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The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, [1916], at



The beginning of philosophy with those who approach it in the right way and by the door is a consciousness of one's own weakness and want of power in regard to necessary things. For we come into the world with no innate conception of a right-angled triangle, or of a quarter-tone or of a semi-tone, but we are taught what each of these means by systematic instruction; and therefore those who are ignorant of these things do not think that they know them. On the other hand every one has come into the world with an innate conception as to good and bad, noble and shameful, becoming and unbecoming, happiness and unhappiness, fitting and inappropriate, what is right to do and what is wrong. Therefore we all use these terms and try to fit our

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preconceived notions to particular facts. 'He did nobly', 'dutifully', 'un-dutifully'. 'He was unfortunate', 'he was fortunate'; 'he is unjust', 'he is just.' Which of us refrains from these phrases? Which of us puts off using them until he is taught them, just as men who have no knowledge of lines or sounds refrain from talking of them? The reason is that on the subject in question we come into the world with a certain amount of teaching, so to say, already given us by nature; to this basis of knowledge we have added our own fancies.

'Why!' says he; 'do I not know what is noble and what is shameful? Have I no conception of them?'

You have.

'Do I not fit my conception to particulars?'

You do.

'Do I not fit them well then?'

There lies the whole question and there fancy comes in. For, starting with these admitted principles, men advance to the matter in dispute, applying these principles inappropriately. For if they really possessed this faculty as well, what would prevent them from being perfect? You think that you apply your preconceptions properly to particular cases; but tell me, how do you arrive at this?

I have such a conviction.

But another has a different conviction, has he not, and yet believes. as you do, that he is applying his conception rightly?

He does.

Is it possible then for you both to apply your conceptions properly in matters on which you hold contrary opinion?

It is impossible.

Can you then point us to anything beyond your own opinion which will enable us to apply our conceptions better? Does the madman do anything else but what he thinks right? Is this criterion then sufficient for him too?

It is not.

Come, then, let us look for something beyond personal opinion. Where shall we find it?

Here you see the beginning of philosophy, in the discovery of the conflict of men's minds with one another, and the attempt to seek for the reason of this conflict, and the condemnation of mere opinion, as a thing not to be trusted; and a search to determine whether your opinion is true, and an attempt to discover a standard, just as we discover the balance to deal with weights and the rule to deal with things straight and crooked. This is the beginning of philosophy.

'Are all opinions right which all men hold?'

Nay, how is it possible for contraries to be both right?

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'Well, then, not all opinions, but our opinions?'

Why ours, rather than those of the Syrians or the Egyptians, or the personal opinion of myself or of this man or that?

'Why indeed?'

So then, what each man thinks is not sufficient to make a thing so: for in dealing with weights and measures we are not satisfied with mere appearance, but have found a standard to determine each. Is there, then, no standard here beyond opinion? It is impossible surely that things most necessary among men should be beyond discovery and beyond proof?

There is a standard then. Then, why do we not seek it and find it, and having found it use it hereafter without fail, never so much as 'stretching out our finger' without it? For it is this standard, I suppose, the discovery of which relieves from madness those who wrongly use personal opinion as their only measure, and enables us thereafter to start from known principles, clearly defined, and so to apply our conceptions to particulars in definite and articulate form.

What subject, I might ask, lies before us for our present discussion? 'Pleasure.'

Submit it to the rule, put it in the balance. Ought the good to be something which is worthy to inspire confidence and trust? 'It ought.'

Is it proper to have confidence in anything which is insecure? 'No.'

Has pleasure, then, any certainty in it?


Away with it then! Cast it from the scales and drive it far away from the region of good things. But if your sight is not keen, and you are not satisfied with one set of scales, try another.

Is it proper to be elated at what is good?

'It is.'

Is it proper, then, to be elated at the pleasure of the moment? Be careful how you say that it is proper. If you do, I shall not count you worthy of the scales.

Thus things are judged and weighed if we have standards ready to test them: and in fact the work of philosophy is to investigate and firmly establish such standards; and the duty of the good man is to proceed to apply the decisions arrived at.

Next: Chapter XII. On the Art of Discussion