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Frances Wright On The Proper Epicurean Attitude Toward Those With Whom We Disagree

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This weekend in reviewing a number of different items in a number of contexts, I had reason to revisit a section of “A Few Days In Athens” that concerns something we often need to remember:  how to handle disagreements.  When we disagree, we often jump to the conclusion that the other side is more than just wrong, and impute to them malicious motives.  Here, Frances Wright reminds us that this was not Epicurus’ attitude.  Additional text support for her conclusions can be found in the Herculaneum scrolls, as in the article by Norman Dewitt entitled “Organization and Procedure In Epicurean Groups.”  Today, however, the focus is on Frances Wright’s interpretation:

“You arrived most seasonably this evening,” cried Sofron, addressing the philosopher; “most seasonably for the lungs of two of your scholars.”

“And for the ears of a third,” interrupted Leontium.  “I was fairly driven into exile.”

“What was the subject?” asked Epicurus.

“Whether the vicious were more justly objects of indignation or of contempt: Metrodorus argued for the first, and I for the latter.  Let the master decide.”

“He will give his opinion certainly; but that is not decision.”

“Well: and your opinion is that of ––––.”

“Neither.”

“Neither! I had no idea the question had more than two sides.”

“It has yet a third; and I hardly ever heard a question that had not. Had I regarded the vicious with indignation, I had never gained one to virtue.  Had I viewed them with contempt, I had never sought to gain one.”

“How is it,” said Leontium, “that the scholars are so little familiar with the temper of their master?  When did Epicurus look on the vicious with other than compassion?”

“True,” said Metrodorus. “I know not how I forgot this, when perhaps it is the only point which I have, more than once, presumed to argue with him; and upon which I have persisted in retaining a different opinion.”

“Talk not of presumption, my son.  Who has not a right to think for himself?  Or, who is he whose voice is infallible, and worthy to silence those of his fellow men?  And remember, that your remaining unconvinced by my argument on one occasion, can only tend to make your conviction more flattering to me upon others.  Yet, on the point in question, were I anxious to bring you over to my opinion I know one, whose argument, better and more forcible than mine, will ere long most effectually do so.”

“Who mean you ?”

“No other than old hoary Time,” said the master, “who, as he leads us gently onwards in the path of life, demonstrates to us many truths that we never heard in the schools, and some that, hearing there, we found hard to receive.  Our knowledge of human life must be acquired by our passage through it; the lessons of the sage are not sufficient to impart it.  Our knowledge of men must be acquired by our own study of them; the report of others will never convince us.  When you, my son, have seen more of life, and studied more men, you will find, or, at least, I think you will find, that the judgment is not false which makes us lenient to the failings — yea! even to the crimes of our fellows.  In youth, we act on the impulse of feeling, and we feel without pausing to judge.  An action, vicious in itself, or that is so merely in our estimation, fills us with horror, and we turn from its agent without waiting to listen to the plea which his ignorance could make to our mercy.  In our ripened years, supposing our judgment to have ripened also, when all the insidious temptations that misguided him, and all the disadvantages that he has labored under, perhaps-from his birth, are apparent to us — it is then, and not till then, that our indignation at the crime is lost in our pity of the man.”

“I am the last,” said Metrodorus, a crimson blush spreading over his face, “who should object to my master his clemency towards the offending.  But there are vices, different from those he saved me from, which, if not more unworthy, are perhaps more unpardonable, because committed with less temptation; and more revolting, as springing less from thoughtless ignorance than calculating depravity.”

“Are we not prone,” said the sage, “to extenuate our foibles, even while condemning them?  And does it not flatter our self-love, to weigh our own vices against those of more erring neighbors?”

The scholar leaned forwards, and stooping his face towards the hand of his master, where it rested on the table, laid the deepening crimsons of his cheek upon it. “I mean not to exculpate the early vices of Metrodorus.  I love to consider them in all their enormity; for the more heinous the vices of his youth, the greater is the debt of gratitude his manhood has to repay to thee.  But tell me,” he added, and lifted his eyes to the benignant face of the sage, “tell me, oh, my friend and guide! was the soul of Metrodorus found base or deceitful; or has his heart proved false to gratitude and affection?”

“No, my son, no,” said Epicurus, his face beaming with goodness, and a tear glistening in his eye. “No!  Vice never choked the warm feelings of thy heart, nor clouded the fair ingenuousness of thy soul.  But, my son, a few years later — a few years later, and who shall say what might have been! Trust me, none can drink of the cup of vice with impunity.”  But you will say, that there are qualities of so mean or so horrible a nature, as to place the man that is governed by them out of the pale of communion with the virtuous.  Malice, cruelty, deceit, ingratitude — crimes such as these, should, you think, draw down upon those convicted of them, no feelings more mild than abhorrence, execration, and scorn.  And yet, perhaps, these were not always natural to the heart they now sway. Fatal impressions, vicious example, operating on the plastic frame of childhood, may have perverted all the fair gifts of nature, may have distorted the tender plant from the seedling, and crushed all the blossoms of virtue in the germ.  Say, shall we not compassionate the moral disease of our brother, and try our skill to restore him to health?  But is the evil beyond cure?  Is the mind strained into changeless deformity, and the heart corrupted in the core?  Greater, then, much greater will be our compassion.  For is not his wretchedness complete, when his errors are without hope of correction?  Oh, my sons! the wicked may work mischief to others, but they never can inflict a pang such as they endure themselves.  I am satisfied, that of all the miseries that tear the heart of man, none may compare with those it feels beneath the sway of baleful passions.”