The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus

in five dialogues



Dialogue 4.B.5

Gyges: Diairesis and Counterdiairesis, Good and Evil


To go back to the homepage click here

To back to the introductory page click here


Οὐ μὲν οὖν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, φάναι, ὦ φιλούμενε Ἀγάθων, δύνασαι ἀντιλέγειν, ἐπεὶ Σωκράτει γε οὐδὲν χαλεπόν.

“No, it is Truth, my dear Agathon, that you cannot contradict; Socrates you easily may”
(Plato ‘Symposium’ 201D)

The characters:

Candaules, King of Lydia
The Queen, wife of Candaules
Gyges, a bodyguard of Candaules


A few days later Muriel, Irene and Raniero gathered again in the small amphitheater and resumed their conversations.
-Some time ago, began Raniero, I reread a few chapters of the first book of the ‘Histories’ of Herodotus, and I came across on the story about Gyges. The vicissitudes of Gyges revolve around the choices he has to do, and the story in which he is involved seems to me a good explanatory example of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are, of where they lie and of what the correct use of our proairesis means-
-I have never heard this story and I’ll listen to it gladly, said Muriel-
-The name of Gyges sounds quite new to me too and I’d like to know more about him, said Irene-
-Here is the story, said Raniero, as Herodotus tells it.
* Candaules, the King of Lydia, was in love with his bride and, as he was in love, he believed to possess  by far the most beautiful of all women. Among his bodyguards was Gyges, the son of Daskylos. He was particularly dear to him. Candaules used to confide in him his most important business and even spoke to him about the beauty of his wife, praising her beyond measure. One day the King said to Gyges: “Gyges, I think that you don’t believe me when I speak of the beauty of my wife. Try, therefore, to see her naked”. Gyges replied in an agitated voice: “Lord, what insane speech are you making, inviting me to look at my naked sovereign? With the stripping of the clothes the woman is stripped also of her modesty. Since ancient times men have found good precepts from which we must learn, and one of them is that everyone must take care of his things. I am absolutely convinced that the Queen is the most beautiful of all women, so please don’t ask me to do things that are against the law”. But Candaules told him: “Be reassured, Gyges, and don’t be afraid of me. I am not making these proposals in order to put you through a test. Don’t be afraid of my wife either, that you may receive harm from her, because I will arrange everything so that she will not even know of having been seen by you. I shall take you secretely into the room where we sleep, and I’ll hide you behind the door left open. After I come in, my wife will soon follow me and get into the bedroom. Next to the entrance there is a stool where she will place her clothes, taking them off one by one, and you’ll be able to quietly contemplate her. Then, when she heads off from the stool to the bed and you see her back and shoulders, be quick to get out of the bedroom and be careful not to be seen on the way out of the door”. So Gyges, since he could not refuse, was ready to obey the King. Candaules, when it was time to sleep, led him into the bedroom. Then his wife appeared and, as soon as she got in, she started undressing and laying her clothes on the stool, while Gyges watched. When he found himself behind the woman walking toward the bed, he came out stealthily. She saw him as he left but, having understood what her husband had done, did not cry out of shame and pretended to have noticed nothing. However, she planned to take revenge on Candaules. Among the Lydians, as is usual also in the case of other barbarians, to be seen naked is a cause of great shame, even for a man. As soon as it was day the Queen summoned Gyges. Gyges, still believing that she knew nothing about the incident, accepted the invitation because from time to time he used to visit the Queen when she called him. As soon as Gyges came in, the woman said: “Now, Gyges, of the two roads which are in front of you I’ll let you choose which one you want to head for. Either you kill Candaules, get me and the Kingdom of Lydia, or you yourself must die, so that in the future you’ll no longer see what you must not see. Come on, then! Either he who has hatched this trap must perish or you, who saw me naked and are guilty of an illegitimate action”. Gyges was at first stunned by this speech, and after a while implored the Queen not to force him to make such a choice. However, he was  unable to persuade her and saw himself forced to either kill his master or to perish himself at the hands of other people. He chose to live, and asked: “Since you force me to kill my Lord against my will, let me at least know the way we will attack him”. The Queen answered: “The attack will take place in the same room where he showed me naked to you, and we shall attack him while he sleeps”. So they plotted the trap, and when night came Gyges followed the woman into the bedroom. She gave him a dagger and hid him behind the same door. Later, while Candaules was sleeping, Gyges came out of hiding, killed him and took the woman and her Kingdom. *
