April 12, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Know Your Opinions Drive Your Behavior (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English I.11)

Key ideas of this discourse

Not knowing right from wrong, what is natural from what is not, is a great shortcoming.

We cannot assume that behaviour adopted by most people is necessarily in accordance with nature.

Our opinions, not externals, are the cause of our actions.

There is only one reason, and one reason only, why we act in the way we do: We think it is the right way.

If we think differently, we will act differently.

Therefore, when something happens that makes you unhappy, don’t investigate external things to decide what caused your unhappiness. Examine your judgments about them that led you to your unhappiness.

Acting naturally means acting correctly

A government official came to visit Epictetus. After some small talk, Epictetus asked:
“Do you have a wife and children?”
“Yes, I do. But I’m miserable”
“How so? People don’t marry and have children to become miserable, but to be happy.”
“I’m anxious about the children. When my little daughter fell ill, I couldn’t bear to be with her. I went off until I was told her condition had improved.”
“Well, did you act correctly here?”
“I acted naturally.”
“If you can convince me that you acted naturally, then I am prepared to show that you acted correctly.”
“That’s what most fathers do.”

Majority behaviour may not be the correct one

“I know many fathers act this way. But is this correct? Would you then say doing wrong is in in accordance with nature because most of us do wrong? It is like saying tumors are good for the body, because they happen. So tell me, exactly how is the way you acted in accordance with nature?”
“I don’t think I can. Why don’t you show me why it is not natural and shouldn’t happen?”
“How would you distinguish between black and white?”
“By sight.”
“How would you distinguish between hot and cold, or hard and soft?
“By touch.”
“We are debating natural and unnatural, right and wrong. How do we distinguish those?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is this a minor shortcoming – not knowing right from wrong, what is natural from what is not?”
“No, a great one.”
“Is everything that some people judge to be good and proper, rightly judged? For example, Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans have different views on food. Can all of them be right?”
“How could they?”

So, if one of them is correct, the others are not. Likewise, where there is ignorance, there is a need for teaching and learning. Once you are aware of this, you will devote all your attention to discovering the standard that discriminates between what is natural and what is not; and then apply this knowledge to specific instances.

How to know what is in accordance with nature

“Let me start with this. Is family affection good and natural?”
“So, can family affection be good and natural, while what is reasonable is not good?”
“Of course not.”
“So, whatever is rational will not be in conflict with family affection. Because if they were, one would be in agreement with nature while the other would not. The two things cannot be in conflict."
“Leaving your child’s side when she is sick is not rational, even if you argue otherwise. But let’s see if it is consistent with family affection. Was it right for you, when you love your child, to leave her? Let’s consider her mother. Does she love the daughter?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Would it be all right then for the mother to leave your daughter.”
“How about the nurse and the attendant? Do they love the child?”
“They do.”
“Should they also have left her?”
“Certainly not.”
“According to your logic, it is also all right for them to leave the child. The result is, because you all love her so much, the girl would have been left completely alone and helpless and probably would have died in the company of people who didn’t particularly care for her.”
“I hope not.”
“Is it not unfair to claim that people who love the child as much as you do should not be permitted to do what you did because of your professed affection?”
“It’s absurd.”
“If you were sick, would you want your family, your wife, children, and others to be so loving as to walk away from you and leave you all alone?”
“Would you want them to be so loving that because of their love, you would always suffer your illness in isolation? If you would like your enemies to leave you alone, would you wish that they loved you so much as to leave you alone? From all this we can only conclude that what you did was no act of affection. Can you think of anything that Induced you leave your child?”
“How is that possible?”

There is but a single reason for our actions

Your motive could be compared to that of a person at a race course. He covered his face while his favorite horse was running but, when it unexpectedly won, he fainted. A precise explanation may be out of place here. For now, it is enough to be convinced that you will not find any cause outside of yourself. The same thing is the reason to do or not do something, say or not say something, to be elated or depressed, to pursue or avoid something. It is the same reason for your listening and my speaking now.

We act according to the way we see things

It is our opinion that the way we see things is right. If we saw things differently, we would act differently, in line with what’s right and wrong. This is the reason some people choose to grieve intensely when a friend or companion dies while others don’t. You chose to leave your daughter because you thought it was a good idea at the time. If you had stayed with her, it would be for the same reason. You have decided to return to Rome because it seems right for you; but, if you change your mind about it, you will not go. In other words, death, pain, exile, or anything else external isn’t the cause of our actions. Rather it is our judgments about those things.
“Have I convinced you of this?”
“You certainly have.”

Never blame the externals

Results are related to causes. So, from now on, whenever we do anything wrong, we will not blame others; but only our opinions on which we based our actions. We will try to root out wrong opinions by applying even more care than we do to eradicating tumours and infections from our body. Similarly, let’s realize what we do right also is based on our opinions. We now know that if we did not have a particular opinion, we would not have acted the way we did, based on that opinion. Therefore, the results you get are solely based on the cause – your opinion. You are the master of your opinion. It has nothing to do with others. We will not blame our servant, neighbor, spouse, or children as the cause of anything bad that happens to us.

From this day, we will not investigate or inquire into the nature or condition of anything – be it of those who work for us, our horses, or dog. We only investigate our opinions and judgments. This means you should be willing to become a life-long learner, even if others laugh at you. You should focus only on examining your judgment. And this cannot be done in a single hour or a single day.

Think about this

So, starting today, we won’t trouble to assess or analyze land, slaves, horses or dogs as to their quality or condition – only our opinions. Discourses I.11.38. Epictetus/ Chris Gill