September 13, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Choose to be a true friend (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.22)

Key ideas of this discourse

You cannot truly love anyone if you cannot tell the difference between what is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent.
We readily admit to our faults, if we believe we are not truly responsible for them, but not when we believe we are responsible for them.
But we are mistaken about which ones are truly our faults and which ones are not. We are responsible for our judgments and not for externals.
We are all driven by self-interest. The way to be a friend it to relate friendship and love to our self-interest rather than to external things. As long as we expect to gain some external benefit from another person, we cannot love them and we cannot be their true friend.

The power of love belongs to the wise

You love whatever you are interested in. Is anyone interested in being evil? Is anyone interested in things that do not concern them? Of course not. It follows then that people are interested in good things. If they are interested in them, they love them too. So if you know what is good, you will also love it. But if you are incapable of distinguishing good, bad, and neutral things, how can you be capable of love? The power of love, then, belongs only to the wise.

“Really? I don’t claim to be wise, but I love my child.”
“You surprise me. First you admit that you are not wise. What is missing? Your senses work, you can differentiate among impressions, and you eat, clothe and provide shelter for yourself. Why then do you say you lack wisdom?”

We are often confused by sense impressions

Let me explain it to you. You are often dazed and confused by sense impressions. You are overcome by them. You consider something as good, then you consider the same thing as bad, and still later you decide the very same thing is neither good nor bad. Such indecision results in pain, fear, jealousy, turmoil, and inconsistency. That’s why you are not wise, as you readily admit.

Don’t you also change your mind about love? What about pleasure, wealth, and other material things? Don’t you consider the same things as good or bad at different times? Don’t you judge the same person to be good some times and bad at other times? Praise them at one moment and reproach them at another?

“Yes, I admit I do.”
“Well, can you be someone’s friend if you hold wrong impressions about them?”
“Of course not.”
“If you are prone to change your mind about a friend, can your feelings toward that friend be warm?”
“No again.”
“If you first blame and later admire the same person?”
“No not then either.”
“Haven’t you thought, ‘nothing could be friendlier,’ when you saw little dogs playing and fawning on one another? But just throw some meat in the middle and you will know what this friendship is.”

We are driven by self-interest

It is the same with us. Put a piece of real estate between you and your son, he would wish that you were dead and buried. And you him. “Some child I raised. He wants me dead!” Place a pretty girl between an older and a younger man, both of them fall equally hard for the girl. So it is with any kind of honour. If your life is at stake, you will end up saying the same thing Admetus’ father said to his son: “You want to see the light, don’t you imagine your father does too?” [From Euripides’ Alcestis, line 691. Robert Dobbin’s translation.]

Do you think that he did not love his own child when he was small? Did he not suffer when the child had a fever and say, “If only I could be sick instead”? But, when the time comes to face a choice, just see what he says!

You cannot be a true friend if your self-interest is tied to externals

Eteocles and Polyneices shared the same parents and were brought up together. They often kissed each other. Anyone who saw them laughed at philosophers for their paradoxical view on friendship. Yet when time came to decide which one of them would be king, see what they say:

Eteocles: “Where will you stand before the tower?”
Polyneices: “Why do you ask?”
Eteocles: “I mean to face and kill you.”
Polyneices: “So do I.”

They even pray so their wish can come true. Have no illusions, this is a universal law: Every creature is attached to nothing as strongly as to its own interest. Whatever appears to threaten its interest – be it brother, father, child, or lover – is hated, accused, and cursed. We are naturally disposed to favor our own interest. This is our father, brother, relatives, country and God. If we believe that God is hindering us, we are ready to turn even on him, smash his statues, and burn his temples. This is what Alexander did when he burned down the temple of Aesculapius because his loved one died.

For this reason, as long as you believe that your interests are served through piety, honesty, country, parents, and friends, they are safe. But once you believe that your interests are different, all these are lost, outweighed by self-interest. Everyone moves towards what is “me” and “mine.” If you believe your interests are served by your body, it will dominate your life; if it is moral choice, then it is moral choice that will dominate; and if external things, then it is external things. You will be where your choices are.

