Concerning family affection

Epictetus – Discourses Book 1
I.11. Concerning family affection

  1. What we observe occuring naturally must not be confused with what ought to happen.
  2. That is because our impressions based on our different ideas of right and wrong effect how we observe natural phenomena.
  3. As rational beings we strive to do the rational thing, the right thing, based on our impressions of natural phenomena.
  4. However impressions are a matter of choice. They are judgments, and we are masters of our own judgments.
  5. It follows that what we do is solidly based on our choices about our impressions and not on anything external to us.

Take the father who does not remain by her sick daughter’s bed, because he cannot bear the grief of seeing her sick. Is this good and natural behaviour, based on affection?

The father leaves his daughter’s side because he thinks this is a good idea at the time, he thinks this is the rational thing to do at that moment. But closer scrutiny will show that this choice is based on a warped understanding of what is natural; that watching a loved one suffer is painful, and that it is natural and rational to escape from such pain.

However you must see that this reasoning is simply and completely based on his impression of death and pain. His opinion that these things are bad and must be counteracted upon.

But as we learned earlier, we must not assign the qualities of good and bad to phenomena external to us. We must be careful to apply desire and aversion to external things. Applying this principle to our impressions is a matter of choice and education.

If the father in our example had not assigned the quality of bad to the suffering of his daughter and the pain this caused to him, and had he not applied aversion to this external phenomena, he could reason that is is a natural norm that family members show affection and support to each other in times of infirmity. And that is is natural that a father comforts his sick daughter. Once the natural norm is found, subjective impressions on external phenomena will no longer effect our ability to do the right choices in life.

The discovery of this natural norm is the objective of our education. Once the natural norm is found, and desire and aversion are applied in accordance with the requirements of these norms, a theory of good and bad – or ethics – will emerge.