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



What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind—to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgement on what is doubtful.

What is the proof of this?

'Feel now, if you can, that it is night.'

It is impossible.

Put away the feeling that it is day.'

It is impossible.

'Assume or put away the feeling that the stars are even in number.' It is not possible.

When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: 'for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,' as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.

Now, in the sphere of action what have we to correspond to true and false in the sphere of perception? What is fitting and unfitting, profitable and unprofitable, appropriate and inappropriate, and the like.

Cannot a man, then, think a thing is to his profit, and not choose it?

He cannot.

What of her 1-15 who says

I know full well what ills I mean to do
But passion overpowers what counsel bids me
                                      [Euripides, Medea, 1078]

Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on

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her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children.

'Yes, but she is deceived.'

Prove to her plainly that she is deceived and she will not do it, but as long as you do not show her, what else can she follow but that which appears to her? Nothing. Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her—if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties.

We must remember this clearly, that man measures his every action by his impressions; of course they may be good or bad: if good, he is free from reproach; if bad, he pays the penalty in his own person, for it is impossible for one to be deluded and another to suffer for it. The man who remembers this, I say, will be angry with no one, indignant with no one, revile none, blame none, hate none, offend none.

'So you say that deeds so great and awful take their origin from this, the impressions of the mind?'

From this and nothing else. The Iliad is nothing but men's impressions and how they dealt with them. It was impressions that made Paris take away the wife of Menelaus, impressions that drew Helen to follow him. If, then, his impressions had led Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be robbed of such a wife, what would have happened? We should have lost the Iliad, and not only that but the Odyssey too.

'What? Do these great matters depend on one that is so small?'

What are these you call 'such great matters'? Wars and factions, deaths of many men and destructions of cities. What is there great in this, pray?

'Is there nothing great?'

Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep, and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows and storks? 'Are these like those other horrors?'

Most like: bodies of men perished, so did bodies of oxen and sheep. Huts of men were burnt: so were storks' nests. What is great or awful here? Or if it be so, show me how a man's home differs from a stork's nest, as a dwelling.

'Is a stork, then, like a man?'

What do you say? In respect of his body, very like; save only that men's homes are built of beams and rafters and bricks, and storks’ nests of sticks and clay.

'Does a man then differ in nothing from a stork?'

God forbid: but he does not differ in these matters.

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'In what then does he differ?'

Search and you will find that he differs in something else. Look whether it be not that he differs in understanding what he does, in his faculty for society, in his good faith, his self-respect, his security of aim, his prudence.

Where then is man's good and man's evil, in the true sense, to be found?

In that faculty which makes men different from all else. If a man preserves this and keeps it safely fortified; if his sense of honour, his good faith, and his prudence are not destroyed, then he too is preserved; but if any of these perish or be taken by storm, then he too perishes with them. And it is on this that great events depend. Was Alexander's great failure when the Hellenes came against the Trojans and sacked Troy and when his brothers perished? By no means: for no one fails by the act of another; yet then there was destruction of storks' nests. Nay, his failure was when he lost the man of honour, the man of good faith, the man who respected manners and the laws of hospitality. When did Achilles fail? Was it when Patroclus died? God forbid: it was when he was angry, when he cried for a trumpery maiden, when he forgot that he was there not to win lady-loves, but to make war. These are man's failures—this is his siege, this is his razed city, when his right judgements are broken to the ground, and when they are destroyed.

'But when women are carried off, and children are made captive, and men themselves are slaughtered—are not these things evil?'

Where do you get this idea from? If it is true, teach it me too.

'No, I cannot: but how can you say that they are not evil?'

Let us turn to our standards, let us look to our primary notions. For I cannot be sufficiently astonished at what men do. When we want to judge weights, we do not judge at random: when we judge things straight and crooked, it is not at random: in a word, when it is important to us to know the truth on any subject, no one of us will ever do anything at random. Yet when we are dealing with the primary and sole cause of right or wrong action, of prosperity or adversity, of good or bad fortune, there alone we are random and headlong: we nowhere have anything like a scale, nowhere anything like a standard: some impression strikes me, and straightway I act on it.

Am I any better than Agamemnon or Achilles, that they should do and suffer such evils because they follow their impressions, and I should be content with mine?

Surely tragedy has no other source but this. What is the 'Atreus' of Euripides? Impressions. What is the 'Oedipus' of Sophocles? Impressions. 'Phoenix'? Impressions. 'Hippolytus'? Impressions. How do you think then we should describe the man who takes no pains to discipline

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his impressions? What name do we give to those who follow everything that comes into their mind?


Well, is not this exactly what we do?

Next: Chapter XXIX. On Constancy