Hardening of Understanding

Now there are two kinds of hardening, one of the understanding, the other of the sense of shame, when a man is resolved not to assent to what is manifest nor to desist from contradictions. Most of us are afraid of the paralysis of the body, and would contrive any and all means to avoid such a thing, but we don't care about the soul's mortification. Indeed, with regard to the soul, if a man be in such a state as not to apprehend anything, or understand at all, we think that he is in a bad condition. But if the sense of shame and modesty are deadened some call it will-power.

The title of this chapter is "Against the Academics". The Academic school at the time of Epictetus believed that there were no absolute truths. Many modernists also have adopted the same idea. This inability to see absolute truth has come to be called moral relativism. It is the idea that any act or belief can be justified by circumstance. It is the idea that an individual is not responsible for his own acts or the consequences of his ideas.

When Epictetus talks about "hardening of the understanding", he is talking about a kind of epistemological skepticism. "Epistemological skepticism" is simply a fancy way of saying that we cannot trust our senses or common sense and whatever may seem real may not be so. In another translation Epictetus calls this obstinacy or a refusal to see the truth. The second kind of hardening he discusses he calls a "sense of shame". He is really talking about conscience here, which comes back to the idea of moral relativism.

Epictetus tells us that there are people who you can talk to with these attributes who will never heed your words. He calls it mortification, which means paralysis. If people in general recoil at the idea of paralysis of the body, why then do they not recoil at the idea of paralysis of the mind and the conscience? Yet people revel in their skepticism and their moral relativism. They close their mind to God and think that it is a good thing.

Chapter 5:

  1. Against the Academics
  2. Hardening of Understanding (5a)
  3. Are You Awake? (5b)
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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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