-What do you think?-
-A very interesting story, said Irene-
-I would like to look at it, proposed Raniero, by entering into the head of the three characters and examining what happens in their proairesis. If you believe that it’s worthwile, we can start with a cursory examination of the story. Since we are three and the characters in question are also three, we may assign one to each of us-
-I agree, said Irene excitedly. I propose Raniero be the first, because in this way he can also put us on a good track, and that he be Candaules. Muriel can speak about the Queen and I shall, lastly, talk of Gyges. Do you agree?-
-Wow! exclaimed Muriel. I’ll do my best to be up to the task-
-Then I shall start, said reassuringly Raniero. We are not in front of a board of examiners. We seek only to understand the story better and we’ll give each other a hand. We will assume that the Queen was really the most beautiful of all women. Let’s also assume that all of the King’s subjects, including Gyges, were sincerely convinced of this fact-
-Yeah! said Irene, so why does Candaules question Gyges?-
-He questions him, said Raniero, because the King is the kind of person who cannot even stand the suspicion that other people have judgments different from his own. He firmly believes that this is an ‘evil’ for him. Doubting Gyges, Candaules decides to actually convince him that his wife is by far the most beautiful of all women. To achieve this goal he plans to show to Gyges the Queen in her splendid nudity, believing that this would be a vision capable of making Gyges admit the truth. The project that Candaules must implement for this purpose is very risky, because he is well aware that Gyges should see the Queen but should not be seen by her. In fact, if the Queen discovered the trick and knew that she had been seen naked by a stranger, she would avenge the outrage. However, Candaules judges more harmful for him the doubt he has about the judgments of Gyges than the possible revenge of his wife. Gyges has therefore the opportunity to contemplate his Queen naked, and after this vision we can easily be sure that Gyges swears again and again to be now absolutely convinced that the Queen is the most beautiful of all women. The design of the King seems to have been carried out to perfection. Candaules is happy and feels ‘good’ because he has got what he wanted. Gyges is happy and feels ‘good’ because he also has got what he wanted. The reality, on the contrary, is that neither Candaules nor Gyges know how the things actually are. Let us see how and why it is so. We now possess the tools necessary to examine the character of Candaules with reference to ‘proairetic things/aproairetic things’ and with reference to ‘good/evil’. Let’s have a look at the side ‘proairetic things/aproairetic things’. The first question I ask myself is this one: “Is the judgment of Gyges on the beauty of the wife of Candaules a proairetic or an aproairetic thing?” My answer is, and if you don’t agree please interrupt me: “The judgment of Gyges is a proairetic thing for Gyges but an aproairetic thing for everyone else, including Candaules”. Now I ask myself: “Do we know what Candaules thinks about the judgment of Gyges?” We know it for certain, as he himself tells it to us. Candaules thinks that the judgment of Gyges about the beauty of the Queen must be in his own power, in the power of the King. This is so true that Candaules, unable to bear any uncertainty about controlling the proairesis of Gyges, implements the project that we know. So the thought of King Candaules could be summed up in the following way: “I am the King and the proairesis of my subjects is my own business!” Now, the project Candaules sets at work in order to dominate the proairesis of Gyges can be divided into two elements: the design and the implementation of the project. We already know that the conception of a project is a proairetic thing while its implementation is an aproairetic thing. Now I ask myself the third question: “Does Candaules think that the implementation of his project is a proairetic thing or an aproairetic thing?” He certainly believes it to be a proairetic thing, as his behavior tells us. Candaules is certain, without reservation, that Gyges will see without being seen. The thought of Candaules in this regard could be summed up in this way: ‘The King proposes and the King disposes!’ Let us now examine the character of Candaules with reference to ‘good/evil’. We know that no aproairetic thing can be ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and that ‘good’ is only the judgment of the proairesis working properly, while ‘evil’ is the judgment of the proairesis not working properly. So we know that ‘good’ is the judgment: “The judgments of other people are neither good nor evil for me”. We also know that ‘evil’ are the two judgments: “The judgments of other people are a ‘good’ for me” and “The judgments of other people are an ‘evil’ for me”. What does Candaules think about these statements? Even in this case it’s enough to hear his words and look at his behavior. Candaules thinks that the judgment of Gyges on the beauty of the Queen is ‘evil’ if it’s different from his own, the King’s judgment. Subsequently he falls from the frying pan into the fire. In fact he thinks that the judgment of Gyges on the beauty of the Queen is now ‘good’ because it has become equal to his own. Let me summarize. In at least two cases Candaules has gone astray, because he considers as proairetic something that by the nature of things is  aproairetic. In addition Candaules is in the ‘evil’ because he has at least a couple of judgments that we know to be the distinctive form taken by a proairesis not operating properly. What shall we say to Candaules? We shall say: “Stop it, Candaules, stop it! What you believe to be love, what you believe to be happiness and ‘feeling good’ rests upon incorrect foundations, disrespectful of the nature of things. Stop it and change your judgments. You can escape the tragic chain of error, vice and misery already tight around your neck, only by using the diairesis!”-
-Now it’s my turn, said Muriel with a little fear in her heart. I’ll speak of the Queen. I hope you agree if I limit myself to the consideration of the ‘good/evil’ issue-
-We agree. This is more than enough, nodded both Irene and Raniero-
-We already know, continued Muriel, that ‘good’ is the judgment: “To be seen naked by other eyes is neither good nor evil”. We also know that ‘evil’ is the pair of judgments: “To be seen naked by other eyes is good” and “To be seen naked by other eyes is evil”. Which are the judgments of the Queen? In my opinion there is no doubt that the judgments of the Queen are as follows: “To be seen naked by Candaules is good” and “To be seen naked by Gyges is evil”. She believes that the eye of Candaules has the power to encircle her with the ‘good’ and believes, on the contrary, that the eye of Gyges has the power to put shame on her, to put her in a state of unbearable ‘evil’. So, the outrage she has suffered is so serious as to merit a vengeance. Neither Candaules nor Gyges know that the Queen had a glimpse of  Gyges when he left the bedroom and she, while Candaules embraces her, reasons in this way: “I am the Queen and to be seen naked by my husband Candaules is ‘good’ for me. But now I know that Gyges saw me naked and this is ‘evil’ for me. Gyges could never see me naked if he were not authorized and maybe instigated to do so by Candaules. So Candaules betrayed me and it is primarily on him that I must take my revenge. But Gyges, who fully obeys Candaules, deserves to die too, so that in the future he will no more see what he must never see. I will therefore make them perish, either one or the other, so that I can again be surrounded by the ‘good’ and again say to myself: “To be seen naked by X is ‘good’ for me”. At this point the Queen operates upon the weakest ring of the chain and designs a way to raise Gyges against Candaules. She summons Gyges and brutally puts him in front of the alternative of killing the King or dying. The proairesis of the Queen has planned a real murder. We know that this project is a proairetic thing, and that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ lie only in what is proairetic. Allow me to skip the analysis of the actual implementation of the killing project of the Queen, which will be carried out by the hand of Gyges armed by her, the seizure of power by Gyges and the new marriage of the Queen with Gyges. I jump directly to the question: “Is the conception of this project by the murderous Queen something ‘good’ or something ‘evil’?” At this point I know I have an answer, but I don’t know how to justify it. I need you, Raniero, to help me clarify this point. In fact, if ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are characteristic only of what is proairetic, if they are nothing more than different attitudes of the proairesis, when can we say that a certain attitude of our proairesis is ‘good’ and that a different attitude of our proairesis is ‘evil’?” Or, to put the question in slightly different terms: “When can we say that a certain project of the proairesis is ‘good’ and that a different project of the proairesis is ‘evil’?-
