Stoic Serenity 5.5.4: Epictetus’ Revolutionary Idea

Yesterday we ended with Marcus’ “Ten Commandments” for dealing with difficult people. In short, he wrote that we should respond to difficult people with kindness, including gently correcting them. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. If we admonish people with hatred or spite in our own hearts, we’re being hypocritical: we’d be telling them to stop acting on their own anger while we ourselves are speaking out of anger.
  2. No one likes to be reproached anyway. Most people won’t even take kindly to constructive criticism. But there’s a much better chance at them accepting constructive criticism if it is presented out of kindness rather than out of spite.

Today we take a break from Marcus and move over to Epictetus for a bit of a change. I find Epictetus to be a nice middle-ground between Seneca and Marcus in terms of style. He’s not as eloquent as Seneca, but he’s not as cryptic as Marcus. And his teachings are pretty sound, just the same.

Changing Behavior Takes Time

(On a warm and humid day, while Epictetus was sitting quietly at home, a neighbor came to seek his advice. After the usual friendly greetings, the neighbor started:)

When my father died, my older brother took possession of the family farm. Now he makes me work for him from dawn until dusk, paying me only with barely enough food and clothing for existence. How can I make him give me a fair share of my father’s estate?

Philosophy makes no promise of material benefit to anyone. If it did, it would be promising something beyond its power. A philosopher works only with the art of living contentedly.

But what about my brother’s bad behavior?

Your brother’s bad behavior is his own concern, not yours.

Then how can his ill-treatment of me be corrected?

Bring your brother to me, and I’ll speak to him. But I have nothing to say to you, nor do I make any promise to you about his behavior.

Change doesn’t happen overnight in the human mind. It takes time to produce anything that’s worthwhile.

But what if, after you speak to him, he still refuses to treat me fairly? Isn’t there a way to make him treat me fairly?

Nothing worthwhile is created suddenly any more than a grape or a fig is created overnight. If you come here and tell me that you want a fig, I will answer that the growth and development of a fig takes time. First, the fig tree must grow and blossom; later it will bear fruit, which later still must mature and ripen. Just as a fig tree does not bear fruit suddenly, don’t expect the fruit of the human mind to be created instantaneously.

(EpictetusDiscourses 1.15)

Our author Keith Seddon points out that Epictetus included the typical Stoic disclaimer: “…nor do I make any promise to you about his behavior.” When it comes to attempting to correct someone’s bad behavior, Epictetus is using one of the Stoic tools: acting with reservation. Epictetus compares mending the brother’s behavior to the cultivating of a fig tree: it takes time to produce fruit. One must be subtle and patient.

If you’re questioning whether patience is really necessary, or if behavior can’t be changed overnight, consider this:

What if changing bad behavior was as simple as whispering correct advise to someone? Wouldn’t the condition of the world and society be a lot different? If people acted wickedly, all that would be needed would be a slight glance of disapproval, and POOF! problem solved and peace is restored! How lovely! But clearly that’s not the way it works. Epictetus demonstrated that correcting someone’s bad behavior certainly is risky business, but the right thing to do is to at least attempt it. This way, even if we fail in our ultimate goal, we will still have the success of having done the right thing. And then we must simply go about living in a world where bad behavior is present just as it always has been and always will be.

Criminals are Blind, and Victims aren’t Harmed

(One day when Epictetus entered the city center, he heard his students arguing heatedly about the punishment that should be inflicted upon a thief and an adulterer. After listening to the heated discussion for several minutes, Epictetus said to the spokesman of the group:)

Why are you so angry at these men who have committed these crimes? Shouldn’t you pity them because they are ignorant of what is for their own good and what is evil for them? Show them the error of their ways and you will see that they will correct their own faults. If they do, you will have the pleasure of knowing that you have helped convert evil men to become good men. But if they don’t mend their ways, they will simply continue to be what they are: men of evil.

Shouldn’t these men be destroyed before they commit more crimes in our village?

Criminals are blind in Reason, and they should be shown the correct path.

No. These men are blind; not in their vision that distinguishes white from black, but in their Reason, that distinguishes good from evil. If your question is stated on the basis of reason, it would be similar to say, “Shouldn’t this blind man and that deaf man be destroyed because one is blind and the other is deaf?”

But if we set these men free, we have no guarantee that they will not repeat the same crimes and thus set an example for others to follow with the same crime?

Let me repeat the basic rule of our philosophy: the greatest harm that a person can suffer is the loss of the most valuable possession: his Reason. The harm he creates for himself is not transferred to others. Therefore, there is no reason for others to become angry because a person only commits a crime against himself.

(Epictetus, Discourses 1.18.1-10)

This one might be a little bit harder for some of us to accept.

Hold on. When I started adopting Stoic principles and practices, I accepted that I was responsible for my own suffering/thriving. I accepted that the only “Good” for me was Virtue. But now you’re saying I have to believe this for others, as well? What about the people who were harmed by the criminals?! It seems like they’re being ignored, or that Epictetus has no sympathy for victims. That’s just cruel to the victims.

Well, it’s time to come face to face with this: either you believe that Virtue is the only true Good, or you don’t. You can’t say that it’s the only true Good in your own life, but not in others’. That would deprive Virtue of its intrinsic value, and therefore it couldn’t be the only true Good even in your own life. Either you believe that it is or it isn’t. For everyone. End of story.

