July 8, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Be Faithful (Epictetus In Plain English II.3)

Key ideas of this discourse

We are born to be faithful to one another. Denying this is denying our humanity.
Even if you are a scholar, if you are not faithful, your humanity is diminished.

Human being are born to be faithful

Epictetus was saying that human beings were born to be faithful to one another; denying this is denying our humanity. Just then a scholar, who was found guilty of adultery, happened to walk into the room. Epictetus continued:

If we abandon this natural faithfulness and have designs on our neighbor’s wife, what are we really doing? We are ruining and destroying. But whom? The man of trust, principle, and piety. That’s not at all. Aren’t we also destroying neighborliness, friendship, and community? What position are we putting ourselves in? How am I supposed to treat you now? A neighbor? A friend? What sort of friend? As a citizen? But how can I trust you?

If you were a cracked pot that cannot be used any more, I would throw you into the garbage. No one would bother to pick you up. But what are we to do with a human who cannot assume a basic human role? If you cannot be a friend, can you at least be a servant? Who would trust you, even in that role? So, like the cracked pot, would you like to be tossed on a dunghill?

Then you will say, “I am a scholar, but no one cares.” Yes, because you are a bad and useless human being. It is like wasps protesting that no one respects them and that everyone runs away from them or swats them. Your sting is such that it causes trouble and pain. What do you want us to do? There is no place here where you’ll fit in.

‘But aren’t women meant to be shared?”
“Yes, but only in the sense a roast is shared among guests. But once it is shared, would you steal it from the person seated next to you? Take a piece and taste it? Or dip your finger in the fat and lick it? A fine companion indeed! A dinner guest worthy of Socrates!”
“Isn’t the theatre common property?”
“Then maybe you think it is all right to come in when everyone is seated and throw someone out of his seat.” [Zeno, the founder, advocated a community of wives. This radical doctrine was later abandoned, especially by Roman Stoics. Epictetus interprets it differently here.] Women by nature may be common property. But when they are legally joined, be satisfied to claim your share. Don’t grab someone else’s.”
“But I am a scholar. I understand (the Stoic philosopher) Archedemus.”
“So you can. But you are still an adulterer and a cheater. A wolf or an ape rather than a human being. What is there to stop you?”


The last section will be considered misogynistic by today’s standards. However, Epictetus lived in a different time and presumably accepted the then prevailing social values. If Epictetus were alive today, it is doubtful that his views on women’s role would have been the same.

Think about this

As human beings, we are born to be faithful to one another … whoever denies this denies their humanity. [RD]