May 15, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses

Freedom From Conflicts

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. A good person is not in conflict with anyone. If she can, she prevents others from getting into conflict.
  2. When others make a mistake, remember things could be worse.
  3. Different people judge things differently. This leads to conflict.
A good person does not quarrel with anyone

This is an excerpt from the book Stoic Freedom. The complete book is available in print of ebook format from all online bookstores such as Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

A good and excellent person does not quarrel with anyone. To the extent he can prevent it, he does not allow others to quarrel, either. Socrates sets an example for this, as he did in many things. He not only did not quarrel with anyone, he also tried to prevent others from quarrelling. You can read about how many quarrels he ended in Xenephon’s Symposium; how patient he was with [aggressive debaters such as] Thrasymchus, Polus and Callicles, and how he was habitually to his wife as well as his son when he tried to refute him. Why? Because Socrates knew very well that no one can control what was not his own and he desired only what was his own.

“And what’s that?

“It is not trying to make the other person act according to their nature, because that’s not within our power. While others act the way they think best, we continue to act according to our nature, minding only our own business in such a way that others may also may be in harmony with nature. This is what a good and excellent person should always try to.”

“To hold high office?”

“No, but if it is offered to you, to preserve the right conduct of your ruling faculty.”

“To marry?”

“No, but if it is offered to you, to keep yourself in accordance with nature.”

Be glad that this is not the worst that could possibly happen

But if you wish that your son or wife never commit a mistake, you are wishing for things not your own. And getting an education means this: Learning what is your own and what is not your own. When you understand this, what’s left to fight about? Then you will not be surprised by anything that comes about, will you? Will anything seem strange to you? Are you not prepared for worse and tougher things than what happens to you? Won’t you count it as a blessing if things don’t turn out as bad as they possibly could?

“So-and-so abused you.”

“I’m grateful he didn’t hit me.”

“He hit you too.”

“I’m grateful he didn’t wound me.”

“He wounded you too.”

“I’m grateful he didn’t kill me.”

When, and in which school, did he ever learn that human beings are gentle, social animals and that injustice is harmful to the person who causes it? If he has not learned these things and is not convinced of them, why shouldn’t he follow the course of action that seems to his advantage?

“My neighbour has thrown stones.”

“Does that mean that you have done something wrong?”

“No, but things in my house have been broken.”

Are you a piece of crockery then? No, but a person with a capacity to choose. So what resource do you have to counter this? If you think you are a wolf, then bite back and throw more stones. But if you ask me a question as a human being, examine the treasure you possess. Think what faculties you brought with you into this world. It is not the faculty of brutality, is it? It is not the faculty of bearing grudges, is it? When is a horse miserable? When he cannot do what he is born for: not when he cannot crow, but when he cannot run. A dog? Not when he cannot fly, but when he cannot hunt. Don’t you think that the same principle applies to human beings too? Not when he cannot choke lions? Embrace statues (nature hasn’t given anyone a special faculty for this)? No. Only when he has lost his kindness and trustworthiness.

This is the kind of person for whom all people should, “gather together to mourn because he has come into the world with so many evils.” We don’t mourn for the person who is born or for the person who dies but for a person who, while still alive, loses what is properly his own. We are not talking about his inheritance, his land, his house, or his staff and helpers. None of this is a man’s own. They all belong to others, are slavish and controlled by others. The master [God] gives them now to one person, now to another. We mourn for the loss of his personal qualities as a human being, the imprints he brought with him when he entered the world. [The quotation in this paragraph is from a passage in Euripides’ Cresphontes, as translated by Robin Hard.]

“Just as we accept the coin if it has the imprint of Trajan and reject it if it has the imprint of Nero, we look at the imprint of his judgements. What does it say?”

“He is gentle, generous, patient, and affectionate.”

“Bring him to me. I will make him a fellow citizen and accept him as a neighbour and travelling companion. Just make sure that he doesn’t have the imprint of Nero. Does he get angry quickly, is he malicious, and does look for faults in others?”

“If he feels like it, he punches the people he meets.”