Ok, fine. I agree that Virtue is the only true Good—for everyone, including victims of crimes. It still doesn’t feel right, but I can at least acknowledge on a cognitive level that victims are only truly harmed when their Virtues are harmed, and that lies within their own power. But now I feel like a jack@$$. Isn’t that expecting a bit too much of victims, after what they’ve been through? And it seems like the criminals get off free!

Honestly, regarding the criminal’s side, I’m not quite sure what to do. If you truly believe that the only good comes from Virtue, and the only harm comes from ourselves when we act against our own Virtue, then it follows that criminals only truly harm themselves when they act without Virtue. Epictetus was also clear in this excerpt: “destroying” them is not the answer. He seems to be advocating more of a rehabilitation approach. Now I don’t live in candy land, and I realize that this is theoretical, so it’s not without its hiccups, but I also know that killing people for their crimes, or possibly letting them rot away in jail the rest of their lives might not be the best options either. (See The Fortune Society [click for Facebook], a program that supports individuals’ successful reentry after prison, and promotes alternatives to incarceration, saving the city and state of New York $8 million dollars in one year.) Maybe we’ll find more answers later on in Stoic writings.

Getting back on track here, Epictetus says simply that criminals are blind in Reason and need to be shown the correct path. So what about the victims then?

This might come across as cruel, harsh, or rude, because from childhood we’ve been taught that the way to stand up for victims is by simply punishing the criminals. Compared to this, Epictetus’ suggestion is revolutionary! While we have been taught to despise the criminals and pity the victims, Epictetus suggests that we should pity the criminals and empower the victims!

Let me say that again.

Epictetus suggests that we should pity the criminals and empower the victims.

You mean we shouldn’t pity the victims?! Not if you want what’s truly best for them. Sorry, but winning $2 million dollars in reparations won’t “make everything right.” It will make the victim $2 million dollars richer, but if that’s all that ever happens, the victim will still remain a victim at heart for the rest of his or her life. 


Self-empowerment? What a novel idea! Let’s start a revolution!

We can just as well sympathize and empathize with victims and acknowledge their difficult path ahead, but then it’s time to move forward. If a victim doesn’t want to remain a victim for the rest of their life, then they need to be taught the secret of empowerment—that is, this amazing teaching we have in Stoicism that tells us that our souls are invincible! No one else can truly harm us! Does this revolutionary idea still sound quite so cruel? Teach people the truth of their invincible souls, and victims can be freed!

Don’t Have a Window; Don’t Air Your Clothes

So why are we angry at these men? Because we attach importance to the things that they take from us. Therefore, stop attaching importance to your clothes, and you will no longer be angry with the thief. Don’t attach importance to the beauty of your wife, and you are not angry with the adulterer. Know that the thief and the adulterer have no place in the things that are yours, but in those that belong to others and are not in your power. If you dismiss those things and disregard them, then with whom are you still angry? But as long as you continue to hold onto these things, then you should at least be angry with yourself instead of with the thief and the adulterer.

Consider: you have beautiful clothes, but your neighbor does not. You have a window, and you wish to air your beautiful clothes in the window. Imagine that your neighbor does not know that man’s good consists in Virtue alone. Instead, he imagines that man’s good consists in having beautiful clothes, the exact same idea to which you subscribe. If that is the case, why should your neighbor not come to your house and make off with your clothes? When you show a bit of food to hungry men and then gobble it down alone, aren’t you wishing for them to snatch at it? Don’t provoke them; don’t have a window; don’t air your clothes.

Something similar happened to me the other day. I kept an iron lamp by my household shrine. Hearing a noise from my window, I ran down. I discovered that the lamp had been stolen. So I reasoned that the one who had stolen it had felt something he couldn’t resist. So what? “Tomorrow,” I said to myself, “you will replace it with a clay lamp.” For a person loses what he has.

(Epictetus, Discourses 1.18.11-16)

If we demonstrate that externals are most important, it only makes sense that people are willing to cast all Virtue aside in pursuit of externals.

Uhh. What just happened?

Basically, Epictetus is making a point that we lead by example. Imagine that you are showing off your new Ray-Ban sunglasses to some casual friends. A couple of days later, you invite your friends over to watch the latest episode of your favorite TV drama, and once everyone leaves, you notice that your Ray-Bans are missing from the dining table where you had left them. It’s apparent that someone has stolen your sunglasses.

In this case, we can say that the thief has actually harmed only herself, because she has acted without Virtue. But if you maintain that the thief has harmed you by stealing the sunglasses, well that means that you’re placing true value on sunglasses. You’re “having a window;” you’re “airing your clothes.” When you show off your fancy possessions, and when you think you’ve been harmed when they were stolen, it’s like announcing, “True good comes from expensive sunglasses!” And then it’s no wonder that the friend stole the sunglasses. They were simply following your teachings! If we agree as a society that material possessions are of utmost importance, then of course people are bound to cast Virtue aside and grab at all these silly externals. 

It’s definitely a paradigm shift. But it’s critical that we hold on to these principles if we want to continue in our pursuit of eudaimonia. We’ve simply got to remember that Virtue is the only true Good, through both the good times and the bad.

Coming up next: a whole slew of exercises. And then we finally complete this chapter! Whoohoo!

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