Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 12

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Upon the art of argumentation

What a man ought to learn before he will know how to conduct an argument has been precisely defined by the philosophers of our school; but as to the proper use of what we have learned we are still utterly inexperienced. At all events, give to anyone of us you please some layman with whom to carry on an argument; he will find no way of dealing with him, but after moving the man a little, in case the latter thwarts him, our man gives up trying to handle him, and thereafter either reviles him, or laughs him to scorn, and remarks, "He is a mere layman; it is impossible to do anything with him." But the real guide, whenever he finds a person going astray, leads him back to the right road, instead of leaving him with a scornful laugh or an insult. So also do you show him the truth and you will see that he follows. But so long as you do not show him the truth, do not laugh him to scorn, but rather recognize your own incapacity.

5How did Socrates act? He used to force the man who was arguing with him to be his witness, and never needed any other witness. That is why he could say, "I can dispense with all the others, and am always satisfied to have my fellow-disputant for a witness; and the votes of the rest I do not take, but only that of my fellow-disputant."[1] For he used to make so clear the consequences which followed from the concepts, that absolutely everyone realized the contradiction involved and gave up the battle. "And so does the man who feels envy rejoice in it?"[2]—"Not at all; but he experiences pain rather than joy." (By the contradiction in terms he has moved the other party to the argument.) "Very well, does envy seem to you to be feeling of pain at evils? And yet what envy is there of evils?" (Consequently, he has made his opponent say that envy is a feeling of pain at good things.) "Very well, would a man feel envy about matters that did not concern him in the least?"—"Not at all." And so he filled out and articulated the concept, and after that went his way; he did not start in by saying, "Define envy for me," and then, when the other had defined it, remark, "That is a bad definition you have made, for the definition term does not fit the subject defined." 10Those are technical terms, and for that reason wearisome to the layman and hard for him to follow, and yet we are unable to dispense with them. But as to terms which the layman could himself follow, and so, by the assistance of his own external impressions, be able to accept or reject some proposition—we are absolutely unable to move him by their use. The result is that, recognizing this incapacity of ours, we naturally refrain from attempting the matter, those of us, I mean, who are at all cautious. But the rash multitude of men, when once they have let themselves in for something of this sort, get confused themselves and confuse others, and finally, after reviling their opponents and being themselves reviled, they walk away.

Now this was the first and most characteristic thing about Socrates, that he never got wrought up during an argument, never used any term of abuse or insolence, but endured the abuse of others, and put an end to strife. 15If you wish to know how great was the faculty he had in this field, read the Symposium of Xenophon, and you will see how many cases of strife he settled. Therefore, and with good reason, among the poets also very high praise has been accorded to the following sentiment:

"Soon doth he shrewdly make an end of a quarrel though weighty."[3]

Well, what then? Nowadays this activity is not a very safe one, and especially so in Rome. For the man who engages in it will clearly be under obligation not to do it in a corner, but he must go up to some rich person of consular rank, if it so chance, and ask him, "You there, can you tell to whose care you have entrusted your horses?" "I can, indeed," answers the man. "Is it, then, some chance comer, a man who knows nothing about the care of horses?" "Not at all." "And what then? Can you tell me to whom you have entrusted your gold, or your silver, or your clothing?" "I have not entrusted these, either, to a chance comer," "And have you ever thought about entrusting your body to someone to look after it?" "Why, certainly." "And, of course, he too is a man of special skill in the art of physical training, or medicine, is he not?" "Yes, indeed." 20"Are these your most valuable possessions, or have you something else that is better than all of them?" "Just what do you mean?" "That, by Zeus, which utilizes these other things, and puts each of them to the test, and exercises deliberation?" "Ah so, you are talking about my soul, are you?" "You have understood me aright, for it is precisely this that I am talking about." "By Zeus, I regard this as far and away the most valuable of all my possessions." "Can you, then, tell in what way you have taken care of your soul? For it is not to be supposed that as wise a man as yourself and one so honoured in the city is recklessly and at random allowing the very best of his possessions to go to ruin through neglect." "Certainly not." "But have you yourself taken care of that possession? Did you learn how to take care of it from somebody else, or did you discover how yourself?" Then comes the danger that first he will say, "What is that to you, good sir? Are you my master?" and after that, if you persist in annoying him, that he will lift his fist and give you a blow. 25This was a pursuit that I too was very fond of once upon a time, before I fell to my present estate.


  1. A free paraphrase of Plato, Gorgias, 474A; compare also 472C. A still freer paraphrase of the same general idea appears in II. 26, 6.
  2. Based on Xenophon, Memorabilia, III. 9, 8, and Plato, Philebus, 48B, and following.
  3. Hesiod, Theogony, 87.