Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 26

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What is the distinctive characteristic of error?

Every error involves a contradiction. For since he who is in error does not wish to err, but to be right, it is clear that he is not doing what he wishes. For what does the thief wish to achieve? His own interest. Therefore, if thievery is against his interest, he is not doing what he wishes. Now every rational soul is by nature offended by contradiction; and so, as long as a man does not understand that he is involved in contradiction, there is nothing to prevent him from doing contradictory things, but when he has come to understand the contradiction, he must of necessity abandon and avoid it, just as a bitter necessity compels a man to renounce the false when he perceives that it is false; but as long as the falsehood does not appear, he assents to it as the truth.

He, then, who can show to each man the contradiction which causes him to err, and can clearly bring home to him how he is not doing what he wishes, and is doing what he does not wish, is strong in argument, and at the same time effective both in encouragement and refutation. 5For as soon as anyone shows a man this, he will of his own accord abandon what he is doing. But so long as you do not point this out, be not surprised if he persists in his error; for he does it because he has an impression that he is right. That is why Socrates, because he trusted in this faculty, used to say: "I am not in the habit of calling any other witness to what I say, but I am always satisfied with my fellow-disputant, and I call for his vote and summon him as a witness, and he, though but a single person, is sufficient for me in place of all men."[1] For Socrates knew what moves a rational soul, and that like the beam[† 1] of a balance it will incline,[2][† 2] whether you wish or no. Point out to the rational governing faculty a contradiction and it will desist; but if you do not point it out, blame yourself rather than the man who will not be persuaded.


  1. Compare II. 12, 5, and the note on that passage.
  2. The text is very uncertain (see critical note). The general idea, however, is pretty clearly that expressed by Cicero, Acad. Pri. II. 38; Ut enim necesse est lancem in libra ponderibus impositis deprimi, sic animum perspicuis cedere.

Select critical notes[edit]

  1. ὁμοίως. Added by Schweighäuser.
  2. ἐπιρρέψει Schenkl: ἐπιθρέψει or ἐπειθρέψει S. Many conjectural restorations have been proposed.