Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 22

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CHAPTER XXII

Of our preconceptions

Preconceptions are common to all men, and one preconception does not contradict another. For who among us does not assume that the good is profitable and something to be chosen, and that in every circumstance we ought to seek and pursue it? And who among us does not assume that righteousness is beautiful and becoming? When, then, does contradiction arise? It arises in the application of our preconceptions to the particular cases, when one person says, "He did nobly, he is brave"; another, "No, but he is out of his mind." Thence arises the conflict of men with one another. This is the conflict between Jews and Syrians and Egyptians and Romans, not over the question whether holiness should be put before everything else and should be pursued in all circumstances, but whether the particular act of eating swine's flesh is holy or unholy. 5This, you will find, was also the cause of conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. Come, summon them before us. What do you say, Agamemnon? Ought not that to be done which is proper, and that which is noble? "Indeed it ought." And what do you say, Achilles? Do you not agree that what is noble ought to be done? "As for me, I agree most emphatically with that principle." Very well, then, apply your preconceptions to the particular cases. It is just there the conflict starts. The one says, "I ought not to be compelled to give back Chryseis to her father," while the other says, "Indeed you ought." Most certainly one of the two is making a bad application of the preconception "what one ought to do." Again, the one of them says, "Very well, if I ought to give back Chryseis, then I ought to take from some one of you the prize he has won," and the other replies, "Would you, then, take the woman I love?" "Yes, the woman you love," the first answers. "Shall I, then, be the only one—?" "But shall I be the only one to have nothing?" So a conflict arises.

What, then, does it mean to be getting an education? It means to be learning how to apply the natural preconceptions to particular cases, each to the other in conformity with nature, and, further, to make the distinction, that some things are under our control while others are not under our control. 10Under our control are moral purpose and all the acts of moral purpose; but not under our control are the body, the parts of the body, possessions, parents, brothers, children, country—in a word, all that with which we associate. Where, then, shall we place "the good"? To what class of things are we going to apply it? To the class of things that are under our control?—What, is not health, then, a good thing, and a sound body, and life? Nay, and not even children, or parents, or country?—And who will tolerate you if you deny that? Therefore, let us transfer the designation "good" to these things. But is it possible, then, for a man to be happy if he sustains injury and fails to get that which is good?—It is not possible.—And to maintain the proper relations with his associates? And how can it be possible? For it is my nature to look out for my own interest. If it is my interest to have a farm, it is my interest to take it away from my neighbour; if it is my interest to have a cloak, it is my interest also to steal it from a bath. This is the source of wars, seditions, tyrannies, plots. 15And again, how shall I any longer be able to perform my duty towards Zeus? For if I sustain injury and am unfortunate, he pays no heed to me. And then we hear men saying, "What have I to do with him, if he is unable to help us?" And again, "What have I to do with him, if he wills that I be in such a state as I am now?" The next step is that I begin to hate him. Why, then, do we build temples to the gods, and make statues of them, as for evil spirits—for Zeus as for a god of Fever?[1] And how can he any longer be "Saviour," and "Rain-bringer," and "Fruit-giver?" And, in truth, if we set the nature of the good somewhere in this sphere, all these things follow.

What, then, shall we do?—This is a subject of enquiry for the man who truly philosophizes and is in travail of thought. Says such a man to himself, "I do not now see what is the good and what is the evil; am I not mad?" Yes, but suppose I set the good somewhere here, among the things that the will controls, all men will laugh at me. Some white-haired old man with many a gold ring on his fingers will come along, and then he will shake his head and say, "Listen to me, my son; one ought of course to philosophize, but one ought also to keep one's head; this is all nonsense. You learn a syllogism from the philosophers, but you know better than the philosophers what you ought to do." 20Man, why, then, do you censure me, if I know? What shall I say to this slave? If I hold my peace, the fellow bursts with indignation. So I must say, "Forgive me as you would lovers; I am not my own master; I am mad."

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Cf. I. 19, 6, an altar of Fever in Rome.