Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

How should we struggle against difficulties?

It is difficulties that show what men are. Consequently, when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a physical trainer, has matched you with a rugged young man. What for? some one says. So that you may become an Olympic victor; but that cannot be done without sweat. To my way of thinking no one has got a finer difficulty than the one which you have got, if only you are willing to make use of it as an athlete makes use of a young man to wrestle with. And now we are sending you to Rome as a scout, to spy out the land.[1] But no one sends a coward as a scout, that, if he merely hears a noise and sees a shadow anywhere, he may come running back in terror and report "The enemy is already upon us." So now also, if you should come and tell us, "The state of things at Rome is fearful; terrible is death, terrible is exile, terrible is reviling, terrible is poverty; flee, sirs, the enemy is upon us!" 5we shall say to you, "Away, prophesy to yourself! Our one mistake was that we sent a man like you as a scout."

Diogenes, who before you was sent forth as a scout, has brought us back a different report. He says, "Death is not an evil, since it is not dishonourable"; he says, "Ill repute is a noise made by madmen." And what a report this scout has made us about toil and about pleasure and about poverty! He says, "To be naked is better than any scarlet robe; and to sleep on the bare ground," he says, "is the softest couch." And he offers as a proof of each statement his own courage, his tranquillity, his freedom, and finally his body, radiant with health and hardened. "There is no enemy near," says he; "all is full of peace." How so, Diogenes? "Why, look!" says he, "I have not been struck with any missile, have I, or received any wound? I have not fled from anyone, have I?" 10This is what it means to be a proper scout, but you return and tell us one thing after another. Will you not go away again and observe more accurately, without this cowardice?

What am I to do, then?—What do you do when you disembark from a ship? You do not pick up the rudder, do you, or the oars? What do you pick up, then? Your own luggage, your oil-flask, your wallet. So now, if you are mindful of what is your own property, you will never lay claim to that which is another's. He[2] says to you, "Lay aside your broad scarlet hem"[3] Behold, the narrow hem.[4] "Lay aside this also." Behold, the plain toga.[5] "Lay aside your toga." Behold, I am naked. "But you arouse my envy." Well, then, take the whole of my paltry body. Do I any longer fear the man to whom I can throw my body? But he will not leave me as his heir. What then? Did I forget that none of these things is my own? How, then, do we call them "my own"? Merely as we call the bed in the inn "my own." If, then, the inn-keeper dies and leaves you the beds, you will have them; but if he leaves them to someone else, he will have them, and you will look for another bed. 15If, then, you do not find one, you will have to sleep on the ground; only do so with good courage, snoring and remembering that tragedies find a place among the rich and among kings and tyrants, but no poor man fills a tragic role except as a member of the chorus. Now the kings commence in a state of prosperity:

"Hang the palace with garlands";[6]

then, about the third or fourth act, comes—

"Alas, Cithaeron, why didst thou receive me?"[7]

Slave, where are your crowns, where your diadem? Do your guards avail you not at all? When, therefore, you approach one of those great men, remember all this—that you are approaching a tragic character, not the actor, but Oedipus himself. "Nay, but so-and-so is blessed; for he has many companions to walk with." So have I; I fall in line with the multitude and have many companions to walk with. 20But, to sum it all up: remember that the door has been thrown open. Do not become a greater coward than the children, but just as they say, "I won't play any longer," when the thing does not please them, so do you also, when things seem to you to have reached that stage, merely say, "I won't play any longer," and take your departure; but if you stay, stop lamenting.

FootnotesEdit

  1. Domitian had banished the philosophers from Rome; the young man is, therefore, being sent from Nicopolis to learn what is going on there that might be of interest to the cause of philosophy.
  2. The reference must be to the Emperor Domitian, but Epictetus discreetly uses no name.
  3. Worn by senators.
  4. Worn by knights.
  5. Worn by ordinary citizens.
  6. From an unknown play.
  7. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, 1390. Cithaeron was the mountain on which the infant Oedipus had been exposed to die.