A Deal with the Devil

"Does a man then differ in no respect from a stork?" Don't suppose that I say so. Yet there is no difference in these matters. "In what, then, is the difference?" Seek and you will find that there is a difference in another matter. See that a man has the understanding of his actions. He understands his social community, acts of fidelity, modesty, and steadfastness. He has intelligence. Where then is the great good and evil in men? It is where the difference is. If the difference is preserved and remains fenced round, and neither modesty is destroyed, nor fidelity, nor intelligence, then the man also is preserved; but if any of these things is destroyed and stormed like a city, then the man too perishes; and in this consist the great things. Paris, you say, sustained great damage when the Greeks invaded and when they ravaged Troy. You say he suffered damage when his brothers perished. By no means was he harmed. For no man is damaged by an action which is not his own; but what happened at that time was only the destruction of storks' nests. Now the ruin of Paris was when he lost the character of modesty, fidelity, regard to hospitality, and to decency. When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men. This is being besieged. This is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.

Thus we see that no one can destroy what is essential to us as individuals. For what is essential to us is what makes us different from animals. Epictetus lists these things as "understanding, community, fidelity, intelligence and modesty." All these things remain always within the control of the individual. When he relinquishes them then he is destroyed. In the same way, when the terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, they destroyed buildings and people. They did not destroy what is essential about America. For that to die, we can only destroy it ourselves.

As Christians we would take the qualities Epictetus enumerates a bit further and wrap them up into the concept of the soul. It is a folk-belief that it is possible to sell your soul to the Devil. In a sense this is true. We do not sign a contract with a man with funny ears and a long tail. Rather, it happens as we give up what makes us human (our soul) for the material things of the world.

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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