Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 26

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CHAPTER XXVI

What is the rule of life?

As some one was reading the hypothetical arguments,[1] Epictetus said, This also is a law governing hypotheses—that we must accept what the hypothesis or premiss demands. But much more important is the following law of life—that we must do what nature demands. For if we wish in every matter and circumstance to observe what is in accordance with nature, it is manifest that in everything we should make it our aim neither to avoid that which nature demands, nor to accept that which is in conflict with nature. The philosophers, therefore, exercise us first in the theory where there is less difficulty, and then after that lead us to the more difficult matters; for in theory there is nothing which holds us back from following what we are taught, but in the affairs of life there are many things which draw us away. He is ridiculous, then, who says that he wishes to begin with the latter; for it is not easy to begin with the more difficult things. 5And this is the defence that we ought to present to such parents as are angry because their children study philosophy. "Very well then, father, I go astray, not knowing what is incumbent upon me or what my duty is. Now if this is a thing that can neither be taught nor learned, why do you reproach me? But if it can be taught, teach me; and if you cannot do this, allow me to learn from those who profess to know. Really, what is your idea? That I intentionally fall into evil and miss the good? Far from it! What, then, is the cause of my going astray? Ignorance. Very well, do you not want me to put away my ignorance? Whom did anger ever teach the art of steering, or music? Do you think, then, that your anger will make me learn the art of living?"

Only he can so speak who has applied himself to philosophy in such a spirit. But if a man reads upon the subject and resorts to the philosophers merely because he wants to make a display at a banquet of his knowledge of hypothetical arguments, what else is he doing but trying to win the admiration of some senator sitting by his side? 10For there in Rome are found in truth the great resources, while the riches of Nicopolis look to them like mere child's-play.[2] Hence it is difficult there for a man to control his own external impressions, since the distracting influences at Rome are great. I know a certain man who clung in tears to the knees of Epaphroditus and said that he was in misery; for he had nothing left but a million and a half sesterces. What, then, did Epaphroditus do? Did he laugh at him as you are laughing? No; he only said, in a tone of amazement, "Poor man, how, then, did you manage to keep silence? How did you endure it?"

Once when he had disconcerted the student who was reading the hypothetical arguments, and the one who had set the other the passage to read laughed at him, Epictetus said to the latter, "You are laughing at yourself. You did not give the young man a preliminary training, nor discover whether he was able to follow these arguments, but you treat him merely as a reader. Why is it, then," he added, "that to a mind unable to follow a judgement upon a complex argument we entrust the assigning of praise or blame, or the passing of a judgement upon what is done well or ill? If such a person speaks ill of another, does the man in question pay any attention to him, or if he praises another, is the latter elated? when the one who is dispensing praise or blame is unable, in matters as trivial as these, to find the logical consequence? 15This, then, is a starting point in philosophy—a perception of the state of one's own governing principle[3]; for when once a man realizes that it is weak, he will no longer wish to employ it upon great matters. But as it is, some who are unable to swallow the morsel buy a whole treatise and set to work to eat that. Consequently they throw up, or have indigestion; after that come colics and fluxes and fevers. But they ought first to have considered whether they have the requisite capacity. However, in a matter of theory it is easy enough to confute the man who does not know, but in the affairs of life a man does not submit himself to confutation, and we hate the person who has confuted us. But Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination.[4]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. One of the typical forms of argumentation upon which the Stoics laid great stress. The subject is treated at considerable length in I. 7.
  2. i.e., in the simple life of Nicopolis it is easy to use philosophic doctrines to live by; in Rome the temptation is strong to use them for achieving social distinction.
  3. That is, the reason; compare note on I. 15, 4.
  4. cf. Plato, Apology, 38 A: ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