Judeans, Syrians, and Egyptians: Epiktetos engages with ethnographic discourses for philosophical aims (mid-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Syrians, and Egyptians: Epiktetos engages with ethnographic discourses for philosophical aims (mid-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9349.

Ancient authors: Epiktetos’ Discourses as reported by Arrian, 1.11; 1.22; and, 2.9 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Epiktetos (or: Epictetus) was a philosopher in the mid-first century CE primarily within the sphere of Stoic approaches. His student, Arrian, later published his own notes on his teacher’s discourses, which remain our main source on Epiktetos. Epiktetos illustrates just how integrated talk about other peoples’ customs (and therefore one’s own) could be as he makes several different philosophical points (on which compare Empiricus at this link, although Empiricus’ incorporation of peoples is more extensive). Epiktetos builds talk about peoples’ customs into his discussions on affection, on preconceptions, and on what separates a wild animal from a human from a philosopher (cf. 2.11 which mentions Syrians and Egyptians). Each of these three discourses are presented in full below in order to provide a picture of how integral (if sometimes brief) Epiktetos’ thoughts about other peoples are.

While he naturally incorporates this people-talk, it is nonetheless worth pointing out that on more than one occasion he sort of summarizes “other” peoples with a very short list of: Romans, Syrians, Judeans (Jews), and Egyptians (taking for granted his own ethnic group of Greeks, of course – he was originally from a Greek city in Phrygia). In terms of details, these particular discourses give most attention to Judeans. For instance, Epiktetos gets into ritual purifications among Judeans and Judean-friendly Greeks in order to make a positive point about being a true philosopher in action (true experience of purifications, whether Judean or Greek interested in Judean ways) rather than just word (taking on the name “Judeans” without the active experience).


Book 1

[Discussion of affection with the question of assessing what is really in accordance with nature versus what is choice or relative or cultural]

11 Concerning affection (philostorgia): When an official came to see Epiktetos (or: Epictetus), who then made some special inquiries about other matters, Epiktetos asked him if he had children and a wife. When the other replied that he had, Epiktetos asked the further question: What, then, is your experience with marriage? Wretched, he said. To which Epiktetos replied: How so? For certainly men do not marry and have children just to be wretched, but rather to be happy. And yet, as for me, the other replied, I feel so wretched about the little children, that recently when my little daughter was sick and was thought to be in danger, I could not bear even to stay by her sick bed, but I got up and ran away, until someone brought me word that she was well again. What then, do you feel that you were acting correctly in doing this? I was acting naturally, he said. But really, you must first convince me of this, that you were acting naturally, said Epiktetos. Then I will convince you that whatever is done in accordance with nature is rightly done. This is the way every or at least most fathers feel, the man said.

And I do not contradict you either, answered Epiktetos, and say that it is not done, but the point at issue between us is the other, whether it is rightly done. For by your style of reasoning we should have to say of tumours also that they are produced for the good of the body, just because they occur, and in brief, that to make a mistake is in accordance with nature, just because practically all of us or at least most of us do make a mistake. Can you show me, therefore, how your conduct is in accordance with nature. I cannot, said the man. Rather, do you not show me how it is not in accordance with nature, and not rightly done. And Epiktetos said: Well, if we were inquiring about white and black objects, what sort of criterion should we summon in order to distinguish between them? The sight, said the man. And if about hot and cold, and hard and soft objects, what criterion? The touch. Very well, then, since we are disputing about things which are in accordance with nature and things which are rightly or not rightly done, what criterion would you have us take? I do not know, he said. And yet, though it is perhaps not very harmful for someone not to know the criterion of colours and odours, and therefore of flavours, still do you think that it is only slightly harmful for a man to be ignorant of the criterion of good and evil things, and of those in accordance with nature and those contrary to nature? On the contrary, it is most harmful.

[Cultural relativity illustrated using the customs of different peoples regarding foods]

Come, tell me, are all the things that certain persons regard as good and fitting, correctly viewed that way? And is it possible at this present time that all the opinions which Judeans, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans hold on the subject of food are rightly held? And how can it be possible? But, I fancy, it is absolutely necessary, if the views of the Egyptians are correct, that those of the others are not correct; if those of the Judeans are well founded, that those of the others are not. Yes, certainly. Now where there is ignorance, there is also lack of knowledge and the lack of instruction in matters which are indispensable. He agreed. So then, Epiketos said, now that you perceive this from now on will you study no other subject and give attention to no other matter than the problem of how, when you have learned the criterion of what is in accordance with nature, you should apply that criterion and in this way determine each special case.

