Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 20


How the reasoning faculty contemplates itself

Every art and faculty makes certain things the special object of its contemplation. Now when the art or faculty itself is of like kind with what it contemplates, it becomes inevitably self-contemplative; but when it is of unlike kind, it cannot contemplate itself. For example, the art of leather-working has to do with hides, but the art itself is altogether different from the material of hides, wherefore it is not self-contemplative. Again, the art of grammar has to do with written speech; it is not, therefore, also itself written speech, is it? Not at all. For this reason it cannot contemplate itself. 5Well then, for what purpose have we received reason from nature? For the proper use of external impressions. What, then, is reason itself? Something composed out of a certain kind of external impressions. Thus it comes naturally to be also self-contemplative. Once more, what are the things that wisdom has been given us to contemplate? Things good, bad, and neither good nor bad. What, then, is wisdom itself? A good. And what is folly? An evil. Do you see, then, that wisdom inevitably comes to contemplate both itself and its opposite? Therefore, the first and greatest task of the philosopher is to test the impressions and discriminate between them, and to apply[1] none that has not been tested. You all see in the matter of coinage, in which it is felt that we have some interest, how we have even invented an art, and how many means the tester employs to test the coinage—sight, touch, smell, finally hearing; he throws the denarius down and then listens to the sound, and is not satisfied with the sound it makes on a single test, but, as a result of his constant attention to the matter, he catches the tune, like a musician. 10Thus, where we feel that it makes a good deal of difference to us whether we go wrong or do not go wrong, there we apply any amount of attention to discriminating between things that are capable of making us go wrong, but in the case of our governing principle, poor thing, we yawn and sleep and erroneously accept any and every external impression; for here the loss that we suffer does not attract our attention.

When, therefore, you wish to realize how careless you are about the good and the evil, and how zealous you are about that which is indifferent, observe how you feel about physical blindness on the one hand, and mental delusion on the other, and you will find out that you are far from feeling as you ought about things good and things evil. "Yes, but this requires much preparation, and much hard work, and learning many things." Well, what then? Do you expect it to be possible to acquire the greatest art with a slight effort? And yet the chief doctrine of the philosophers is extremely brief. If you would know, read what Zeno has to say and you will see. 15For what is there lengthy in his statement: "To follow the gods is man's end, and the essence of good is the proper use of external impressions"? Ask, "What, then, is God, and what is an external impression? And what is nature in the individual and nature in the universe?" You already have a lengthy statement. If Epicurus should come and say that the good ought to be in the flesh, again the explanation becomes lengthy, and you must be told what is the principal faculty within us, and what our substantial, and what our essential, nature is. Since it is not probable that the good of a snail lies in its shell, is it, then, probable that the good of man lies in his flesh? But take your own case, Epicurus; what more masterful faculty do you yourself possess? What is that thing within you which takes counsel, which examines into all things severally, which, after examining the flesh itself, decides that it is the principal matter? And why do you light a lamp and toil in our behalf, and write such quantities of books? Is it that we may not fail to know the truth? Who are we? And what are we to you? And so the argument becomes lengthy.


  1. i.e., in the sense of basing action upon only such impressions as have been tested and found to be trustworthy.