June 10, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Don’t Be Angry With Others (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English I.28)

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. We accept things to be true or false because they appear so to us.
  2. Even when people act in destructive ways, it is because they have accepted their impressions as true, without examining them.
  3. We should not be angry with others, because they are doing what they believe to be right.
  4. All human misery and tragedies are the result of accepting sense-impressions to be true.
  5. What counts for good and bad comes from our actions, not from externals.
  6. Therefore, we should examine our impressions carefully before accepting them. This is what distinguishes humans from animals.
We accept things as true, if they appear to be so

“Why do we accept something to be true?”
“Because it appears so to us. If something appears us to be false, it would be impossible for us to accept it.”
“Why?”
“Because this is the nature of our mind: Accept what is true, reject what is false, and suspend judgment on uncertain things.”
“Prove it.”
“Think of this as night.”
“That’s impossible. (It’s day now.)”
“Put aside the impression that it is day.”
“That’s impossible.”
“Think that there are/are not even number of stars.”
“Impossible again.”

When people act on mistaken beliefs, we should not be angry with them

So, if someone agrees to what is false, we can be sure that she doesn’t do so willingly (as Plato says, our mind is deprived of truth against its will), but it appears so to that person.

“In terms of action, do we have anything corresponding to true or false perceptions: What is our duty and what is not, what is beneficial and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not and so on?”
“A person cannot think of something to be of benefit to her and yet not choose it. Agreed?”
“But what about Medea who said ‘I know what I intend to do is evil; but my sober thoughts are overpowered by my passion.’ “
“In her case, it is no different. She believed that gratifying her anger by taking revenge on her husband was more beneficial than saving her children.”
“But she’s wrong.”
“Show her clearly where she went wrong and she won’t do it. But as long as you don’t show it, what else has she got to go by, except what seems right to her?”
“Nothing.”
“Why are you angry with her then? Poor woman, she is so confused about what is most important that, instead of being a human being, she has become a snake. Pity her instead.”

We take pity on the blind and lame. Why don’t we pity those who are blind and lame in their ruling faculty? Remember that our actions are the result of our impressions, which can be right or wrong. If right, you are innocent and if you are wrong, you pay the penalty. It is not as though if you go astray, someone else will pay the penalty. If you keep this in mind, you will not be angry or upset with anyone, won’t insult, criticize, hate, or be offended by anyone.

“So, in your view, are great and dreadful deeds the result of sense-impressions?”
“Yes. The result of that and only that.”

Tragedies are the result of mistaken impressions

The Iliad is nothing but a sense impression and the poet’s interpretation of it. An impression made Paris abduct Menelaus’ wife and an impression made Helen follow him. If an impression had caused Menelaus to think that he was better off without her, then not only the Iliad would have been lost, but the Odyssey as well.

“Are you then saying that such great events depend on such a small cause?”
“Which of these events do you call great: Wars and factions, deaths of many men, destruction of cities? What is great about that? Nothing. What about slaughtering many oxen, sheep, burning a lot of storks’ and swallows nests?”
“Can you really compare the two?”
“They are very similar. In one case death happened to human beings and, in the other, to farm animals. People’s houses were burnt in one case, storks’ nests in the other. What is great or dreadful in all this? How is a house, merely a shelter, better than a stork’s nest?”
“Are men and storks similar then?”
“There is a great similarity where the body is concerned. Only that in man’s case his body lives in brick and mortar houses, while storks live in nests made of sticks and mud.”
“So, there is no difference between a person and a stork?”
“Far from it. But not in these external things.”
“In what ways do they differ, then?”
“Think about it. You will realize that humans differ in other respects: in their understanding of their actions, being sociable, trustworthy, honest, and intelligent and in learning from their mistakes.”
“Where does good and evil come from then?”
“From things in which humans differ from animals. If you keep these qualities well protected, do not lose your honor, trustworthiness, or intelligence, then you are saved. But if you lose any of these qualities, or if they are overtaken by turbulence, then you are then lost.”

All great things depend on this. Paris’ tragedy was not that Greeks invaded Troy and killed his brothers. No, because no one falls because of the actions of others. What went on then was mere destruction of stork’s nests. He fell when he lost his modesty, trustworthiness, respect for the laws of hospitality, and decency. Similarly, Achilles’ tragedy was not in the death of Patroclus. Not at all. It was when he gave in to anger weeping over an insignificant woman, forgetting he was not there for romance but to wage a war. These are the ways in which human beings are defeated. This is the siege, the destruction of one’s city, when a person’s right judgments are torn down and destroyed.

“When women are held captive, children are enslaved, and men are slaughtered – are these things not evil?”
“How do you justify adding your opinion to these things? Do let me in on it too.”
“No. You explain to me how these are not evils?”

Good and evil come from us, not from externals

Let’s start with our standard and understand our preconceptions first. How people act in this regard is what amazes me. When we want to judge weights, we don’t judge at random. When we want to judge when something is straight or crooked, we don’t decide it at random. Whenever truth makes a difference to us on anything, we would not go for random judgements. Yet when it comes to the first and foremost cause of good or bad conduct, happiness or adversity, and success or failure, we act impulsively and at random. We don’t use any standard of measurement or scale. Some impression that appears right strikes us and we act on that basis.

Are we better than Agamemnon and Achilles? While they suffered the consequences of following their impressions, could we follow our impressions (without suffering the consequences)? Is there any tragedy that has a different source?

“How about Atreus of Euripides? The Oedipus of Sophocles? The Phoenix? Hippolytus?”
“All impressions.”
“Who then pays no attention to the matter of impressions?”
“Let’s see, what do we call those who follow every impression?”
“Mad.”
“Do we act any differently?”

Think about this

What is the reason we assent to anything? The fact that it appears to us to be so. Discourses I.28.1. Epictetus (WO)