Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII

That we ought not to be angry with men; and what are the little things and the great among men?

What is the reason that we assent to anything? The fact that it appears to us to be so. It is impossible, therefore, to assent to the thing that appears not to be so. Why? Because this is the nature of the intellect—to agree to what is true, to be dissatisfied with what is false, and to withhold judgement regarding what is uncertain. What is the proof of this? "Feel, if you can, that it is now night." That is impossible. "Put away the feeling that it is day." That is impossible. "Either feel or put away the feeling that the stars are even in number." That is impossible. When, therefore, a man assents to a falsehood, rest assured that it was not his wish to assent to it as false; "for every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth," as Plato says[1]; 5it only seemed to him that the false was true. Well now, in the sphere of actions what have we corresponding to the true and the false here in the sphere of perceptions? Duty and what is contrary to duty, the profitable and the unprofitable, that which is appropriate to me and that which is not appropriate to me, and whatever is similar to these. "Cannot a man, then, think that something is profitable to him, and yet not choose it?" He cannot. How of her who says.

Now, now, I learn what horrors I intend:
But passion overmastereth sober thought?[2]

It is because the very gratification of her passion and the taking of vengeance on her husband she regards as more profitable than the saving of her children. "Yes, but she is deceived." Show her clearly that she is deceived, and she will not do it; but so long as you do not show it, what else has she to follow but that which appears to her to be true? Nothing. Why, then, are you angry with her, because the poor woman has gone astray in the greatest matters, and has been transformed from a human being into a viper? Why do you not, if anything, rather pity her? As we pity the blind and the halt, why do we not pity those who have been made blind and halt in their governing faculties?

10Whoever, then, bears this clearly in mind, that the measure of man's every action is the impression of his senses (now this impression may be formed rightly or wrongly; if rightly, the man is blameless; if wrongly, the man himself pays the penalty; for it is impossible that the man who has gone astray, is one person, while the man who suffers is another[3]),—whoever remembers this, I say, will not be enraged at anyone, will not be angry with anyone, will not revile anyone, will not blame, nor hate, nor take offence at anyone. So you conclude that such great and terrible things have their origin in this—the impression of one's senses? In this and nothing else. The Iliad is nothing but a sense-impression and a poet's use of sense-impressions. There came to Alexander an impression to carry off the wife of Menelaus, and an impression came to Helen to follow him. Now if an impression had led Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have happened? We should have lost not merely the Iliad, but the Odyssey as well.—Then do matters of such great import depend upon one that is so small:—But what do you mean by "matters of such great import"? Wars and factions and deaths of many men and destructions of cities? And what is there great in all this?—What, nothing great in this?15—Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows or storks?—Is there any similarity between this and that?—A great similarity. Men's bodies perished in the one case, and bodies of oxen and sheep in the other. Petty dwellings of men were burned, and so were nests of storks. What is there great or dreadful about that? Or else show me in what respect a man's house and a stork's nest differ as a place of habitation.—Is there any similarity between a stork and a man?—What is that you say? As far as the body is concerned, a great similarity; except that the petty houses of men are made of beams and tiles and bricks, but the nest of a stork is made of sticks and clay.

Does a man, then, differ in no wise from a stork?—Far from it; but in these matters he does not differ.—In what wise, then, does he differ?20—Seek and you will find that he differs in some other respect. See whether it be not in his understanding what he does, see whether it be not in his capacity for social action, in his faithfulness, his self-respect, his steadfastness, his security from error, his intelligence. Where, then, is the great evil and the great good among men? Just where the difference is; and if that element wherein the difference lies be preserved and stands firm and well fortified on every side, and neither his self-respect, nor his faithfulness, nor his intelligence be destroyed, then the man also is preserved; but if any of these qualities be destroyed or taken by storm, then the man also is destroyed. And it is in this sphere that the great things are. Did Alexander come to his great fall when the Hellenes assailed Troy with their ships, and when they were devastating the land, and when his brothers were dying? Not at all; for no one comes to his fall because of another's deed; but what went on then was merely the destruction of storks' nests. Nay, he came to his fall when he lost his self-respect, his faithfulness, his respect for the laws of hospitality, his decency of behaviour. When did Achilles come to his fall? When Patroclus died? Far from it; but when Achilles himself was enraged, when he was crying about a paltry damsel, when he forgot that he was there, not to get sweethearts, but to make war. 25These are the falls that come to mankind, this is the siege of their city, this is the razing of it—when their correct judgements are torn down, when these are destroyed.—Then when women are driven off into captivity, and children are enslaved, and when the men themselves are slaughtered, are not all these things evils?—Where do you get the justification for adding this opinion? Let me know also.—No, on the contrary, do you let me know where you get the justification for saying that they are not evils?—Let us turn to our standards, produce your preconceptions.

For this is why I cannot be sufficiently astonished at what men do. In a case where we wish to judge of weights, we do not judge at haphazard; where we wish to judge what is straight and what is crooked, we do not judge at haphazard; in short, where it makes any difference to us to know the truth in the case, no one of us will do anything at haphazard. 30Yet where there is involved the first and only cause of acting aright or erring, of prosperity or adversity, of failure or success, there alone are we haphazard and headlong. There I have nothing like a balance, there nothing like a standard, but some sense-impression comes and immediately I go and act upon it. What, am I any better than Agamemnon or Achilles—are they because of following the impressions of their senses to do and suffer such evils, while I am to be satisfied with the impression of my senses? And what tragedy has any other source than this? What is the Atreus of Euripides? His sense-impression. The Oedipus of Sophocles? His sense-impression. The Phoenix? His sense-impression. The Hippolytus? His sense-impression. What kind of a man, then, do you think he is who pays no attention to this matter[4]? What are those men called who follow every impression of their senses?—Madmen.—Are we, then, acting differently?

FootnotesEdit

  1. A rather free paraphrase of Plato, Sophistes, 228 C.
  2. Euripides, Medea, 1078-1079; translated by Way.
  3. i.e., not merely does suffering always follow error, but it is also morally unthinkable that one man's error can cause another "suffering," in the Stoic sense; or, in other words, no man can be injured (as Socrates believed; cf. I. 29, 18) or made to "suffer" except by his own act (cf. § 23). It is this fundamental moral postulate of the Stoics which led them to classify so many of the ills of life which one person does actually cause to another as not real evils (cf. §§ 26-8), but ἀδιάφορα, "things indififerent." cf. I. 9, 13; I. 30, 2, etc.
  4. i.e., the proper control to exercise over one's haphazard sense-impressions.