September 7, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Choose the Right Doctrine to Guide You (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.20)

Key ideas of this discourse

Some ideas are so true that even those who deny the truth of such ideas are forced to make use of them.
For example, Epicurus says that people don’t have natural goodwill towards one another. But the fact that he spends time correcting others shows that he cares whether others are misled by wrong opinions or not. This demonstrates that he has goodwill toward others.
Illogical doctrines can be harmful. We should use our rational faculty and evaluate impressions the right way.

The illogical doctrine of Epicurus

Some statements are true and obvious. Even those who contradict them are obliged to accept them. It is about the strongest proof one could offer that a statement is true when those who contradict it make use of it. Suppose a person denies that some statements are universally true. Then he has to say, “There is no statement that is universally true.” Then this statement cannot be true either. It is like saying that if a statement is universal, it is false. How about this?

Someone tells you,
“Know this. We can know nothing for sure. Everything is uncertain.” Or,
“Trust me and you’ll be glad you did. You can’t trust anyone,” Or,
“It is impossible to learn anything. I will teach you why this is so.”
What is the difference between these people and those who call themselves “Academics” who say, “Agree to the statement that ‘no one ever agrees to a statement.’ ” Or, “Trust us when we say that no one trusts anyone.”

Epicurus is no different. In trying to demonstrate that human beings don’t have natural goodwill for one another, he demonstrates that they do. What does he say?

“Don’t be deceived, misled or mistaken, you fools. Rational beings have no goodwill toward one another. Trust me. People who say otherwise are deceiving you and leading you astray with false reasoning.”
“Why should you care then? Let’s be led astray.”

By refuting the truth, Epicurus proves it

[The following is directed at Epicurus.] You will not be any worse off if all of us are convinced that natural good will exists among human beings and we need to preserve it. Wouldn’t we be much better off and more secure? Why then, my friend, do you concern yourself with us, stay awake, light your lamp, rise early, and write such big books? Is it because you are worried that some of us may be misled into believing that god actually cares for us? Or we may come to believe that the essence of goodness can be something other than pleasure? In that case, drop everything and go to sleep. Live like a worm that you have judged human beings to be. Eat, drink, have sex, move your bowels, and snore.

What is it to you what we think about these things? Why should you care if our views are correct or not? What do we have to do with you? Do you worry about sheep because they are available to you to be shorn, milked, and slaughtered? Would you like it if human beings, lulled and sedated by Stoic teachings, are similarly available for your use? You should have reserved your teachings for your fellow-Epicureans, away from other human beings. Instead, you should persuade us that we are born with a sense of natural fellowship and virtue is a good thing, so everything can be to your advantage. Or do we offer our fellowship only to some people and not to others? If so, to whom? To those who would offer us their fellowship back or those who would not?

No one violates the idea of fellowship more than Epicureans who have set up such doctrines. So, what made Epicurus to get out of bed and write these things? It is nature. Nature is very powerful and strong and makes people do things for its own purpose, even when people are unwilling. Nature says,

“Since you hold these unsocial opinions, stay awake and write them down. Pass them on to others. Let your own behavior disprove your writings.”

[In Greek mythology] we read about the Furies hounding Orestes and waking him from his sleep. It is worse for Epicurus. The Furies and the avenging spirits wake him from his sleep and would not even let him rest. They force him to make his miserable views public, like wine and madness do the priest of Cybele. Nature is that irresistible.

Human beings don’t lose their affections

A vine cannot behave like an olive tree or an olive tree like a vine. It is impossible. Neither can human beings lose their affections. A man cannot get rid of his sexual desires by cutting off his male organs. So it is with Epicurus. He cut off all that defines a human being: being the head of a family, a citizen, and a friend. But he could not cut off his human desires any more than the lazy Academics could set aside their sense-perceptions, even though they tried hard. It is a pity. After all, nature has given us rules by which anyone can discover the truth. Instead of trying to improve them and make up for their shortcomings, they do precisely the opposite. They try to take away and destroy everything that could help them to discover the truth.