[Applying the lesson of what is in accordance with nature with regard to familial affection]

But for the present I can give you the following assistance toward the attainment of what you desire. Does familial affection (philostorgia) seem to you to be in accordance with nature and good? Of course. What then? Is it possible that, while family affection is in accordance with nature and good, that which is reasonable is not good? By no means. That which is reasonable is not, therefore, incompatible with family affection? It is not, I think. Otherwise, when two things are incompatible and one of them is in accordance with nature, the other must be contrary to nature, must it not? Even so, said he. Whatever, therefore, we find to be at the same time both affectionate and reasonable, this we confidently assert to be both correct and good? Granted, said he. What then?

I suppose you will not deny that going away and leaving one’s child when it is sick is at least not reasonable. But we have yet to consider whether it is affectionate. Yes, let us consider that. Were you, then, since you were affectionately disposed to your child, doing things correctly when you ran away and left her? And has the mother no affection for her child? On the contrary, she has affection. So should the mother also have left her child, or should she not? She should not. What of the nurse? Does she love her child? He said: she does. So should she also to have left her? By no means. What about the school attendant? Does not he love the child? He does. So should he as well have gone away and left her, so that the child would by this have been left alone and helpless because of the great affection of you her parents and of those in charge of her, or, perhaps, have died in the arms of those who neither loved her nor cared for her? Far from it!

And yet is it not unfair and unfeeling when a man thinks certain conduct appropriate for himself because of his affection, that he should not allow the same to others who have as much affection as he has? That would be absurd. Come, if it had been you who were sick, would you have wanted all your relatives, your children and your wife included, to show their affection in such a way that you would be left all alone and deserted by them? By no means. And would you pray to be so loved by your own that, because of their excessive affection, you would always be left alone in sickness? Or would you, so far as this is concerned, have prayed to be loved by your enemies rather, if that were possible, so as to be left alone by them? And if this is what you would have prayed for, the only conclusion left for us is that your conduct was, in the end, not an act of affection at all.

What, then? Was the motive nothing at all which actuated you and induced you to leave your child? And how can that be? But it was a motive like that which impelled a certain man in Rome to cover his head when the horse which he supported was running a race, and then, when it won unexpectedly, they had to use sponges to him to revive him from fainting! What motive, then, is this? A knowledgeable explanation, perhaps, is not in place now; but it is enough for us to be convinced that, if what the philosophers say is sound, we should not look for the motive anywhere outside of ourselves.

Rather, in all cases it is one and the same thing that is the cause of our doing a thing or of our not doing it, of our saying things, or of our not saying them, of our being elated, or of our being cast down, of our avoiding things, or of our pursuing them the very thing, indeed, which has even now become a cause of my action and of yours; yours in coming to me and sitting here now listening, mine in saying these things. And what is that? Is it, indeed, anything else than that we wanted to do this? Nothing. And supposing that we had wanted to do something else, what else would we be doing than that which we wanted to do? Surely, then, in the case of Achilles also, it was this that was the cause of his grief not the death of Patroklos (for other men do not act this way when their comrades die), but that he wanted to grieve. And in your case the other day, the cause of your running away was just that you wanted to do so. Another time, if you stay with her, it will be because you wanted to stay. And now you are going back to Rome, because you want to do so, and if you change your mind and want something else, you will not go. And, in brief, it is neither death, nor exile, nor toil, nor any such thing that is the cause of our doing or not doing anything, but only our opinions and the decisions of our will.

Do I convince you of this, or not? You convince me, said he. Of such sort, then, as are the causes in each case, such likewise are the effects. Very well, then, whenever we do anything wrongly, from this day forth we shall ascribe to this action no other cause than the decision of our will which led us to do it, and we shall endeavour to destroy and excise that cause more earnestly than we try to destroy and excise from the body its tumours and abscesses. And in the same way we shall declare the same thing to be the cause of our good actions. And we shall no longer blame either slave, or neighbour, or wife, or children, as being the causes of any evils to us, since we are persuaded that, unless we decide that things are thus-and-so, we do not perform the corresponding actions; and of our decision, for or against something, we ourselves, and not things outside of ourselves, are the masters. Even so, he said. From this very day, therefore, the thing whose nature or condition we shall investigate and examine will be neither our farm, nor our slaves, nor our horses, nor our dogs, but only the decisions of our will. I hope so, he said. You see, then, that it is necessary for you to become a frequenter of the schools, that animal at which all men laugh, if you really desire to make an examination of the decisions of your own will. And that this is not the work of a single hour or day you know as well as I do.


