Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 11

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What is the beginning of philosophy?

The beginning of philosophy with those who take it up as they should, and enter in, as it were, by the gate, is a consciousness of a man's own weakness and impotence with reference to the things of real consequence in life. For we come into being without any innate concept of a right-angled triangle, or of a half-tone musical interval, but by a certain systematic method of instruction we are taught the meaning of each of these things, and for that reason those who do not know them also do not fancy that they do. But, on the other hand, who has come into being without an innate concept of what is good and evil, honourable and base, appropriate and inappropriate, and happiness, and of what is proper and falls to our lot, and what we ought to do and what we ought not to do? Wherefore, we all use these terms and endeavour to adapt our preconceptions about them to the individual instances. 5"He has done well, as he ought, or as he ought not; he has been unfortunate, or fortunate; he is a wicked man, or he is a just man"—who of us refrains from expressions of this kind? Who of us waits before he uses them until he has learned what they mean, as those who have no knowledge of lines or sounds wait before they use the terms relating to them? The reason is that we come into the world with a certain amount of instruction upon this matter already given us, as it were, by nature, and that starting with this we have added thereto our opinion.—Yes, by Zeus, for do I in my own case not have by gift of nature knowledge of what is noble and base; do I not have a concept of the matter?—You do.—Do I not apply it to individual instances?—You do.—Do I not, then, apply it properly?—There lies the whole question, and there opinion comes in. For men start with these principles upon which they are agreed, but then, because they make an unsuitable application of them, get into disputes. Since if, in addition to having the principles themselves, they really possessed also the faculty of making suitable application of the same, what could keep them from being perfect? 10But now, since you think that you can also apply your preconceptions suitably to the individual cases, tell me, whence do you get this gift?—It is because I think so.—But on this precise point someone else does not think so, and yet he too fancies that he is applying the principles properly, does he not?—He does so fancy.—Can both of you, then, be making suitable applications of your preconceptions in the matters upon which your opinions are at variance?—We cannot.—Can you, then, show us anything higher than your own opinion which will make it possible for us to apply our preconceptions better? And does the madman do anything else but that which seems to him to be good? Is this criterion, then, sufficient in his case also?—It is not.—Go, therefore, to something higher than your own opinion, and tell us what that is.

Behold the beginning of philosophy!—a recognition of the conflict between the opinions of men, and a search for the origin of that conflict, and a condemnation of mere opinion, coupled with scepticism regarding it, and a kind of investigation to determine whether the opinion is rightly held, together with the invention of a kind of standard of judgement, as we have invented the balance for the determination of weights, or the carpenter's rule for the determination of things straight and crooked.—Is this the beginning of philosophy? Is everything right that every man thinks?[1] Nay, how is it possible for conflicting opinions to be right? Consequently, not all opinions are right.—But are our opinions right? 15Why ours, rather than those of the Syrians; why ours, rather than those of the Egyptians; why ours, rather than my own, or those of so-and-so?—There is no reason why.—Therefore, the opinion which each man holds is not a sufficient criterion for determining the truth; for also in the case of weights and measures we are not satisfied with the mere appearance, but we have invented a certain standard to test each. In the present case, then, is there no standard higher than opinion? And yet how can it possibly be that matters of the utmost consequence among men should be undeterminable and undiscoverable.—Therefore, there is some standard.—Then why do we not look for it and find it, and when we have found it thenceforth use it unswervingly, not so much as stretching out our finger without it? For this is something, I think, the discovery of which frees from madness those who use only opinion as the measure of all things, so that thenceforward, starting with certain principles that are known and clearly discriminated, we may use in the judgement of specific cases an organically articulated system of preconceived ideas.

What subject has arisen that we wish to investigate?—Pleasure.20—Subject it to the standard, put it into the balance. Should the good be the sort of thing that we can properly have confidence and trust in?—It should.—Can we properly have confidence, then, in something that is insecure?—No.—Pleasure contains no element of security, does it?—No.—Away with it, then, and throw it out of the balance, and drive it far away from the region of things good. But if you are not endowed with keen eyesight and if one balance is not enough for you, bring another. Can one properly feel elated over the good?—Yes.—Can one properly feel elated, then, over the moment's pleasure? See that you do not say that it is proper; if you do, I shall no longer regard you as a proper person even to have a balance!

And so are matters judged and weighed, if we have the standards ready with which to test them; and the task of philosophy is this—to examine and to establish the standards; but to go ahead and use them after they have become known is the task of the good and excellent man.


  1. "Each man" (ἔκαστος, as below, § 15) would have been a more logical form for this question, for it is clear from the context that Epictetus is not speaking here of the actual correctness of any opinion universally held, but only of any opinion held by any man.