-Thank you Muriel, said Raniero, for the confidence you place in me. I’ll try to give you an answer. Let me ask the question in the following way: “Are all the proairetic things, that is, all the things that are in our exclusive power, ‘good’? Are all our projects, impulses, desires, aversions, approvals and so on ‘good’  simply because they are proairetic things?” Certainly it is not so, because we know that they can also be ‘evil’, while no aproairetic thing can be ‘good’ or ‘evil’. “Therefore, when can we define a judgment, an impulse, a desire, an aversion, an approval and so on, to be ‘good’, and when can we define it to be ‘evil’?” The problem is a serious one, because in order to get out of trouble in this case we need to find a canon, a parameter that is ‘invariant’, that is unaffected by any difference of ideology, culture, race, religion, language, age, gender, and so on between human beings. Do you remember that in one of our conversations we reached the fundamental conclusion that the nature of things exists also in the case of proairetic things, and that our projects, desires, approvals and so forth are all aspects of the same invariant and infinite quantity that we have called ‘freedom’? Our proairesis is this invariant and infinite quantity, and as such human proairesis is by nature free, unhampered and unconstrained. Which is, then, the canon we are looking for? I think that the answer can be formulated in these terms: “The proairesis is true to itself, it’s ‘good’, when it keeps itself free, unhampered and unconstrained. The proairesis is untrue to itself, it’s ‘evil’, when it no loger keeps itself free, unhampered and unconstrained”. The naked proairesis is an infinite quantity, no finite thing can be greater than it is, and so no aproairetic thing can limit it. It’s only the proairesis that can choose to dress up and disguise itself as a slave, a coward, an unhappy man. The proairesis is therefore ‘evil’ when it disguises itself in this way, and I suggest to call this perversion ‘counterdiairesis’. When our proairesis counterdiairesizes, it claims to lack exclusive power over what the nature of things has placed in its exclusive power. When the proairesis sets at work the counterdiairesis, it loses its sense of responsibility and shows itself conditioned by smaller, finite quantities. Diairesis and counterdiairesis thus appear as the two ways that the proairesis has at its disposal to rotate on itself, while the implementation of what anyone decides is entrusted, when it’s the case, to the antidiairesis, which can be complementary to both. Once we have found the canon, I think we have found the answer to the difficult question that had been raised and now we can go back to the story of the Queen-
-Dear Raniero, said Muriel smiling, you’re priceless. I hope I have got it right and I believe I am now able to complete my task. Incidentally, I want to note an important thing with reference to one of our previous conversations. Talking about Medea, we compared our proairesis to a Court with two judges. Now we can say that there were not two judges in office but three, and we can finally give a name to the mysterious judge who wrote the instructions for Medea: his name is definitely counterdiairesis.  Let’s now go back to our present subject. We know that Gyges and Candaules are aproairetic things for the Queen. If the Queen’s proairesis judges that she has to kill either Candaules or Gyges or both, this means that she judges their existence as an impairment of her freedom. But if the proairesis finds that its own freedom can be impaired by an aproairetic thing, the proairesis is no longer judging itself as an infinite freedom. Therefore the proairesis of the Queen doesn’t set at work the diairesis but the counterdiairesis. This means that the proairesis of the Queen has corrupted itself and is therefore in the ‘evil’. Let’s summarize. The proairesis of the Queen, like the proairesis of Candaules, is in the ‘evil’ because it has at least a couple of judgments that we know to be those of a proairesis unable to operate properly. Furthermore, the proairesis of the Queen is in the ‘evil’ because, using the counterdiairesis, it harbours feeling of revenge and nurtures a specific project of murder. What shall we say to the Queen? We shall say: “What a night was this one for you, lady! The garlands suddenly fell from the walls of the palace. Stop it, my Queen, stop it! Change your judgments! If you don’t use the diairesis, you will celebrate a tremendous blood wedding and misery will be the perennial guest at your banquets’-