Book 1

[Peoples’ dietary customs as examples of differences arising from different preconceptions]

22 On our preconceptions: Preconceptions are common to all people, and one preconception does not contradict another. For who among us does not assume that the good is profitable and something to be chosen, and that in every circumstance we should seek and pursue it? And who among us does not assume that righteousness is good and appropriate? When, then, does contradiction arise? It arises in the application of our preconceptions to the particular cases, when one person says, “He did what is good and courageous.” Another says, “No! He is out of his mind!” From this arises the conflict between different people.

This is the conflict between Judeans, Syrians, Egyptians, and Romans, not over the question whether holiness should be put before everything else and should be pursued in all circumstances; instead, it is whether the particular act of eating pig’s meat is holy or unholy. This, you will find, was also the cause of conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. Come, let’s call them before us. What do you say, Agamemnon? Shouldn’t what is appropriate be done, and what is good? “Indeed it should.” And what do you say, Achilles? Do you not agree that what is good should be done? “As for me, I agree most emphatically with that principle.”

Very well, then, apply your preconceptions to the particular cases. It is exactly there that the conflict starts. The one says, “I should not to be forced to give back Chryseis to her father,” while the other says, “Certainly, you should do that.” Most certainly one of the two is making a bad application of the preconception concerning “what one should do.” Again, one of them says, “Very well, if I should give back Chryseis, then I should take from one of you the prize he has won,” and the other replies, “Would you, then, take the woman I love?” “Yes, I will take the woman you love,” the first answers. “Should I, then, be the only one—?” “But should I be the only one to have nothing?” That’s how a conflict arises.

[Application of the principle to getting an education or engaging in philosophy]

What, then, does it mean to be getting an education? It means to be learning how to apply the natural preconceptions to particular cases, each to the other in conformity with nature. Furthermore, it is to make the distinction that some things are under our control while others are not under our control. Under our control are moral purpose and all the acts of moral purpose. However, not under our control are the body, the parts of the body, possessions, parents, brothers, children, and homeland country. In other words, everything we associate with is not under out control.

Where, then, should we place “the good”? To what class of things are we going to attach it? To the class of things that are under our control? What, is not health, then, a good thing, and a sound body, and life? No, and not even children, or parents, or homeland? And who will tolerate you if you deny that? Therefore, let us transfer the designation “good” to these things. But is it possible, then, for a man to be happy if he sustains injury and fails to get that which is good? It is not possible. And to maintain the proper relations with his associates? And how can it be possible? For it is my nature to look out for my own interest. If it is my interest to have a farm, it is my interest to take it away from my neighbour. If it is my interest to have a cloak, it is my interest also to steal it from a bath. This is the source of wars, seditions, tyrannies, and plots.

And again, how would I any longer be able to perform my duty towards Zeus? For if I sustain injury and am unfortunate, he pays no attention to me. And then we hear men saying, “What have I to do with him, if he is unable to help us?” And again, “What have I to do with him, if he wills that I be in such a state as I am now?” The next step is that I begin to hate him. Why, then, do we build temples to the gods and make statues of them, as if for evil spirits—for Zeus as for a god of Fever? And how can he any longer be “Saviour,” and “Rain-bringer,” and “Fruit-giver?” [all epithets of Zeus]. And, in truth, if we set the nature of the good somewhere in this sphere, all these things follow.

What, then, should we do? This is a subject of inquiry for the man who truly philosophizes and is in struggle of thought. Such a man says to himself, “I do not now see what is the good and what is the evil; am I not mad?” Yes, but suppose I set the good somewhere here, among the things that the will controls, all men will laugh at me. Some white-haired old man with plenty of gold rings on his fingers will come along, and then he will shake his head and say, “Listen to me, my son; one should of course philosophize, but one should also keep one’s head; this is all nonsense. You learn a syllogism from the philosophers, but you know better than the philosophers what you should do.” Man, why, then, do you censure me, if I know? What shall I say to this slave? If I hold my peace, the fellow bursts with indignation. So I must say, “Forgive me as you would lovers; I am not my own master; I am mad.”


