CHAPTER 22: General Principles

General Principles are common to all men, and they do not contradict themselves. For who of us does not assume that what is good is also useful and possible, and that in all circumstances we ought to pursue it? Who of us does not assume that justice is beautiful and becoming? When do contradictions seem to arise? They arise in the adaptation of general principles to particular cases. When one man says, "He has done well: he is a brave man," another says, "Not so; but he has acted foolishly." It is then that disputes arise among men. This is the dispute among the Jews and the Syrians and the Egyptians and the Romans: not whether holiness should be preferred to all things and in all cases should be pursued, but whether or not it is holy to eat pig's flesh. You will find the same kind of dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles. Call them forth. What do you say Agamemnon? Ought not that which is proper and right be done? "Certainly, it should be so." Well, what do you say, Achilles? Do you not admit that what is good ought to be done? "I do most certainly." Adapt your principles then to the present matter. Here the dispute begins. Agamemnon says, "I ought not to give up Chryseis to her father." Achilles says, "You ought." It is certain that one of the two makes a wrong adaptation of principle or duty. Further, Agamemnon says, "Then if I ought to restore Chryseis, it is fit that I take a prize from among you." Achilles replies, "Would you then take her whom I love?" "Yes, I would take her whom you love." "Must I then be the only man who goes without a prize?" Thus the dispute begins.

Leaving little room for wiggling, Epictetus tells us that there are general principles that "should" guide human action. Yet, he notes that problems usually arise when applying these principles on an individual level. He uses the famous mythical, perhaps historical, example of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon to illustrate.

Agamemnon was the leader of the Greeks laying siege to the city of Troy. During their campaign they had laid waste and plundered the surrounding countryside. In doing so they had taken many captives. Agamemnon - as leader - had taken the largest share. When a wave of disease swept the Greek camp a soothsayer determined that the only way to assuage the "gods" and end the death dealing disease was for Agamemnon to give his prize slave, Chryseis, back to her father, who had piteously begged for her return.

Agamemnon at first refused, saying it was not right that a man of his station should be required to make so great a sacrifice. Achilles insisted that he should. Agamemnon relented in the face of the opinion of his generals who backed Achilles. But Agamemnon insisted that Achilles give up his own prize, the beautiful slave - Briseis. Thus a battle of wills resulted in Achilles being forced to give up his prize. In a pouting rage Achilles withdrew his strength from the Greek effort.

This story is still familiar to those versed in ancient Greek history or literature. It is drawn from Homer's "Iliad". As to who was right in this quarrel was somewhat of a conundrum, and for modern readers it might seem more a matter of who was more wrong, as taking slaves and laying siege to great cities without a weighty reason is no longer considered an honorable pastime.

Thus, Epictetus illustrates how it is sometimes difficult to apply general principles to individual actions. A more modern example arises when a person tries to decide how a child should be educated. As a general principle, it is obviously good that a child should grow into a confident adult. Is it better to emphasize the child's self-esteem so that he or she grows into a confident person? Or is it better to allow a child to fail occasionally with the idea that an occasional failure builds knowledge and from that knowledge confidence grows on a more firm foundation? This very dispute goes on in the halls of academe today.

Chapter 22:

  1. General Principles
  2. Education Is Adapting General Principles (22a)
  3. Place Happiness in the Will (22b)
  4. What if They Laugh at You? (22c)
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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