Informed Conscience

What should we be contemplating with our faculty of reason? Good and evil, as well as other things. Contemplation is good, and want of it is evil. Do you see then that good sense necessarily contemplates both itself and the opposite? It is the chief and the first work of a philosopher to examine appearances, and to distinguish them, and to admit nothing without examination. Even in the matter of coin, in which our interest appears to be somewhat concerned, we have invented an art. The assayer has many ways to try the value of a coin. He uses sight, touch, smell, and hearing. He throws the coin down, and observes the sound. He is not content with its sounding once, but through his great attention he can distinguish different metals from their sound. In like manner, in matters where we think that to be mistaken may make a great difference, we apply intense attention to discovering the things which can deceive. But in the matter of our miserable ruling faculty, yawning and sleeping, we carelessly admit every appearance, for the harm is not noticed.

Epictetus tells his students why they should be concerned with understanding their own ability to reason. It is because, with it, we distinguish good from evil (as well as other things). This is very important. A Christian might call this conscience. But it is informed conscience. For example, a person might think that to supply a person (or a group of persons), to fulfill their every want and need, would be a charitable thing. But this does not take into consideration what is taken away when a person is over-indulged: he loses his independence, and self-worth, and he ceases to contribute to society because he is no longer motivated to do so. It might be far more charitable to provide a helping hand only in an hour of tribulation.

We see that charity based on mere feelings is not charity at all. Rather it might create more harm than good. It is vital to understand the consequences of our actions. It is vital to understand the process we use to think about such things because this will help us to choose the correct path. If we adopt the Cartesian view that our understanding is paramount, then we analyze each action for good or bad. If we go along with Sartre, the implication is that the higher good is only that which brings pleasure in the moment.

Paul would have agreed with Epictetus as well as Descartes. In his First Letter to the Corinthians (14:20) he wrote, "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men." He encourages Christians to think like adults, not like children. Children are willful and weak. They live in the moment. Adults think about the consequences of their actions. Adults distinguish between good and bad. Children must be taught.

Chapter 20:

  1. How Reason Contemplates Itself
  2. Informed Conscience (20a)
  3. Zeno and Jesus Agree (20b)
  4. Mind or Body? (20c)
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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