Are You Awake?

Do you understand that you are awake? "I do not," a man might reply, "for I do not even know in my sleep when I imagine that I am awake that I am not awake." Does this appearance then not differ from the other? "Not at all," he says. Shall I still argue with this man? And what fire or what iron shall I apply to him to make him feel that he is deadened? He does perceive, but he pretends that he does not. He's even worse than a dead man. He does not see the contradiction. He is in a bad condition. Another does see it, but he is not moved, and makes no improvement. He is even in a worse condition. His modesty is extirpated (destroyed) as is his sense of shame. The rational faculty has not been cut off from him, but it is brutalized. Shall I name this strength of mind? Certainly not, unless we also name it such in catamites who do and say in public whatever comes into their head.

Lamenting that there are so many afflicted with this paralysis of the mind and the soul, Epictetus contemplates what can be done to show these people the error of their ways? Unfortunately, Epictetus does not give us a clear answer. The closest he comes is to ask, "And what fire or what iron shall I apply to him to make him feel that he is deadened (paralyzed)?" This is a clue to what action might be effective in this case.

In ancient times, a hot iron was placed next to the skin or a "mortified" limb. If the patient could not feel it, this would be a bad sign. But if some feeling were noticed, then the limb might be revived by massage and use. In the same way we might probe a person's mind and conscience by showing them their own paralysis. If they recognize that they might be close-minded on this subject then there is hope for them. If not, then time and effort trying to convince them of your viewpoint is likely to be pointless. Should we give up on such a person? Perhaps not, but we should realize the roadblocks in our path.

Epictetus says that this kind of person is actually "cut off" from his "rational faculty". This might mean that his "modesty is extirpated" which could lead to acts which are both privately and publicly destructive. (This is what the statement about "catamites" refers to, basically debauchery and foolish behavior.)

There are two reasons Epictetus gave this little lecture. First, he wanted to warn his listeners about a trap that they themselves might fall into. He wanted his students not to adopt a close-minded posture that deadened the mind. Second, he wanted his students to understand what obstacles they might meet in dealing with other people.

Interestingly enough, things have not changed much on this subject in the 1900 or so years since Epictetus lived and taught. There are still skeptics and close-minded people. There are still the honest and fervent, determined to reveal the truth to an unwilling world.

Chapter 5:

  1. Against the Academics
  2. Hardening of Understanding (5a)
  3. Are You Awake? (5b)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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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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