“Tell me, philosopher, what do you think of piety and sanctity?”
“I can prove they are good things, if you like.”
“Do prove it so our citizens may look up to and honor the divine and no longer neglect things of greatest importance.”
“Do you have the proofs, then?”
“I do, indeed. And I am thankful.”
“Since you are so pleased with your proofs, listen to these challenges [patterned after the Academics]. God doesn’t exist. If he does, he does not care for humans and we have nothing in common with him. The piety and sanctity you talk about is just a lie told by swindlers and crooks or, if you believe it, by lawmakers to frighten and deter the criminals from breaking the law.”

Well done, philosopher. Our citizens are so much better for you. You have rescued young people who were already developing contempt for the divine.

“What? You aren’t pleased? Then listen to this. Justice is nothing, reverence is stupidity, being a father means nothing and being a son is nothing.”

Well said, philosopher. Keep it up, convince young people so they think and talk like you. It is these principles that made well-governed cities great. Cities like Sparta owes its very existence to such principles. Through his laws and educational programs, [the legendary lawgiver] Lycurgus instilled the following value such as this into Spartans: it is no more shameful to be a servant than it is to be a powerful person. People who died in the battles such as of Thermopylea died for such principles. Principles like this also motivated Athenians to abandon their city.

Then there are those who talk in this way yet get married, produce children, engage in public affairs, and become priests or prophets. Of whom? Of god, who does not exist? They consult other priests in turn, only to be told lies in the form of false oracles. What shameless cheats!

What are you doing? You contradict yourself every day and yet won’t give up your useless efforts. When you eat, where do you bring your hand? To your mouth or to your eye? Where do you go when you want to bathe? Do you ever call a pot a dish? Or a spoon a skewer? If I worked for a philosopher like that, I would goad him constantly, even if was punished. If he asked me to prepare his bath with oil, I would pour some fish sauce over his head. If he said,

“What is the meaning of this?”
“You are in luck. I received the impression that bath oil and fish sauce are indistinguishable.”
If he asked me to bring him soup, I would bring vinegar.
“Did I not ask for the soup?”
“Yes, this is the soup.”
“Isn’t this vinegar?”
“Is vinegar any different from soup?”
“Here, smell and taste it.”
“How do you know that our senses don’t deceive us?”
If there were three or four like-minded fellow servants, I would make him go mad or hang himself. Or change his opinions!

Illogical principles can have harmful effects

But, as it stands, it is they who are making fun of us. They enjoy all the resources that nature provides as they talk about abolishing them. Grateful and modest people indeed! They eat bread every day and yet pretend that they don’t know whether god exists. They enjoy night and day, the changing seasons, the stars, the earth, the sea, and the help they receive from others, but they pay no attention to all these. They state their argument, clear their stomachs, and go off to have a bath. They have given no thought to what they will say, about what, and to whom. They have not given any thought to its significance, such as how a promising young person might be so affected by such talk that he may be persuaded not to realize his potential. Such principles can provide rationale for adultery, justification for stealing, and motivation for rebelling against one’s parents.


The first book of Discourses containing 30 of Epictetus Discourses in plain English is now available as a book (print or ebook). The book is called Stoic Foundations and it contains not only all 30 discourses in full, but a summary of the basic themes. a summary of each discourse, and contextual commentary throughout the book. Available from all major online stores including Amazon.

But there’s no point trying to convince such insensitive philosophers

What is good and evil, noble, or mean – this or that? Why bother challenging these philosophers? Why argue with them or try to change their mind? You will have a better chance of changing someone’s sexual orientation than trying to change these philosophers who have become deaf and blind.

Think about this

Oh, what a misfortune it is that when man has received from nature measures and standards for discovering the truth, he doesn’t go on to try to add to them and make up for what is missing, but does precisely the opposite, and if he possesses some capacity that would enable him to discover the truth, he tries to root it out and destroy it. Discourses II.20.21. Epictetus [RH]