Discourses of Epictetus: To Those Who Talk Too Much About Their Own Affairs
When anyone appears to us to discourse frankly of his own affairs, we too are somehow tempted to disclose our secrets to him; and we consider this to be acting with frankness — first, because it seems unfair that when we have heard the affairs of our neighbor, we should not in return communicate ours to him; and besides, we think that we shall not appear of a frank character, in concealing what belongs to ourselves. Indeed it is often said, “I have told you all my affairs; and will you tell me none of yours? How happens this? “Lastly, it is supposed that we may safely trust him who has already trusted us; for we imagine that he will never discover our affairs, for fear we should in turn discover his. It is thus that the thoughtless are caught by the soldiers at Rome. A soldier sits by you in civilians dress and begins to speak ill of Caesar. Then you, as if you had received a pledge of his fidelity, by his first beginning the abuse, say likewise what you think; and so you are led away in chains to execution.
Something like this is the case with us in general. But when one has safely entrusted his secrets to me, shall I, in imitation of him, trust mine to anyone who comes in my way? The case is different. I indeed hold my tongue because I am of such a disposition; but he goes and tells everybody what he has heard; and then, when I come to find out, if I happen to be like him, from a desire of revenge, I tell what he has told me, and we are both discredited. But if I remember that one man does not hurt another, but that everyone is hurt or profited by his own actions, I may indeed keep to this, not to do anything like him; yet, by my own foolish talking, I suffer what I do suffer.
“Yes; but it is unfair, when you have heard the secrets of your neighbor, not to tell him your own secrets.” Did I ask you for your secrets, sir? Did you tell me your affairs upon condition that I should tell you mine in return? If you are a gossip, and take all you meet for friends, would you have me too become like you? But what if the case is this; that you did right in trusting your affairs to me, but it is not right that I should trust you? Would you have me run headlong, and fall? This is just as if I had a sound barrel, and you a leaky one; and you should come and deposit your wine with me, to be put into my barrel; and then should take it ill that, in my turn, I did not trust you with my wine. No. You have a leaky barrel. How, then, are we any longer upon equal terms? You have entrusted your affairs to an honest man, and a man of honor; one who finds his help or harm in his own actions alone, and in nothing external. Would you have me entrust mine to you, who have dishonored your own will, and who would get a paltry sum, or a post of power or preferment at court, even if it required you to kill your own children, like Medea? Where is the fairness in this? But show me that you are faithful, honourable, steady; show me that you have principles conducive to friendship; show me that your vessel is not leaky, and you shall see that I will not wait for you to entrust your affairs to me, but I will come and entreat you to hear mine. For who would not make use of a good vessel? Who despises a benevolent and friendly adviser? Who will not gladly receive one to share the burden, as it were, of his difficulties; and by sharing, to make it lighter?
“Well, but I trust you, and you do not trust me.” In the first place, you do not really trust me; but you are a gossip, and therefore can keep nothing in. For if the former be the case, trust only me. But now, whenever you see a man at leisure, you sit down by him and say: “My dear friend, there is not a man in the world who wishes me better, or has more kindness for me, than you; I entreat you to hear my affairs.” And you act this way with people with whom you have not the least acquaintance. But if you do trust me, it is plainly as a man of fidelity and honor, and not because I have told you my affairs. Let me alone, then, till I reciprocate this opinion. Convince me that if a person has told his affairs to anyone, it is a proof of his being a man of fidelity and honor. For if this were the case, I would go about and tell my affairs to the whole world, if I could thus become a man of fidelity and honor; but for this a man needs principles of no ordinary sort.
If, then you see anyone taking pains for things that belong to others, and subjecting his will to them, be assured that this man has a thousand things to compel and restrain him. He has no need of burning pitch, or the torturing wheel, to make him tell what he knows; but the nod of a girl, for instance will shake his purpose; the good will of a courtier; the desire of an office, of an inheritance; ten thousand other things of that sort. It must therefore be remembered, in general, that confidences require faithfulness and faithful principles. And where, at this time, are these easily to be found? Pray let anyone show me a person of such a disposition as to say, I concern myself only for those things which are my own, incapable of restraint, and by nature free. This I esteem the essence of good. Let the rest be as God grants; it makes no difference to me.