This is a story recorded in the Discourses of Epictetus, in the chapter on philostorgia, meaning “natural affection” or “family affection” (Discourses, 1.11). A magistrate came to see Epictetus one day and mentioned that his experience of married life had been miserable. Epictetus replied that we marry and have children to flourish and be happy (eudaimon) rather than to be miserable, and so he was curious what had gone wrong. The man said that recently when his young daughter was dangerously ill, he found it so unbearable that he ran from her bedside in distress, only to return when someone brought word that she had recovered. He also said he believed being overwhelmed with distress was a natural response and that this was the right thing to do because “this is the way most fathers would feel” if their beloved child were dying. Epictetus maintained the Stoic view that what is done according to nature is right but he questioned whether this man’s response was genuinely the most natural one, despite the fact that it might be what most fathers, in that period, would feel like doing. Epictetus notes that although to err is common, and that physical tumours are common, we don’t assume that these occur for our own good or that they’re what our natures intended. Being common and being natural are two different things. When Epictetus then asks the man what criterion he would use to determine whether some action is natural and rightly done, or not, he says he has no idea. Epictetus sees this lack of a criterion for the good, for what is natural, as the greatest harm that can befall someone, and he therefore beseeches the magistrate to discover this criterion and to then use it to decide each individual case that confronts him in life.
However, in the meantime, Epictetus gave him the following advice about the case of his child. He first asks whether family affection (philostorgia) seems to the magistrate both to accord with nature and to be good or noble, which it does, without question. This is a premise they can both agree upon for the time being: that family affection is both natural and morally good. Epictetus also established that he takes for granted the view that what is rational with regard to life is good. He adds that if both family affection and living rationally are genuinely morally good then they should not contradict each other. Moreover, if they were in conflict, at least one of them would have to be unnatural but living rationally and loving one’s family are both assumed to be natural by the magistrate. Family affection and living rationally are therefore both agreed to be morally good and consistent with each other. However, the magistrate admits that fleeing his child’s bedside is not rational, although he feels it may have been an expression of his love and affection for her.
Epictetus invokes what modern cognitive therapists call the “double-standards” strategy by asking the magistrate whether he would consider it loving and affectionate of others, such as the child’s mother or nurse, to act as he had done and flee her bedside. Would it make sense to say that those who love his daughter the most should, because of their great love for her, leave her potentially to die in the arms of others who do not love her as much? Likewise, the magistrate admits that if he had been dying himself, he would not want those who love him the most, including his wife and children, to express their affection by running from his bedside and abandoning him to die alone. Epictetus points out that if this is how love manifests itself, it would make more sense to wish that one’s enemies loved one more than one’s friends, and that they would keep their distance as a result. This is what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum, the favoured debating technique of Socrates, in which careful questioning leads an individual to recognise that their position is inherently contradictory and nonsensical. It leads to the revised conclusion that the magistrate’s flight from his daughter’s bedside was not really an act of love or family affection at all but rather something else. The act of running away was a form of avoidance, like covering your eyes, and the result of a fundamental decision to conclude that escape is preferable to endurance of the painful situation. As Epictetus put it, “the cause of your running away was just that you wanted to do so; and another time, if you stay with her, it will be because you wanted to stay.” It is not external events that cause our actions but our own opinions and decisions, otherwise everyone would respond in the same way to the same events. Therefore, Epictetus concludes, the magistrate should attribute his actions not to external events, like the illness of his child, which are outside his direct control, but rather to his own voluntary decisions, and that it should become his priority in life to study these closely and patiently and determine whether they are natural and morally good or not.