The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
There are some who when they hear these precepts—that a man must be steadfast, and that the will is by nature a free thing and not subject to compulsion, whereas all else is subject to hindrance and compulsion, being in bondage and dependence—imagine that they must abide without swerving by every judgement that they have formed. No—first of all the judgement arrived at must be sound.
For I would have the body firmly braced, but it must be the firmness of health and good condition; if you show me that you have the firmness of a madman and boast of that, I shall say to you, 'Look, man, for some one to cure you.' This is not firmness, but the opposite.
Let me describe another state of mind to be found in those who hear these precepts amiss. A friend of mine, for instance, determined for no reason to starve himself. I learnt of it when he was in the third day of his fasting, and went and asked him what had happened.
'I have decided', said he.
Yes, but, for all that, say what it was that persuaded you; for if
your decision was right, here we are at your side ready to help you to leave this life, but, if your decision was against reason, then change your mind.
'A man must abide by his decisions.'
What are you doing, man? Not all decisions, but right decisions. For instance, if you were convinced at the moment that it was right, abide by that opinion if you think fit, and do not change it, but say, 'one must abide by one's decisions.'
Will you not lay this foundation to begin with—that is, examine your decision and see whether it is sound or unsound, and then afterwards build on it your firmness and unshaken resolve? But if you lay a rotten and crumbling foundation you will not be able to build even a tiny building; the more courses and the stronger that you lay upon it the quicker will it collapse. You are removing from life without any reason our familiar friend, our fellow citizen in the great City and the small, and then, though you are guilty of murder and of killing one who has done no wrong, you say, 'I must abide by my decisions.' If perchance it occurred to you to kill me, would you be bound to abide by your decisions?
Well, I had much ado to persuade that friend to change his mind. But it is impossible to move some of the men of to-day, so that I think that I know now what I did not know before, the meaning of the familiar saying, 'A fool is not to be persuaded nor broken of his folly.' May it never be my lot to have for friend a wise fool: nothing is more difficult to handle.
'I have decided.'
So have the madmen, but the more firmly they persist in false judgements the more hellebore 2-5 do they require. Will you not act as the sick man should, and call in the physician? As he says, 'I am sick, master; help me: consider what I ought to do, it is for me to obey you', so you should say, 'I do not know what I ought to do, but I have come to learn.' Oh no, you say: 'Talk to me about other things; this I have decided.' Other things indeed! What is greater or more to your advantage than that you should be convinced that it is not sufficient to have decided and to refuse all change of mind? This is the firmness of madness, not of health.
'If you force me to this, I would fain die.'
Why, man, what has happened?
'I have decided.'
Lucky for me that you have not decided to kill me.
'I do not take fees.'
'I have decided.'
Let me tell you that the same energy with which you now refuse to take fees may incline you one day (what is to prevent it?) to take them and to say again, 'I have decided.'
Just as in an ailing body, which suffers from a flux, the flux inclines now to this part and now to that, so it is with a weak mind: no one can tell which way it sways, but when this swaying and drift has energy to back it, then the mischief becomes past help and remedy.