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CHAPTER VII.: CONCERNING A CERTAIN GOVERNOR WHO WAS AN EPICUREAN. - 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 A CERTAIN GOVERNOR WHO WAS AN EPICUREAN.
WHEN the Governor, who was an Epicurean, came to him; “It is fit,” said he, “that we ignorant people should inquire of you philosophers what is the most valuable thing in the world; as those who come into a strange city do of the citizens, and such as are acquainted with it; that, after this inquiry, we may go and take a view of it, as they do in cities. Now, almost every one admits that there are three things belonging to man, — soul, body, and externals. It belongs to such as you to answer which is the best. What shall we tell mankind? Is it the flesh?”
And was it for this that Maximus took a voyage in winter as far as Cassiope to accompany his son? Was it to gratify the flesh?
Is it not fit, then, to study what is best?
“Yes, beyond all other things.”
What have we, then, better than flesh?
Are we to prefer the good of the better, or of the worse?
“Of the better.”
Does the good of the soul consist in things controllable by Will, or uncontrollable?
“In things controllable.”
Does the pleasure of the soul then depend on the Will?
And whence does this pleasure arise? From itself? This is unintelligible. For there must exist some principal essence of good, in the attainment of which, we shall enjoy this pleasure of the soul.
“This too is granted.”
In what then consists this pleasure of the soul? If it be in mental objects, the essence of good is found. For it is impossible that good should lie in one thing, and rational enjoyment in another; or that, if the cause is not good, the effect should be good. For, to make the effect reasonable, the cause must be good. But this you cannot reasonably allow; for it would be to contradict both Epicurus and the rest of your principles. It remains then, that the pleasures of the soul must consist in bodily objects; and that there must be the cause and the essence of good. Maximus, therefore, did foolishly, if he took a voyage for the sake of anything but his body; that is, for the sake of what is best. A man does foolishly, too, if he refrains from what is another’s, when he is a judge and able to take it. We should consider only this, if you please, how it may be done secretly and safely, and so that no one may know it. For Epicurus himself does not pronounce stealing to be evil, only the being found out in it; and prohibits it for no other reason, but because it is impossible to insure ourselves against discovery. But I say to you that, if it be done dexterously and cautiously, we shall not be discovered. Besides we have powerful friends of both sexes at Rome; and the Greeks are weak; and nobody will dare to go up to Rome on such an affair. Why do you refrain from your own proper good? It is madness; it is folly. But if you were to tell me that you do refrain, I would not believe you. For, as it is impossible to assent to an apparent falsehood, or to deny an apparent truth, so it is impossible to abstain from an apparent good. Now, riches are a good; and, indeed, the chief instrument of pleasures. Why do not you acquire them? And why do not we corrupt the wife of our neighbor, if it can be done secretly? And if the husband should happen to be impertinent, why not cut his throat too, if you have a mind to be such a philosopher as you ought to be, a complete one, — to be consistent with your own principles. Otherwise you will not differ from us who are called Stoics. For we, too, say one thing and do another; we talk well and act ill; but you will be perverse in a contrary way, teaching bad principles, and acting well.
For Heaven’s sake represent to yourself a city of Epicureans. “I do not marry.” “Nor I. For we are not to marry nor have children; nor to engage in public affairs.” What will be the consequence of this? Whence are the citizens to come? Who will educate them? Who will be the governor of the youth? Who the master of their exercises? What then will he teach them? Will it be what used to be taught at Athens, or Lacedemon? Take a young man; bring him up according to your principles. These principles are wicked, subversive of a state, pernicious to families, nor becoming even to women. Give them up, sir. You live in a capital city. You are to govern and judge uprightly, and to refrain from what belongs to others. No one’s wife or child, or silver or gold plate, is to have any charms for you, except your own. Provide yourself with principles consonant to these truths; and, setting out thence, you will with pleasure refrain from things so persuasive to mislead and conquer. But, if to their own persuasive force, we can add such a philosophy as hurries us upon them, and confirms us in them, what will be the consequence?
In a sculptured vase, which is the best; the silver, or the workmanship? In the hand the substance is flesh; but its operations are the principal thing. Accordingly, its functions are threefold; relating to its existence, to the manner of its existence, and to its principal operations. Thus, likewise, do not set a value on the mere materials of man, the flesh; but on the principal operations which belong to him.
“What are these?”
Engaging in public business, marrying, the production of children, the worship of God, the care of parents, and, in general, the regulation of our desires and aversions, our pursuits and avoidances, in accordance with our nature.
“What is our nature?”
To be free, noble spirited, modest. For what other animal blushes? What other has the idea of shame? But pleasure must be subjected to these, as an attendant and handmaid, to call forth our activity, and to keep us constant in natural operations.
“But I am rich and want nothing.”
Then why do you pretend to philosophize? Your gold and silver plate is enough for you. What need have you of principles?
“Besides, I am Judge of the Greeks.”
Do you know how to judge? Who has imparted this knowledge to you?
“Cæsar has given me a commission.”
Let him give you a commission to judge of music; what good will it do you? But how were you made a Judge? Whose hand have you kissed? That of Symphorus, or Numenius? Before whose door have you slept? To whom have you sent presents? After all, do you not perceive that the office of Judge puts you in the same rank with Numenius?
“But I can throw whom I please into a prison.”
So you may a stone.
“But I can beat whom I will too.”
So you may an ass. This is not a government over men. Govern us like reasonable creatures. Show us what is best for us, and we will pursue it; show us what is otherwise, and we will avoid it. Like Socrates, make us imitators of yourself. He was properly a governor of men, who controlled their desires and aversions, their pursuits, their avoidances. “Do this; do not that, or I will throw you into prison.” This is not a government for reasonable creatures. But “Do as Zeus hath commanded, or you will be punished, and be a loser.”
“What shall I lose?”
Simply your own right action, your fidelity, honor, decency. You can find no losses greater than these.