According to the Stoics, people act according to their impressions. What does that mean? It means that when some event happens (it may just happen or the event may happen to us as an individual) we may react a few different ways.
We may react instinctively, without thinking. Or maybe we simply observe the event - like watching a leaf fall from a tree. Or maybe we acknowledge the event and consider what it has to do with us. If we are required to have an opinion, we may think about it and decide. If no opinion is required, perhaps we simply pass. And on that last part - what criteria should we use if we are to have an opinion?
For many people, events impress themselves upon us and we allow ourselves to react without thinking. You're reading a book in a quiet room. A little girl enters the room and begins whistling. It bothers you and you instinctively yell at her. There was no wrong done on her part. 'But she should see that I'm reading and I need quiet!' Fine, then teach her and try to persuade her why she should not be whistling in the room right now.
This is a dumb little example, but it is a microcosm of the greater world. People may think that being angry is a virtue. And until you can convince them otherwise, why should they not go on living angrily? Either bear (have patience with) what others do, or make a genuine attempt to convince them of the better way. But no grumbling and complaining.
Epictetus runs through a similar scenario with Medea (see this summary of her). He succinctly states that Medea thinks it is better to gratify her anger toward her husband than to protect her children. Most of us would see this as folly! To which Epictetus says, "Well, demonstrate to her clearly that she is in error and she will not act on her idea. As long as you don’t lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don’t get angry at the poor woman for being confused about what’s most important, and accordingly mutating from human being to snake. Pity her instead. We take pity on the blind and lame, why don’t we pity people who are blind and lame in respect of what matters most?" (see verses 8-9).
In so many cases, we assume the other person should know better? Have we checked our assumptions? And after having checked our assumptions and learning that the other person needs some educating, are we willing to help them by educating them - by showing them a better way?
The chapter pivots to point out that The Iliad and The Odyssey would not have happened had it not been for impressions and reactions of Paris and Menelaus. The person Epictetus is having a dialogue with acknowledges that wars, the loss of men and razing of cities is simply due to some bad impressions by a few people.
And then Epictetus simply states that wars, razed cities and dead men are no different than dead sheep and birds nests being burned. Now this is shocking to the other person and it may even be shocking to you and me to hear Epictetus so flippantly disregard life and property. But he is willing to teach us.
There is no difference between a man's home and a stork's nest ... both are simply shelters; nothing more and nothing less.
But there is a difference between the man and the stork. He says, "What counts as good and bad for man can be found precisely in those respects in which he differs from the beasts. If his special qualities are kept safe behind stout walls, and he does not lose his honour, trustworthiness or intelligence, then the man is saved. But lose or take away any of these qualities and the man himself is lost."
What makes humans unique, also defines our nature. Our honor, trustworthiness, intelligence - our virtue is what makes us different from the beasts. Living a life according to Virtue is our true nature.
He expounds, using The Iliad as an example: "Everything significant depends on this. Did Paris’ tragedy lie in the Greeks’ attack on Troy, when his brothers began to be slaughtered? No; no one is undone by the actions of others. That was the destruction of storks’ nests. His tragedy lay in the loss of the man who was honest, trustworthy, decent and respectful of the laws of hospitality. Wherein did Achilles’ tragedy lie? The death of Patroclus? Not at all. It was that he gave in to anger, that he whined about losing a mere woman and lost sight of the fact that he was there not for romance but for war. Those are the genuine human tragedies, the city’s siege and capture – when right judgements are subverted; when thoughts are undermined."
I apologize for all the copying of quotes, but one more. This is the rub: do we allow our life to be ruled by reactions to impressions? Or do we put thought into our reactions? This is how Epictetus closes the chapter:
"A sense impression appears and right away I react. Am I better than Agamemnon and Achilles, insofar as they do and suffer such wrongs by following their impressions, while the impression does not satisfy me? Is there any tragedy with a different source? What is the Atreus of Euripides? An impression. The Oedipus of Sophocles? An impression. The Phoenix? An impression. Hippolytus? An impression. What kind of person, then, pays no attention to the matter of impressions, do you think? Well, what do we call people who accept every one indiscriminately?
"And do we act any differently?"