Book 2

[What distinguishes wild animals from humans and from philosophers]

9 That even though we are unable to fulfil the profession (or: promise) of a man, we adopt that of a philosopher: It is no simple task to merely fulfill the profession of a man. For what is a man? A rational, mortal animal, someone says. To begin with, from what are we distinguished by the rational (logikos) element? From the wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and such. See to it, then, that you never behave like a wild beast; if you do, you will have destroyed the man in you, and you have not fulfilled your profession. See to it that you never behave like a sheep; if you do, the man in you is destroyed in this way also. Well, when do we behave like sheep? When we behave for the sake of our belly or sex-organs or we behave at random or in a filthy way, or without due consideration, to what level have we degenerated? To the level of sheep. What have we destroyed? Reasoning.

When we behave violently, harmfully, angrily, and rudely, to what level have we degenerated? To the level of the wild beasts. Well, the fact is that some of us are wild beasts of a larger size, while others are little animals, malignant and petty, which give us occasion to say, “Let it be a lion that devours me!” [Aesop, Prov. 15]. By means of all these actions the profession of a man is destroyed.

For when is a complex thing preserved? When it fulfils its profession. Consequently, the salvation of a complex thing is to be composed of parts that are true. When is a discrete thing preserved? When it fulfils its profession. When are flutes, a lyre, a horse, or a dog preserved? What is there to be surprised at, then, if a man also is preserved in the same way and in the same way destroyed? Now actions that correspond to a man’s true nature strengthen and preserve each particular man: carpentry does that for the carpenter, grammatical studies for the grammarian. But if a man acquires the habit of writing ungrammatically, his skill must necessarily be destroyed and disappear. So modest acts preserve the modest man, whereas immodest acts destroy him; and faithful acts preserve the faithful man while acts of the opposite character destroy him. And again, acts of the opposite character strengthen men of the opposite character; shamelessness strengthens the shameless man, faithlessness the faithless, abuse the abusive, wrath the wrathful, a disproportion between what he receives and what he pays out the miserly.

That is why the philosophers admonish us not to be satisfied with merely learning, but to add to it practice as well, and then training. For in the course of years we have acquired the habit of doing the opposite of what we learn and employ opinions which are the opposite of the correct ones. If, therefore, we do not also employ the correct opinions, we will be nothing but the interpreters of other men’s judgements.

For who is there among us here and now that cannot give a philosophical discourse about good and evil? It will run like this: Of things that be, some are good, others evil, and others indifferent; now good things are virtues and everything that partakes in the virtues; evil are the opposite; while indifferent are wealth, health, reputation. Then, if we are interrupted in the midst of our speech by some unusually loud noise, or if someone in the audience laughs at us, we are upset. Where, you philosopher, are the things you are talking about? Where did you get what you were just saying? From your lips, and that is all. Why, then, do you pollute the helpful principles that are not your own? Why do you gamble about matters of the very utmost concern? For to store away bread and wine in a pantry is one thing, and to eat them is another. What is eaten is digested, distributed, becomes sinews, flesh, bones, blood, a good complexion, and easy breathing. What is stored away you can readily take and show whenever you please, but you get no good from it except in so far as you are reputed to possess it.

[Different philosophical sects and different peoples, including Judeans and Greeks who adopt Judean purity customs]

For how much better is it to present these principles than to present different opinions? Sit down now and give a philosophical discourse upon the principles of Epicurus, and perhaps you will discourse more effectively than Epicurus himself. Why, then, do you call yourself a Stoic, why do you deceive the crowd, why do you play the role of a Judean when you are a Greek? Do you not see in what sense men are severally called Judean, Syrian, or Egyptian? For example, whenever we see a man uncertain about two options, we are in the habit of saying, “He is not a Judean, he is only playing the role.” But when he adopts the experience (pathos) of the man who has been dipped in the water [i.e. for purification] and has made his choice, then he is both a Judean in reality and is also called a “Judean” [i.e. Judeans in reality parallel Stoic philosophers in reality is the argument here]. On this supposition, we are counterfeit-dunkers (parabaptistai), “Judeans” in word (logos) but in action (ergon) something else [i.e. not like those in the previous sentence who are in reality Judeans // philosophers]. We are not in sympathy with our own word (or: reason), far from taking action to apply the principles which we profess, yet priding ourselves upon them as being men who know them. So, although we are unable even to fulfil the profession of man, we take on the additional profession of the philosopher. What a huge burden! It is as though a man who was unable to lift ten pounds wanted to lift the stone of Aias.


Source of the translation:  W.A. Oldfather, Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, The Manual, and Fragments, volume1, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted or retranslated (dipping and dunking section, in particular) by Harland.

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