The Strange Medea

What happens when we act on truth or falsehood? We have the appropriate and the inappropriate, the profitable and the unprofitable, that which is suitable to a person and that which is not. Can a man think that a thing is useful to him and not choose it? He cannot. How says Medea?

"'Tis true I know what evil I shall do, But passion overpowers the better council.'"

She thought that to indulge her passion and to take vengeance on her husband was more profitable than to spare her children. "It was so. But she was deceived." Show her plainly that she is deceived, and she will not do it. So long as you do not show it, what can she understand except that which appears to herself? Nothing else. Why, then, are you angry with the unhappy woman that she has been bewildered about the most important things, and is become a viper instead of a human creature? Rather pity her, as we pity the blind and the lame. Pity those who are blinded and maimed in the faculties which are supreme.

People who do wrong things, then, act on bad information or do not perceive the information they are receiving in an accurate way. Epictetus uses the ancient story of Medea as an example. Medea was the wife of Jason (of the Argonauts fame). She had helped him to get the "golden fleece" and to return home. She lived with Jason in the City of Corinth for ten years and bore him three sons. When he divorced her to marry a younger woman she got revenge by poisoning the prospective new wife and then murdering her own sons as they slept. Jason committed suicide when he found his dead sons. Medea escaped to parts unknown.

It is a brutal story. It is hard not see Medea as completely evil. Yet Epictetus tells us that, if she could but have seen the truth that she would never have acted in this way. This recalls the Christian philosophy that any person, no matter how vile their actions, are capable of redemption, if they only come to see the truth. The perfect illustration of this is related in the gospels when Jesus is on the cross. Two criminals are crucified near him. When one of them sees Jesus for who he is, Jesus tells him, "I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me." (Luke 23:43) The idea that belief in the truth brings redemption is fundamental to both Christianity and Stoicism.

Chapter 28:

  1. On Good and Evil
  2. The Strange Medea (28a)
  3. Christianity and Logic (28b)
  4. Paris, Helen, and Menelaus (28c)
  5. Perception (28d)
  6. A Deal with the Devil (28e)
  7. WWJD - What Would Jesus Do? (28f)
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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