Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXVIII.: THAT WE OUGHT NOT TO BE ANGRY WITH MANKIND. WHAT THINGS ARE LITTLE, WHAT GREAT, AMONG MEN. - The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments
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CHAPTER XXVIII.: THAT WE OUGHT NOT TO BE ANGRY WITH MANKIND. WHAT THINGS ARE LITTLE, WHAT GREAT, AMONG MEN. - Epictetus, The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments [100 AD]
The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. A Translation from the Greek based on that of Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1865).
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THAT WE OUGHT NOT TO BE ANGRY WITH MANKIND. WHAT THINGS ARE LITTLE, WHAT GREAT, AMONG MEN.
WHAT is the cause of assent to anything? Its appearing to be true. It is not possible, therefore, to assent to what appears to be not true. Why? Because it is the very nature of the understanding to agree to truth, to be dissatisfied with falsehood, and to suspend its belief, in doubtful cases.
What is the proof of this?
Persuade yourself, if you can, that it is now night. Impossible. Dissuade yourself from the belief that it is day. Impossible. Persuade yourself that the number of the stars is even or odd. Impossible.
When any one, then, assents to what is false, be assured that he doth not wilfully assent to it, as false; for, as Plato affirms, the soul is unwillingly deprived of truth;* but what is false appears to him to be true. Well, then; have we, in actions, anything correspondent to this distinction between true and false?
Right and wrong; advantageous and disadvantageous; desirable and undesirable; and the like.
A person then, cannot think a thing truly advantageous to him, and not choose it?
He cannot. But how says Medea?
Was it that she thought the very indulgence of her rage, and the punishing her husband, more advantageous than the preservation of her children? Yes; but she is deceived. Show clearly to her that she is deceived, and she will forbear; but, till you have shown it, what has she to follow, but what appears to herself? Nothing.
Why, then, are you angry with her, that the unhappy woman is deceived in the most important points, and instead of a human creature, becomes a viper? Why do not you rather, as we pity the blind and lame, so likewise pity those who are blinded and lamed in their superior faculties? Whoever, therefore, duly remembers, that the appearance of things to the mind is the standard of every action to man; that this is either right or wrong, and, if right, he is without fault, if wrong, he himself suffers punishment; for that one man cannot be the person deceived, and another the only sufferer; — such a person will not be outrageous and angry at any one; will not revile, or reproach, or hate, or quarrel with any one.
“So then, have all the great and dreadful deeds, that have been done in the world, no other origin than [true or false] appearances?”
Absolutely, no other. The Iliad consists of nothing but such appearances and their results. It seemed to Paris that he should carry off the wife of Menelaus. It seemed to Helen, that she should follow him. If, then, it had seemed to Menelaus, that it was an advantage to be robbed of such a wife, what could have happened? Not only the Iliad had been lost, but the Odyssey too.
“Do such great events, then, depend on so small a cause?”
What events, then, call you great?
“Wars and seditions; the destruction of numbers of men, and the overthrow of cities.”
And what in all this is great? Nothing. What is great in the death of numbers of oxen, numbers of sheep, or in the burning or pulling down numbers of nests of storks or swallows?
“Are these things then similar?”
They are. The bodies of men are destroyed, and the bodies of sheep and oxen. The houses of men are burnt, and the nests of storks. What is there so great or fearful in all this? Pray, show me what difference there is between the house of a man and the nest of a stork, considered as a habitation, except that houses are built with beams, and tiles, and bricks; and nests with sticks and clay?
“What, then, are a stork and a man similar? What do you mean?”
Similar in body.
“Is there no difference, then, between a man and a stork?”
Yes, surely; but not in these things.
“In what then?”
Inquire; and you will find, that the difference lies in something else. See whether it be not in rationality of action, in social instincts, fidelity, honor, providence, judgment.
“Where then is the real good or evil of man?”
Just where this difference lies. If this distinguishing trait is preserved, and remains well fortified, and neither honor, fidelity, nor judgment is destroyed, then he himself is likewise saved; but when any one of these is lost or demolished, he himself is lost also. In this do all great events consist. Paris, they say, was undone, because the Greeks invaded Troy, and laid it waste, and his family were slain in battle. By no means; for no one is undone by an action not his own. All that was only like laying waste the nests of storks. But his true undoing was, when he lost modesty, faith, honor, virtue. When was Achilles undone? When Patroclus died? By no means. But when he gave himself up to rage; when he wept over a girl; when he forgot, that he came there, not to win mistresses, but to fight. This is human undoing; this is the siege; this the overthrow; when right principles are ruined and destroyed.
“But when wives and children are led away captives, and the men themselves killed, are not these evils?”
Whence do you conclude them such? Pray inform me, in my turn.
“Nay; but whence do you affirm that they are not evils?”
Recur to the rules. Apply your principles. One cannot sufficiently wonder at what happens among men. When we would judge of light and heavy, we do not judge by guess; nor when we judge of straight and crooked; and, in general, when it concerns us to know the truth on any special point, no one of us will do anything by guess. But where the first and principal source of right or wrong action is concerned, of being prosperous or unprosperous, happy or unhappy; there only do we act rashly, and by guess. Nowhere anything like a balance; nowhere anything like a rule; but something seems thus or so to me, and I at once act accordingly. For am I better than Agamemnon or Achilles; that they, by following what seemed best to them, should do and suffer so many things, and yet that seeming should not suffice me? And what tragedy hath any other origin? The Atreus of Euripides, what is it? Seeming. The Œdipus of Sophocles? Seeming. The Phœnix? The Hippolytus? All seeming. Who then, think you, can escape this influence? What are they called who follow every seeming? Madmen. Yet do we, then, behave otherwise?
[* ]This is not a literal quotation from Plato, but similar passages are to be found in his Laws, ix. 5; Sophist, § 29; Protagoras, § 87, etc. — H.
[* ]Euripides, Medea, 1087. — H.