-Dear Muriel, said Irene, you were so clear as someone reading a book! Now that it’s up to me, I don’t really know if I shall succeed in matching your accuracy and your clarity. I have to examine the behavior of Gyges. Gyges is obviously the weakest of the three characters and he could say: “The King has forced me to see the Queen naked and I could not refuse his order. The Queen has forced me to do something against my will and I could not refuse her order”.  Let’s see if this is true. Candaules puts Gyges in front of a dilemma regarding the compliance with or the violation of a law. This law has nothing to do with the nature of things and could actually be called, in a much more precise way, a simple cultural model. We are in fact dealing with people who believe it a great evil for a woman and for a man to be seen naked. The law in question, which obviously excludes only the King, could be summarized in this way: ‘You’ll never see your Queen stark naked’. Raniero has already examined the reasons why Candaules introduces Gyges into this labyrinth and we know from the words of Herodotus that Gyges, despite the assurances of the King, finds himself in a situation in which he cannot avoid to choose. Candaules is aware that he is asking Gyges to violate the law, and Gyges is also fully aware of it. The command of the King then puts Gyges in the following contradiction: ‘To obey the King is ‘good’ for me (because I’ll continue to obtain his favours)’ and ‘To obey the King is ‘evil’ for me (because I violate the law)’. We know that the contradiction is rationally unbearable and must be swiftly solved. It is also clear from the account of Herodotus that Gyges would prefer to choose the respect of the law, but he is certain that disobeying the King would mean to lose his favours. Gyges knows that if he does not break the law he can keep his proairesis free, unhampered and unconstrained, but he can attain this result only by disobeying the orders of the King and losing his favours. On the contrary, Gyges knows that, if he obeys the orders of the King and violates the law, he will retain the favours of the King at the cost, however, of counterdiairesizing and then of making his proairesis slave, subservient and subordinate. We know what Gyges chooses. The proairesis of Gyges, infatuated as it is with aproairetic things like the favours of the King, has perverted itself and is therefore in the ‘evil’. When the human proairesis puts itself in this evil state and dresses up with counterdiairesis, then the problem arises of how to justify this renunciation of its infinite freedom. This justification, for any human being belonging to any culture, civilization, sex, religion, language and so on, takes invariably the form: ‘It’s the fault of someone else’. The proairesis which is no longer free and master of itself due to the use of counterdiairesis, is forced ‘invariably’ to project outside itself the cause of its perversion; and this happens because the proairesis is, at least temporarily, unable to recognize the nature of things. This is the reason why Gyges says that his choice is actually the King’s fault. And what shall we say to Gyges? We shall say: ‘Stop it, Gyges, stop it! At what a small price you are selling your proairesis! You are selling it at the price of indigestion and drunkenness. Stop using the counterdiairesis. Change your judgments, otherwise you’ll be forced to a banquet of blood!’ After a few days Gyges finds himself for the second time in a completely unexpected situation, and that again forces him to make a choice. This time it’s the Queen who asks him brutally to make a choice between life and death. Gyges enters here in the following contradiction: ‘To obey the Queen is ‘good’ for me (because I shall live, I’ll have the Queen and the Kingdom)’ and ‘To obey the Queen is ‘evil’ for me (because I have to assassinate my King).’ The contradiction, as we know, is unbearable and must be quickly resolved. It’s clear from the account of Herodotus that Gyges would tend to choose not to murder Candaules, but this would mean his own death. And Gyges chooses to live. Let’s forget for a moment that the proairesis of Gyges is already in the ‘evil’ because of its first counterdiairesis. If Gyges does not kill the King, he keeps his own proairesis (supposing that it is in a ‘good’ state) free, unhampered and unconstrained. But this choice would mean his own death. If Gyges murders the King, he stays alive and gets the Queen and the Kingdom, at the cost, however, of the perversion of his own proairesis. We know what Gyges chooses and we also know that for this choice he blames, this time, the Queen. What shall we say to Gyges? We shall say: ‘Stop it, Gyges, stop it! Your proairesis is twice in the ‘evil’. Change your judgment, use the diairesis and give up the banquet of blood. Gyges today is saving himself by dying, not by killing!’-
A long silence followed.
Today, said Raniero softly, I think we learned about at a lot of things, and I believe that it’s now time to go prepare dinner. Are you staying with us for dinner, Muriel?-
-I really do want a glass of retsina, said Muriel with tears in her eyes-
-We will put the dining table on the big terrace, said Irene, eat, and wait until we see the stars lighting up slowly in the sky-



Copyright (c) 2006 My Education Website. All rights reserved.