Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 19


How ought we to bear ourselves toward tyrants?

If a man possesses some superiority, or thinks at least that he does, even though he does not, it is quite unavoidable that this man, if he is uneducated, becomes puffed up on account of it. For example, the tyrant exclaims, "I am the mightiest in the world." Very well, what can you do for me? Can you secure for me desire that is free from any hindrance? How can you? Do you have it yourself? Can you secure for me aversion proof against encountering what it would avoid? Do you have it yourself? Or infallible choice? And where can you claim a share in that? Come, when you are on board ship, do you feel confidence in yourself, or in the skilled navigator? And when you are in a chariot, in whom do you feel confidence other than the skilled driver. And how is it in the other arts? The same way. What does your power amount to, then? "All men pay attention[1] to me." Yes, and I pay attention to my little plate and wash it and wipe it out, and for the sake of my oil-flask I drive a peg in the wall. What follows, then? Are these things superior to me? No, but they render me some service, and therefore I pay attention to them. Again, do I not pay attention to my donkey? 5Do I not wash his feet? Do I not curry him? Do you not know that every man pays attention to himself, and to you just as he does to his donkey? For who pays attention to you as to a man? Point him out to me. Who wishes to become like you? Who becomes a zealous follower of yours as men did of Socrates? "But I can cut off your head." Well said! I had forgotten that I ought to pay attention to you, as to fever or cholera, and set up an altar to you, just as in Rome there is an altar to the God Fever.

What is it, then, that disturbs and bewilders the multitude? Is it the tyrant and his bodyguards? How is that possible? Nay, far from it! It is not possible that that which is by nature free should be disturbed or thwarted by anything but itself. But it is a man's own judgements that disturb him. For when the tyrant says to a man, "I will chain your leg," the man who has set a high value on his leg replies, "Nay, have mercy upon me," while the man who has set a high value on his moral purpose replies, "If it seems more profitable to you to do so, chain it." "Do you not care?" "No, I do not care." "I will show you that I am master." "How can you be my master? Zeus has set me free. Or do you really think that he was likely to let his own son be made a slave? You are, however, master of my dead body, take it." 10"You mean, then, that when you approach me you will not pay attention to me?" "No, I pay attention only to myself. But if you wish me to say that I pay attention to you too, I tell you that I do so, but only as I pay attention to my pot."

This is not mere self-love; such is the nature of the animal man; everything that he does is for himself. Why, even the sun does everything for its own sake, and, for that matter, so does Zeus himself. But when Zeus wishes to be "Rain-bringer," and "Fruit-giver," and "Father of men and of gods," you can see for yourself that he cannot achieve these works, or win these appellations, unless he proves himself useful to the common interest; and in general he has so constituted the nature of the rational animal man, that he can attain nothing of his own proper goods unless he contributes something to the common interest. Hence it follows that it can no longer be regarded as unsocial for a man to do everything for his own sake. 15For what do you expect? That a man should neglect himself and his own interest? And in that case how can there be room for one and the same principle of action for all, namely, that of appropriation[2] to their own needs?

What then? When men entertain absurd opinions about what lies outside the province of the moral purpose, counting it good or bad, it is altogether unavoidable for them to pay attention to the tyrant. Aye, would that it were merely the tyrants and not their chamberlains too! And yet how can the man suddenly become wise when Caesar puts him in charge of his chamberpot? How can we forthwith say "Felicio has spoken wisely to me"? I would that he were deposed from the superintendency of the dunghill, that you may think him a fool again! Epaphroditus owned a certain cobbler whom he sold because he was useless; then by some chance the fellow was bought by a member of Caesar's household and became cobbler to Caesar. You should have seen how Epaphroditus honoured him! 20"How is my good Felicio, I pray you?" he used to say. And then if someone asked us, "What is your master[3] doing?" he was told, "He is consulting Felicio about something or other." Why, had he not sold him as being useless? Who, then, had suddenly made a wise man out of him? This is what it means to honour something else than what lies within the province of the moral purpose.

"He has been honoured with a tribuneship," someone says. All who meet him offer their congratulations; one man kisses him on the eyes, another on the neck, his slaves kiss his hands. He goes home; he finds lamps being lighted. 25He climbs up the Capitol and offers sacrifice. Now who ever sacrificed as a thank-offering for having had right desire, or for having exercised choice in accordance with nature? For we give thanks to the gods for that wherein we set the good.

To-day a man was talking to me about a priesthood of Augustus. I say to him, "Man, drop the matter; you will be spending a great deal to no purpose." "But," says he, "those who draw up deeds of sale will inscribe my name." "Do you really expect, then, to be present when the deeds are read and say, 'That is my name they have written'? And even supposing you are now able to be present whenever anyone reads them, what will you do if you die?" "My name will remain after me." "Inscribe it on a stone and it will remain after you. Come now, who will remember you outside of Nicopolis?"[4] "But I shall wear a crown of gold." "If you desire a crown at all, take a crown of roses and put it on; you will look much more elegant in that."

Footnotes edit

  1. The whole passage turns on the various meanings of θεραπεύω, which include serve, attend to, give medical care to, pay attention to, pay court to, flatter, etc.
  2. That is, the whole order of nature requires every living thing to appropriate, or make its own, whatever it needs in order to maintain life.
  3. Epaphroditus once owned Epictetus.
  4. The city in which Epictetus taught during the latter part of his life, and where the present conversation is clearly thought of as taking place. Greek and Roman documents, instead of being attested, as most commonly among us, by a single notary, contained many names of witnesses, eponymous magistrates, supervising officials, and the like. A priest of Augustus would naturally be called in often to sign formal documents in one capacity or another.