On Preconceptions

Epictetus – Discourses Book 1
I.22. On Preconceptions

Everyone has preconceptions. And the essence of these preconceptions are shared by all people. It is from the application of these preconceptions to particular cases that conflicts arise.

For instance, all people have similar preconceptions as to what holiness, or justice, or audacity are, but they reach conflicting conclusions as to what is holy, just, brave, or audacious.

Education teaches people to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases in accordance with nature, and to distinguish what is in our power from what is not in our power.

We should assign goodness to things that are in our power and not to things outside it. It follows that our health, property or family are not good, but nor are they evil. If we classify things outside our power as good, then it will be impossible to remain happy when these things are taken from us by misfortune. Also, if these things are good, our natural inclination for self-interest will force us to pursue these things no matter what, and being outside our power and control, we will unavoidably be subjected to the power of others.

There is another disadvantage in applying the designation of good to externals: When we face a misfortune and lose these ‘goods’, we risk blaming God, as we might start doubting whether he looks after us. And this might push us to be impious and finally hate God.