Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX

That although we are unable to fulfil the profession of a man, we adopt that of a philosopher

It is no simple task, this of fulfilling merely the profession[1] of a man. For what is a man? A rational, mortal animal, someone says. To begin with, from what are we distinguished by the rational element? From the wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and the like. See to it, then, that you never act like a wild beast; if you do, you will have destroyed the man in you, you have not fulfilled your profession. See to it that you never act like a sheep; if you do, the man in you is destroyed in this way also. Well, when do we act like sheep? When we act for the sake of the belly, or of our sex-organs, or at random, or in a filthy fashion, or without due consideration, to what level have we degenerated? To the level of sheep. What have we destroyed? The reason. 5When we act pugnaciously, and injuriously, and angrily, and rudely, to what level have we degenerated? To the level of the wild beasts. Well, the fact is that some of us are wild beasts of a larger size, while others are little animals, malignant and petty, which give us occasion to say, "Let it be a lion that devours me!"[2] By means of all these actions the profession of a man is destroyed. For when is a complex thing preserved? When it fulfils its profession; consequently, the salvation of a complex thing is to be composed of parts that are true. When is a discrete[3] thing preserved? When it fulfils its profession. When are flutes, a lyre, a horse, a dog preserved? What is there to be surprised at, then, if a man also is preserved in the same way and in the same way destroyed? 10Now deeds that correspond to his true nature strengthen and preserve each particular man; carpentry does that for the carpenter, grammatical studies for the grammarian. But if a man acquires the habit of writing ungrammatically, his art must necessarily be destroyed and perish. So modest acts preserve the modest man, whereas immodest acts destroy him; and faithful acts preserve the faithful man while acts of the opposite character destroy him. And again, acts of the opposite character strengthen men of the opposite character; shamelessness strengthens the shameless man, faithlessness the faithless, abuse the abusive, wrath the wrathful, a disproportion between what he receives and what he pays out the miserly.

That is why the philosophers admonish us not to be satisfied with merely learning, but to add thereto practice also, and then training. For in the course of years we have acquired the habit of doing the opposite of what we learn and have in use opinions which are the opposite of the correct ones. If, therefore, we do not also put in use the correct opinions, we shall be nothing but the interpreters of other men's judgements. 15For who is there among us here and now that cannot give a philosophical discourse about good and evil? It will run like this: Of things that be, some are good, others evil, and others indifferent; now good things are virtues and everything that partakes in the virtues; evil are the opposite; while indifferent are wealth, health, reputation. Then, if we are interrupted in the midst of our speech by some unusually loud noise, or if someone in the audience laughs at us, we are upset. Where, you philosopher, are the things you are talking about? Where did you get what you were just saying? From your lips, and that is all. Why, then, do you pollute the helpful principles that are not your own? Why do you gamble about matters of the very utmost concern? For to store away bread and wine in a pantry is one thing, and to eat them is another. What is eaten is digested, distributed, becomes sinews, flesh, bones, blood, a good complexion, easy breathing. What is stored away you can readily take and show whenever you please, but you get no good from it except in so far as you are reputed to possess it. For how much better is it to set forth these principles than those of other schools of thought? Sit down now and give a philosophical discourse upon the principles of Epicurus, and perhaps you will discourse more effectively than Epicurus himself. Why, then, do you call yourself a Stoic, why do you deceive the multitude, why do you act the part of a Jew,[4] when you are a Greek? 20Do you not see in what sense men are severally called Jew, Syrian, or Egyptian? For example, whenever we see a man halting between two faiths, we are in the habit of saying, "He is not a Jew, he is only acting the part." But when he adopts the attitude of mind of the man who has been baptized and has made his choice, then he both is a Jew in fact and is also called one. So we also are counterfeit "baptists," ostensibly Jews, but in reality something else, not in sympathy with our own reason, far from applying the principles which we profess, yet priding ourselves upon them as being men who know them. So, although we are unable even to fulfil the profession of man, we take on the additional profession of the philosopher—so huge a burden! It is as though a man who was unable to raise ten pounds wanted to lift the stone of Aias.[5]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. That is, what a person or a thing promises or is expected to perform. In rendering ἐπαγγελία the same word has been retained throughout the chapter, even in unusual collocations, so as to preserve clearly the point of the analogy.
  2. Referring to the proverb, "Let a lion devour me, and not a fox," ascribed to Aesop. Prov. 15 (Paroemiographi Graeci, II. 230). As it is considered to be a greater misfortune to be killed by a mean and small animal than by a great one, so malignant and petty people are more hateful than the strong and fierce.
  3. A thing viewed as a separate entity existing per se, not as a mere component part of something else.
  4. It would appear (especially from the expression "counterfeit 'baptists'" below) that Epictetus is here speaking really of the Christians, who were in his time not infrequently confused with the Jews. (But it should be observed that the text translated here is an emendation, for the MS. says "the part of Greeks when you are a Jew," which may possibly be defended on the understanding that, in the parlance of Epictetus, a Jew is one who does not follow reason as his sole guide.)
    The sense of this much vexed passage I take to be: True Jews (i.e. Christians) are a very marked class of men because of the rigorous consistency between their faith and their practice. But there are some who for one reason or another (possibly in order to avail themselves of the charity which the Christians dispensed to the poor, as Schweighäuser suggests,—like the so-called "rice Christians") profess a faith which they do not practise. It is this class, then, which Epictetus has in mind when he bitterly calls himself and his pupils "counterfeit 'baptists.'"
  5. The huge one with which he beat down Aeneas. Homer, Iliad, VII. 264