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CHAPTER XX.: CONCERNING THE EPICUREANS AND ACADEMICS. - 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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CONCERNING THE EPICUREANS AND ACADEMICS.
THINGS true and evident must, of necessity, be recognized even by those who would contradict them. And perhaps one of the strongest proofs that there is such a thing as evidence, is the necessity which compels even those who contradict it to make use of it. If a person, for instance, should deny that anything is universally true, he will be obliged to assert the contrary, that nothing is universally true. Foolish man, not so. For what is this, but an universal statement?* Again; suppose any one should come and say, “Know that there is nothing to be known; but all things are uncertain”; or another, “Believe me, for your good, that no man ought to be believed in anything”; or a third, “Learn from me that nothing is to be learned; I tell you this, and will teach the proof of it, if you please.” Now what difference is there between such as these, and those who call themselves Academics, — who say to us, “Be convinced, that no one ever is convinced; believe us, that nobody believes anybody”?
Thus also, when Epicurus would destroy the natural tie between mankind, he makes use of the very thing he is destroying. For what says he? “Be not deceived; be not seduced and mistaken. There is no natural tie between reasonable beings. Believe me. Those who say otherwise mislead and impose upon you.” — Why are you concerned for us then? Let us be deceived. You will fare never the worse, if all the rest of us are persuaded, that there is a natural tie between mankind; and that it is by all means to be preserved. Nay, it will be much safer and better. Why do you give yourself any trouble about us, sir? Why do you break your rest for us? Why do you light your lamp? Why do you rise early? Why do you compose so many volumes? Is it that none of us should be deceived concerning the gods, as if they took any care of men? Or that we may not suppose the essence of good consists in anything but in pleasure? For if these things be so, lie down and sleep, and lead the life of which you judge yourself worthy; that of a mere worm. Eat, drink, debauch, snore. What is it to you, whether others think rightly or wrongly about these things? For what have you to do with us? You take care of sheep, because they afford their milk, their wool, and at last their flesh. And would it not be a desirable thing that men might be so lulled and enchanted by the Stoics as to give themselves up to be milked and fleeced by you, and such as you? Should not these doctrines be taught to your brother Epicureans only, and concealed from the rest of the world; who should by all means, above all things, be persuaded, that we have a natural tie with each other, and that self-command is a good thing, in order that all may be kept safe for you? Or is this tie to be preserved towards some and not towards others? Towards whom, then, is it to be preserved? Towards such as mutually preserve, or such as violate it? And who violate it more than you, who teach such doctrines?
What was it, then, that waked Epicurus from his sleep, and compelled him to write what he did; what else, but that which is of all influences the most powerful among mankind, Nature; which draws every one, however unwilling and reluctant, to its own purposes. For since, she says, you think that there is no tie between mankind, write out this doctrine, and leave it for the use of others; and break your sleep upon that account; and by your own practice confute your own principles. Do we say, that Orestes was roused from sleep because driven by the furies; and was not Epicurus waked by sterner furies and avengers, which would not suffer him to rest, but compelled him to utter his own ills, as wine and madness do the priests of Cybele? So strong and unconquerable a thing is human nature! For how can a vine have the properties not of a vine, but of an olive-tree? Or an olive-tree, not those of an olive-tree, but of a vine? It is impossible. It is inconceivable. Neither, therefore, is it possible for a human creature entirely to lose human affections. But even those who have undergone a mutilation, cannot have their inclinations also mutilated; and so Epicurus, when he had mutilated all the offices of a man, of a master of a family, of a citizen, and of a friend, did not mutilate the inclinations of humanity; for this he could not do; any more than the idle Academics can throw away or blind their own senses, though this be the point they chiefly labor. What a misfortune is it, when any one, after having received from Nature standards and rules for the knowledge of truth, does not strive to add to these, and make up their deficiencies; but, on the contrary, endeavors to take away and destroy whatever truth may be known even by them.
What say you, philosopher? What do you think of piety and sanctity? — “If you please, I will prove that they are good.” — Pray do prove it; that our citizens may be converted, and honor the Deity, and may no longer neglect what is of the highest importance. “Do you accept these demonstrations, then?” I have, and I thank you. “Since you are so well pleased with this, then, learn these contrary propositions; that there are no gods, or, if there are, that they take no care of mankind, neither have we any concern with them; that this piety and sanctity, so much talked of by many, are only an imposition of boasting and sophistical men; or, perhaps, of legislators, for a terror and restraint to injustice.” — Well done, philosopher. Our citizens are much the better for you. You have already brought back all the youth to a contempt of the Deity. “What! does not this please you, then? Learn next, that justice is nothing; that shame is folly; that the paternal relation is nothing; the filial, nothing.” Well said, philosopher; persist, convince the youth; that we may have many more, to think and talk like you. By such doctrines as these, no doubt, have our well-governed states flourished! Upon these was Sparta founded! Lycurgus, by his laws, and method of education, introduced such persuasions as these; that it is not base to be slaves, rather than honorable; nor honorable to be free, rather than base! They who died at Thermopylæ, died from such principles as these! And from what other doctrines did the Athenians leave their city?*
And yet, they who talk thus marry, and produce children, and engage in public affairs, and get themselves made priests and prophets. Of whom? Of gods that have no existence. And they consult the Pythian priestess, only to hear falsehoods, and interpret the oracles to others. O! monstrous impudence and imposture!
What are you doing, man?* You contradict yourself every day; and you will not give up these paltry cavils. When you eat, where do you put your hand? To your mouth, or to your eye? When you bathe, where do you go? Do you ever call a kettle a dish, or a spoon a spit? If I were a servant to one of these gentlemen, were it at the hazard of being flayed every day, I would plague him. “Throw some oil into the bath, boy.” I would take pickle, and pour upon his head. “What is this?” Really, sir, I was impressed by a certain semblance so like oil as not to be distinguished from it. “Give me the soup.” I would carry him a dish full of vinegar. “Did I not ask for the soup?” Yes, sir, this is the soup. “Is not this vinegar?” Why so, more than soup? “Take it and smell it, take it and taste it.” How do you know, then, but our senses deceive us? If I had three or four fellow-servants to join with me, I would make him either choke with passion and burst, or change his opinions. But now they insult us, by making use of the gifts of nature, while in words they destroy them. Those must be grateful and modest men, at least, who, while eating their daily bread, dare to say, “We do not know whether there be any such beings as Demeter, or Core, or Pluto.” Not to mention, that while they possess the blessings of night and day, of the annual seasons, of the stars, the earth and the sea, they are not the least affected by any of these things; but only study to throw out some idle problem, and when they have thus relieved themselves, go and bathe; but take not the least care what they say, nor on what subjects, nor to whom, nor what may be the consequence of their talk; whether any well-disposed young man, on hearing such doctrines, may not be affected by them, and so affected as entirely to lose the seeds of his good disposition; whether they may not furnish an adulterer with occasions of growing shameless in his guilt; whether a public plunderer may not find excuses from these doctrines; whether he, who neglects his parents, may not gain an additional confidence from them.
“What things, then, in your opinion, are good and evil, fair and base; such things, or such things?” But why should one argue any more with such as these, or interchange opinions, or endeavor to convince them? By Zeus, one might sooner hope to convince the most unnatural debauchees, than those, who are thus deaf and blind to their own ills.
[* ]Translation conjectural. — H.
[* ]When the Athenians found themselves unable to resist the forces of the Persians, they left their city; and, having removed their wives and children, and their movable effects, to Trœzen and Salamis, went on board their ships, and defended the liberty of Greece by their fleet. — C.
[* ]What follows is against the Academics, who denied the evidence of the senses. — C.