Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

Of progress

He who is making progress, having learned of the philosophers that desire is for things good and aversion is toward things evil, and having also learned that serenity and calm[1] are not attained by a man save as he succeeds in securing the objects of desire and as he avoids encountering the objects of aversion—such a one has utterly excluded desire from himself, or else deferred it to another time,[2] and feels aversion only toward the things which involve freedom of choice. For if he avoids anything that is not a matter of free choice, he knows that some time he will encounter something in spite of his aversion to it, and will come to grief. Now if it is virtue that holds out the promise thus to create happiness and calm and serenity, then assuredly progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these states of mind. For it is always true that whatsoever the goal toward which perfection in anything definitely leads, progress is an approach thereto.

5How comes it, then, that we acknowledge virtue to be a thing of this sort, and yet seek progress and make a display of it in other things? What is the work[3] of virtue? Serenity. Who, then, is making progress? The man who has read many treatises of Chrysippus? What, is virtue no more than this—to have gained a knowledge of Chrysippus? For if it is this, progress is confessedly nothing else than a knowledge of many of the works of Chrysippus. But now, while acknowledging that virtue produces one thing, we are declaring that the approach to virtue, which is progress, produces something else. "So-and-so," says someone, "is already able to read Chrysippus all by himself." It is fine headway, by the gods, that you are making, man! Great progress this! 10"Why do you mock him? And why do you try to divert him from the consciousness of his own shortcomings? Are you not willing to show him the work of virtue, that he may learn where to look for his progress?" Look for it there, wretch, where your work lies. And where is your work? In desire and aversion, that you may not miss what you desire and encounter what you would avoid; in choice and in refusal, that you may commit no fault therein; in giving and withholding assent of judgement, that you may not be deceived.[4] But first come the first and most necessary points. Yet if you are in a state of fear and grief when you seek to be proof against encountering what you would avoid, how, pray, are you making progress?

Do you yourself show me, therefore, your own progress in matters like the following. Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete I said, "Show me your shoulders," and then he answered, "Look at my jumping-weights."[5] Go to, you and your jumping-weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping-weights. "Take the treatise Upon Choice[6] and see how I have mastered it." It is not that I am looking into, you slave, but how you act in your choices and refusals, your desires and aversions, how you go at things, and apply yourself to them, and prepare yourself, whether you are acting in harmony with nature therein, or out of harmony with it. 15For if you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress; but if out of harmony, begone, and do not confine yourself to expounding your books, but go and write some of the same kind yourself. And what will you gain thereby? Do you not know that the whole book costs only five denarii? Is the expounder of it, then, think you, worth more than five denarii? And so never look for your work in one place and your progress in another.

Where, then, is progress? If any man among you, withdrawing from external things, has turned his attention to the question of his own moral purpose, cultivating and perfecting it so as to make it finally harmonious with nature, elevated, free, unhindered, untrammelled, faithful, and honourable; and if he has learned that he who craves or shuns the things that are not under his control can be neither faithful nor free, but must himself of necessity be changed and tossed to and fro with them, and must end by subordinating himself to others, those, namely, who are able to procure or prevent these things that he craves or shuns; 20and if, finally, when he rises in the morning he proceeds to keep and observe all this that he has learned; if he bathes as a faithful man, eats as a self-respecting man,—similarly, whatever the subject matter may be with which he has to deal, putting into practice his guiding principles, as the runner does when he applies the principles of running, and the voice-trainer when he applies the principles of voice-training,—this is the man who in all truth is making progress, and the man who has not travelled at random is this one. But if he has striven merely to attain the state which he finds in his books and works only at that, and has made that the goal of his travels, I bid him go home at once and not neglect his concerns there, since the goal to which he has travelled is nothing; but not so that other goal—to study how a man may rid his life of sorrows and lamentations, and of such cries as "Woe is me!" and "Wretch that I am!" and of misfortune and failure, and to learn the meaning of death, exile, prison, hemlock;[7] that he may be able to say in prison, "Dear Crito, if so it pleases the gods, so be it,"[8] rather than, "Alas, poor me, an old man, it is for this that I have kept my grey hairs!" 25Who says such things? Do you think that I will name you some man held in small esteem and of low degree? Does not Priam say it? Does not Oedipus? Nay more, all kings say it! For what are tragedies but the portrayal in tragic verse of the sufferings of men who have admired things external? If indeed one had to be deceived[9] into learning that among things external and independent of our free choice none concerns us, I, for my part, should consent to a deception which would result in my living thereafter serenely and without turmoil; but as for you, you will yourselves see to your own preference.

What, then, does Chrysippus furnish us? "That you may know," he says, "that these things are not false from which serenity arises and tranquillity comes to us, take my books and you shall know how conformable and harmonious with nature are the things which render me tranquil." O the great good fortune! O the great benefactor who points the way! 30To Triptolemus, indeed, all men have established shrines and altars, because he gave us as food the fruits of cultivation, but to him who has discovered, and brought to light, and imparted to all men the truth which deals, not with mere life, but with a good life,[10]—who among you has for that set up an altar in his honour, or dedicated a temple or a statue, or bows down to God in gratitude for him? But because the gods have given us the vine or wheat, for that do we make sacrifice, and yet because they have brought forth such a fruit in a human mind,[11] whereby they purposed to show us the truth touching happiness, shall we fail to render thanks unto God for this?

FootnotesEdit

  1. The characteristic moral achievement which the Stoics sought. The metaphor in the first expression, τὸ εὔρουν, is admirably rendered by Seneca, Epist. 120. 11, beata vita, secundo defluens cursu.
  2. See the Encheiridion, II. 2: "But for the present totally make way with desire."
  3. i.e., the result at which virtue aims.
  4. These are the three spheres or fields (τόποι) of human activity, inclination, choice, and intellectual assent, upon which the Stoics laid great stress. For a fuller discussion see below III 2, 1 ff.
  5. Broad-jumpers in antiquity carried weights which on being thrust backwards while the jumper was in mid-air seem to have added materially to the distance covered. These same weights were also used like our dumb-bells for the development of the arm and trunk muscles, as is apparently the case here.
  6. The title, apparently, of a short work by Chrysippus, but known only from this passage. Zeno and Cleanthes wrote also on the subject.
  7. The poison with which Socrates was put to death.
  8. Plato, Crito, 43 D.
  9. Probably by witnessing tragedies, the plots of which, although fictitious, may teach moral lessons.
  10. The phrase is from Plato, Crito, 48 B.
  11. Referring probably to the mind of Chrysippus.