Evil Is Ignorance

"Shouldn't we then destroy this robber and this adulterer?" Do not say so, rather say, "This man is mistaken and deceived about the most important things, and blinded, not in his actual sight, but in the faculty which distinguishes good and evil. Should we not destroy him?" If you speak in this way, you will understand that your statement is inhuman. It would be like saying, "Shouldn't we kill this or that man because he is blind or deaf?" The greatest harm is caused by the lack of the greatest things, and the greatest thing in every man is the ability to choose what is right. A man deprived of his will should be pitied, not hated. You ought not to be worried by the bad things of another. Pity him. Do not be quick to be offended or to hate. Do not call such people, "these accursed and odious fellows."

For Epictetus, a major cause of evil in the world is ignorance. A person who is ignorant is like a blind man. He stumbles around doing wrong because he does not understand what is right.

Should we have pity on such people? Our prison system is based on the idea of punishment, isolation and rehabilitation. Punishment by the justice system can be viewed as a form of education. It gives criminals the idea, in no uncertain terms, that indeed, "Crime does not pay." We isolate these people from the public in prisons so that they do not do great harm to society. And, finally, we try to use time in prison to educate people toward more ethical behavior. In a larger sense, society has devised a system to do exactly what Epictetus recommends.

One reason that Epictetus emphasized this subject is that, in his day, laws for punishment were much more stringent. It was generally thought, then, that the character of a person was more or less immutable. This meant that a criminal was not likely to change behavior. Thus, most crimes, even small ones, were punished in a ghastly manner. Often death was meted out for theft or adultery. Because he believed that behavior was based on logic and not born like an instinct into the person, he thought such punishments extreme and that a course of education would be more effective. Even so, he did not say that people should not be punished for their actions. He was a great one for personal responsibility and he was cognizant that there are consequences for every act.

Looked at from another perspective, we can see that a lack of a moral education may be moving society toward ignorance (not simply ignorance in the sense of academic learning, but ethical learning). Epictetus would decry the current trend of morale relativism that refrains from teaching the line between right and wrong. Even so, he would not have us blame the general public for this moral failing.

Chapter 18:

  1. The Mistakes of Others
  2. Evil Is Ignorance (18a)
  3. The Value of Property (18b)
  4. Exercising the Will (18c)
  5. Who Is Invincible? (18d)
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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