What if They Laugh at You?

What should we do then? This is the inquiry of the true working philosopher. Can I not see what is good and what is bad, or am I crazy? But suppose that I place the good somewhere among the things which depend on the will: all will laugh at me. Some grey-headed old man wearing many gold rings on his fingers will shake his head and say, "Hear my child. It is right that you should philosophize, but you ought to have some brains also. All this that you are doing is silly. You learn the syllogism from philosophers; but you know how to act better than philosophers do." Man, why then do you blame me, if I know? What shall I say to this slave? If I am silent, he will burst. I must speak in this way: "Excuse me, as you would excuse lovers. I am not my own master. I am mad."

Epictetus, throughout the discourses, rather doggedly and consistently returns to the theme of the dichotomy between the body and the mind. His "General Principles" are derived directly from this main theme. Epictetus believes that determining the difference between good and evil is a very simple thing. One must merely understand that the good is an emphasis on the spiritual, while evil is the excessive emphasis on the material.

By this definition, in the moral battle between Agamemnon and Achilles, both men are wrong. Both emphasize their base desires, and as a result both are miserable. Agamemnon loses the services of his greatest warrior, he creates animosity in the ranks and is himself no happier than before. Achilles withdraws his services from the army and as a result his best friend Patroclus dons his armor and is slain in battle. Had they valued only what was in their wills or souls the outcome would surely have been more to their advantage. Yet the world might have called them madmen for forsaking their material interests.

In the same way, the mass of humanity, though it admires the devoted Christian's emphasis on the spiritual, will also see it as impractical. But in reality the person who concentrates on the will and the soul is the only one betting on a sure thing!

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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