Good and Evil

Come, tell me, do all things which seem to some persons to be good and right appear so to all? Is it true that what seems good to Jews and Syrians and Egyptians and Romans is all the same in respect to food, for example? Of course not. Can they all be right? "How could it be possible that they are all correct?" he said. Well, it is absolutely necessary that, if the opinions of the Egyptians are right, the opinions of the rest must be wrong. If the opinions of the Jews are right, those of the rest cannot be right. "Certainly, you are right," the magistrate interjected [no doubt rather meekly]. But where there is ignorance, there also is want of learning and training. The magistrate assented to this as well. Since you know this, for the future will you employ yourself seriously about nothing else, and will you apply your mind to nothing else than to learn the criterion of things which are according to nature? By using your faculties will you also determine good and evil?

Epictetus is not a moral relativist. He notes that good and evil is the same for every nationality no matter its beliefs, just as what is edible and what is not edible must be the same for most human beings. Ignorance also plays a part. When we are ignorant of what is right and wrong, sometimes we will act wrongly, even as a culture might act against its own interests. Smoking, for example, was a common habit in the US in the 1950s. With knowledge of its ill effects, use of it waned dramatically as the century turned. The magistrate (and we) can learn to differentiate good from bad and then to act on this knowledge.

Chapter 11:

  1. On Natural Affection
  2. The Sixth Sense - Conscience (11a)
  3. Good and Evil (11b)
  4. Lack of Fortitude (11c)
  5. We Control Our Own Actions (11d)
  6. The Devil Made Me Do It (11e)
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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