“Then why do you say he is a human being? You can’t judge everything by outward appearance, can you? By outward criterion, you could call a ball of wax an apple. No, the outward appearance alone won’t do; for it to be an apple it should taste and smell like an apple. So also, neither are the eyes and the nose sufficient to prove that one is a human being. You must see if he also has proper judgements as a human being.”

“Here is a person who doesn’t listen to reason. He doesn’t understand when he is proven wrong.”

“He is an ass.”

“Here’s another who is completely shameless.”

“He is worthless, a sheep. Anything but a human being.”

“Here’s a man looking for somebody to kick and bite.”

“He’s neither an ass nor a donkey, but some sort of wild beast.”

“Then would you have others despise me too?”

“Despised by whom? By people of understanding? How can they despise someone who is gentle and modest?”

“By those who lack understanding, then?”

“What’s that to you? Does a craftsman worry about people who don’t understand his craft?”

“They would be even more ready to attack me.”

“What do you mean by me? Can anyone hurt your choice? Can anyone stop you from interpreting impressions according to nature?”


Why are you, then, still bothered? Why do you want to show yourself to be timid? Why don’t you come forward and say that you are at peace with all human beings, no matter what they do. And that you are amused at those who think they could harm you: “These slaves do not know who I am or where my good and evil lie. They can’t touch what is truly my own.” It is like the way citizens of a strong city laugh at those who surround the city to capture them. “Why do they bother? Our wall is secure, and we have provisions and other supplies for a long time.” These are things that make a city strong and secure, just as human judgments make human souls secure.

What wall is so strong, what body is so steely, what property is safe against theft, and what reputation is so unassailable? All things everywhere are perishable and easily attacked and captured. Anyone who gets attached to any of them will necessarily be troubled, worry about the future, and be subjected to fear and sorrow. They are bound to become frustrated in their desires and fall into what they want to avoid. Given all this, aren’t we willing to make secure the only way given to us that would lead us to safety? Aren’t we willing to give up what is perishable and slavish and instead devote our efforts to what is imperishable and free by nature? And don’t we remember that no one either harms or benefits another. Rather it is the judgement about these things that hurts and upsets a person.

Differences in judgement produce conflict

This is what gives rise to disagreements, inner conflict, and war. What made [the famous enemy brothers] Eteocles and Polynices enemies was nothing other than differences in judgments – about the throne and about the exile – namely, one was the greatest of all goods and the other, the greatest of all evils. This is the nature of every being: to pursue the good and avoid the bad. If someone makes us avoid the good and pursue the bad, then that person is an enemy and a traitor, even if he is a brother, a son, or a father, because nothing is more precious to us than the good.

If good and bad lie in externals, then there is no affection between father and son, brother and brother. All the world will be full of enemies, traitors, and informers. But if the right choice is the only good and the wrong choice is the only evil, where is any room for quarrels and defamations? About what? About the things that mean nothing to us? Against whom? Against the ignorant, the miserable and the most deceived about the most important things?

Socrates remembered all this when he lived in his house – putting up with an ill-tempered wife and an unkind son. How did she show her bad temper? By pouring on him as much water as she liked and by trampling his cake under her foot. And what is it to me, if I consider it nothing? But this choice of mine no one can hinder. No master, no tyrant. No single person or a crowd. In this, the stronger cannot stop the weaker, because it is a God-given right, free from restrictions.

Such judgments bring love to a household, harmony to a nation and peace among nations of the world. They make a person grateful to God and always confident, because what he is dealing with is not his own and, therefore, is of no value to him. We may be able write about these things and approve of them when we read about them, but we are not really convinced about them.

So, the proverb about the Spartans “Lions at home, but foxes at Ephesus,” applies to us too. We are lions in the classroom but foxes outside. [The proverb refers to the fact that the Spartan military was successful in Greece but not Asia Minor where Ephesus is located.]

Think about this

A virtuous and good person neither quarrels with anyone, nor, as far he can, does he allow anyone else to quarrel. Don’t be hard to please. Don’t complain about trivial things. “The vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is foul, it upsets my stomach; I don’t like the vegetables. Discourses IV.5.1. Epictetus [RH]