Epictetus: From The Discourses

CHAPTER 28 That we ought not to he angry with men; and what are the small and the great things among men

What is the cause of assenting to anything? The fact that it appears to be true. It is not possible then to assent to that which appears not to be true. Why? Because this is the nature of the understanding, to incline to the true, to be dissatisfied with the false, and in matters uncertain to withhold assent. What is the proof of this? "Imagine, if you can, that it is now night." It is not possible. "Take away your persuasion that it is day." It is not possible. "Persuade yourself or take away your persuasion that the stars are even in number." It is impossible. When, then, any man assents to that which is false, be assured that he did not intend to assent to it as false, for every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, as Plato says; but the falsity seemed to him to be true. Well, in acts what have we of the like kind as we have here truth or falsehood? We have the fit and the not fit, the profitable and the unprofitable, that which is suitable to a person and that which is not, and whatever is like these. Can, then, a man think that a thing is useful to him and not choose it? He cannot. How says Medea?

"'Tis true I know what evil I shall do, But passion overpowers the better council.'"
She thought that to indulge her passion and take vengeance on her husband was more profitable than to spare her children. "It was so; but she was deceived." Show her plainly that she is deceived, and she will not do it; but so long as you do not show it, what can she follow except that which appears to herself? Nothing else. Why, then, are you angry with the unhappy woman that she has been bewildered about the most important things, and is become a viper instead of a human creature? And why not, if it is possible, rather pity, as we pity the blind and the lame, those who are blinded and maimed in the faculties which are supreme?

Whoever, then, clearly remembers this, that to man the measure of every act is the appearance- whether the thing appears good or bad: if good, he is free from blame; if bad, himself suffers the penalty, for it is impossible that he who is deceived can be one person, and he who suffers another person- whoever remembers this will not be angry with any man, will not be vexed at any man, will not revile or blame any man, nor hate nor quarrel with any man.


CHAPTER 17 How we must adapt preconceptions to particular cases

. . .

And why do I now allege this contention with one another and speak of it? If you yourself properly adapt your preconceptions, why are you unhappy, why are you hindered? Let us omit at present the second topic about the pursuits and the study of the duties which relate to them. Let us omit also the third topic, which relates to the assents: I give up to you these two topics. Let us insist upon the first, which presents an almost obvious demonstration that we do not properly adapt the preconceptions. Do you now desire that which is possible and that which is possible to you? Why then are you hindered? why are you unhappy? Do you not now try to avoid the unavoidable? Why then do you fall in with anything which you would avoid? Why are you unfortunate? Why, when you desire a thing, does it not happen, and, when you do not desire it, does it happen? For this is the greatest proof of unhappiness and misery: "I wish for something, and it does not happen." And what is more wretched than I?

It was because she could not endure this that Medea came to murder her children: an act of a noble spirit in this view at least, for she had a just opinion what it is for a thing not to succeed which a person wishes. Then she says, "Thus I shall be avenged on him who has wronged and insulted me; and what shall I gain if he is punished thus? how then shall it be done? I shall kill my children, but I shall punish myself also: and what do I care?" This is the aberration of soul which possesses great energy. For she did not know wherein lies the doing of that which we wish; that you cannot get this from without, nor yet by the alteration and new adaptation of things. Do not desire the man, and nothing which you desire will fall to happen: do not obstinately desire that he shall live with you: do not desire to remain in Corinth; and, in a word, desire nothing than that which God wills. And who shall hinder you? who shall compel you? No man shall compel you any more than he shall compel Zeus.


Return to Background for Epictetus' Comments on Medea