So, you can be a friend, a son, or a father only if it is where you think your interests are. Here you see your interests will be served by being faithful, honest, patient, tolerant, co-operative and thus maintain your social relations. But, if you separate your self-interest from honor, then the result would be to provide support to the Epicurus doctrine, “Honor doesn’t exist. If it does, it is what people agree to.”

Valuing externals has led to many tragic outcomes

It is this type of ignorance that made Athenians turn on Spartans, Spartans on Athenians and Thebans on both; King of Persia to invade Greece, and Macedonians invade both; and, in our times, it led to the battle of Gatea [in which the Roman emperor Trajan fought with the kingdom Dacia]. Going further back, it caused the Trojan war. Paris was Menelaus’ guest. Anyone who saw how much goodwill was between them would never have believed they were not friends. Between them was thrown a temptation – a pretty woman. And they went to war.

So, when you see friends or siblings who seem to be of one mind, don’t rush to say anything about their friendship. Not even if they swear to it and say it is impossible to separate them. You cannot trust a bad person’s judgement. It’s weak, unstable, and readily influenced by one impression after another.
Don’t simply ask, as others do, “Do they share the same parents?” or, “Did they grow up together?” or, “Did they go to the same school?” Just ask where they put their self-interest – things outside of themselves or in their power to choose? If their self-interest lies in external things, don’t call them friends any more than you would call them trustworthy, consistent, determined, or free. No, don’t even call them human beings, if you are wise. Because no human judgment can make people snap at others or insult them, take over the marketplace like the wild animals take over the mountains and deserts, or act in courts of justice like gangsters. No human judgment can lead people to be self-indulgent, adulterous, and corrupt or lead to them commit crimes that people commit against each other.

These things are the result of one thing and one thing only. These people place their self-interest in externals, outside their power of choice. But if you hear that they sincerely believe that good lies with what is in their choice and where impressions are used correctly, then don’t bother to find out if they belong to the same family or are long-term friends, even if it is the only thing you know about them. You can be confident that they are friends, fair and reliable. Where else can you find friendship if not with fairness, reliability and respect for what is honorable – and these things only?

“But she has been paying attention to me all this time. Does she not love me?”
“How do you know, stupid, that she hasn’t paid attention to you in the way she attends to her shoes when he polishes them or the way she attends to her horse? And how do you know that, once you are no longer of use to her, she would not throw you away like a broken plate?”
“But she is my wife. We have lived together a long time.”
“So did Eriphyle. She was with Amphiaraus for a long time and was the mother of his children. Yet a necklace came between them.” [Eriphyle was bribed with a necklace to get her husband to join Polynecices against Eteocles in the war to take over Thebes.]
What does this necklace signify? One’s judgement about externals like the necklace. This was the animal-like element that destroyed their love. The wife would not remain a wife and the mother would not remain a mother.


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.

The only way to be a good friend

If you are serious about being a friend, get rid of such judgments. Despise them and drive them out of your mind. This way
first, you will avoid criticizing yourself. You will be free of inner conflict, an unstable mind and self-torment; and
second, you will be in a condition to be a friend to others. You will have a frank and open relationship with like-minded people. With people who are not like you, you will be patient, gentle, kind, and forgiving. You will keep in mind that they are ignorant or mistaken about what is most important.
You will be harsh with no one, being convinced of the truth of Plato’s words,

“Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will.”

If you don’t follow this, you may do many things that friends normally do – such drinking, living, and traveling together. You may even share the same parents, but so do many snakes. But you can never be friends as long as you hold these inhuman and despicable judgments.

Think about this

For where else can friendship be found than where fidelity lies, and where a sense of shame lies, and where there is respect for what is right and nothing other than that? Discourses II.22.30. Epictetus [RH]