Ought we not to the best of our ability hold fast also to this—maintain, that is, the commonly received opinion, and be on our guard against the arguments that seek to overthrow it?—And who disputes that? But only the man who has the power and the leisure should devote himself to these studies; while the man who is trembling and perplexed and whose heart is broken within him, ought to devote his leisure to something else.

FootnotesEdit

  1. And therefore not an evil.
  2. A paraphrase of Homer, Iliad, XII. 328.
  3. i.e., if we cannot act as nobly as Sarpedon, we can at least think rationally about death, counting it no evil.
  4. The accompanying gesture explained the allusion, which was probably to the eye and the mouth, as in II. 20, 28. A Cynic like Diogenes would very likely have illustrated his point in a somewhat coarser fashion; and this is not impossible in the present instance.
  5. The Pyrrhonists, or Sceptics.