Epictetus
Epictetus


Paris, Helen, and Menelaus

"So then all these great and dreadful deeds have this origin, in the appearance of truth?" A student asks. Yes, this origin and no other. The story of the Iliad is nothing other than appearance and the use of appearances. It appeared good to Paris to carry off the wife of Menelaus. It appeared good to Helen to follow him. If then it had appeared to Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have happened? Not only would the Iliad have been lost, but the Odyssey also.

The Iliad was a book written by Homer about the Trojan War. It is probably the most famous story in Western Literature. Helen was abducted by Paris, a son of the Trojan king. It was her face that launched a thousand ships. Menelaus, her husband, recruited among the Argives to build an army to bring her home from Troy. The Argives wreaked great havoc on Troy as a result. Epictetus tells us that even such great man-made calamities could be avoided if only humans could see the truth. Epictetus ironically points out, had Menelaus acquiesced in the loss of Helen, there would have been no great stories to tell!

Again, Epictetus is not saying that we must merely accept attacks by others when they occur. The avoidance of such calamities requires that all people see the truth for there to be peace. We should still fight to defend ourselves against unreasoned attacks. Our defense of ourselves is part of the process by which our enemies learn their errors. For example the democracies of the world could not have simply allowed the fascist powers to have their way in World War II. America could not simply stand by and allow itself to be attacked in the World Trade Center incident. Even so, we must understand that these attacks come because of a misperception of the truth. Part of our battle with the foe must be in educating them.

The question might arise. What makes us think we have a monopoly on the truth. The fact is that we all have a claim to objective truth. Epictetus addresses this throughout the discourses (and specifically in discourse 27). He puts forth that conscientious study of philosophy leads to a recognition of the truth, a truth attainable by all. This is a belief also closely held by Christians. We do not have a monopoly on truth. It is simply that we see the truth and we know its true because it works whenever it is applied.

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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