Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 13


The meaning of a forlorn state, and the kind of person a forlorn man is

A forlorn state is the condition of one who is without help. For a man is not forlorn merely because he is alone, any more than a man in the midst of a crowd is necessarily not forlorn. At all events, when we have lost a brother, or a son, or a friend with whom we have shared the same bed, we say that we have been left forlorn, though often we are in Rome, with such large crowds meeting us in the streets, and so many people living in the same house with us, and sometimes even though we have a multitude of slaves. For according to the nature of the concept the 'forlorn' means the person who is without help, and exposed to those who wish to injure him. That is why, when we go on a journey, we call ourselves forlorn most especially at the moment that we encounter robbers. For it is not the sight of a human being as such which puts an end to our forlorn condition, but the sight of a faithful, and unassuming, and helpful human being. Why, if being alone is enough to make one forlorn, you will have to say that even Zeus himself is forlorn at the World-Conflagration,[1] and bewails himself: "Wretched me! I have neither Hera, nor Athena, nor Apollo, nor, in a word, brother, or son, or grandson, or kinsman." 5There are even those who say that this is what he does when left alone at the World-Conflagration; for they cannot conceive of the mode of life of one who is all alone, starting as they do from a natural principle, namely, the facts of natural community of interest among men, and mutual affection, and joy in intercourse. But one ought none the less to prepare oneself for this also, that is, to be able to be self-sufficient, to be able to commune with oneself; even as Zeus communes with himself, and is at peace with himself, and contemplates the character of his governance, and occupies himself with ideas appropriate to himself, so ought we also to be able to converse with ourselves, not to be in need of others, not to be at a loss for some way to spend our time; we ought to devote ourselves to the study of the divine governance, and of our own relation to all other things; to consider how we used to act toward the things that happen to us, and how we act now; what the things are that still distress us; how these too can be remedied, or how removed; if any of these matters that I have mentioned need to be brought to perfection, to perfect them in accordance with the principle of reason inherent in them.

Behold now, Caesar seems to provide us with profound peace, there are no wars any longer, nor battles, no brigandage on a large scale, nor piracy, but at any hour we may travel by land, or sail from the rising of the sun to its setting. 10Can he, then, at all provide us with peace from fever too, and from shipwreck too, and from fire, or earthquake, or lightning? Come, can he give us peace from love? He cannot. From sorrow? From envy? He cannot—from absolutely none of these things. But the doctrine of the philosophers promises to give us peace from these troubles too. And what does it say? "Men, if you heed me, wherever you may be, whatever you may be doing, you will feel no pain, no anger, no compulsion, no hindrance, but you will pass your lives in tranquillity and in freedom from every disturbance." When a man has this kind of peace proclaimed to him, not by Caesar—why, how could he possibly proclaim it?—but proclaimed by God through the reason, is he not satisfied, when he is alone? When he contemplates and reflects, "Now no evil can befall me, for me there is no such thing as a brigand, for me there is no such thing as an earthquake, everything is full of peace, everything full of tranquillity; every road, every city, every fellow-traveller, neighbour, companion, all are harmless. Another,[2] whose care it is, supplies food; Another supplies raiment; Another has given senses; Another preconceptions. Now whenever He does not provide the necessities for existence, He sounds the recall; He has thrown open the door and says to you, "Go." Where? To nothing you need fear, but back to that from which you came, to what is friendly and akin to you, to the physical elements.[3] 15What there was of fire in you shall pass into fire, what there was of earth into earth, what there was of spirit into spirit, what there was of water into water. There is no Hades, nor Acheron, nor Cocytus, nor Pyriphlegethon, but everything is filled with gods and divine powers."[4] A man who has this to think upon, and who beholds the sun, and moon, and stars, and enjoys land and sea, is no more forlorn than he is without help. "Why, what then? What if someone should attack me when I am alone and murder me?" Fool, not murder you but your trivial body.

What kind of forlornness is left, then, to talk about? What kind of helplessness? Why make ourselves worse than little children? When they are left alone, what do they do? They gather up sherds and dust and build something or other, then tear it down and build something else again; and so they are never at a loss as to how to spend their time. Am I, then, if you set sail, to sit down and cry because I am left alone and forlorn in that fashion? Shan't I have sherds, shan't I have dust? But they act thus out of folly, and are we miserable out of wisdom?

[5] 20Great power is always dangerous for the beginner. We ought, therefore, to bear such things according to our power—nay, in accordance with nature . . .[6] but not for the consumptive. Practise at some one time a style of living like an invalid, that at some other time you may live like a healthy man. Take no food, drink only water; refrain at some one time altogether from desire, that at some other time you may exercise desire, and then with good reason. And if you do so with good reason, whenever you have some good in you, you will exercise your desire aright.[7] No, that's not our way, but we wish to live like wise men from the very start, and to help mankind. Help indeed! What are you about? Why, have you helped yourself? But you wish to help them progress. Why, have you made progress yourself? Do you wish to help them? Then show them, by your own example, the kind of men philosophy produces, and stop talking nonsense. As you eat, help those who are eating with you; as you drink, those who are drinking with you; by yielding to everybody, giving place, submitting—help men in this way, and don't bespatter them with your own sputum.[8]


  1. The periodic consumption of the universe by fire, and its rebirth, a doctrine which the Stoics inherited from Heracleitus. Even the deities, with the exception of Zeus, succumb in the Götterdämmerung. Precisely the same situation as that described here is referred to by Seneca, Ep. Mor. 9, 16: Qualis est Iovis (vita), cum resoluto mundo et dis in unum confusis paulisper cessante natura adquiescit sibi cogitationibus suis traditus.
  2. A reverent expression for God. See note on III. 1, 43.
  3. Compare the Introduction, p. xxv f.
  4. A doctrine ascribed to Thales, Diog. Laert. 1, 27.
  5. The change in subject-matter is so abrupt that something may perhaps have fallen out in some ancestor of S, or perhaps the next chapter-heading has become displaced by a few lines. Yet there are similarly abrupt transitions in III. 8, 7 and III. 15, 14.
  6. Something like "Give food (or wine) to the healthy man" (Reiske), or "Wrestling is very good for the healthy man" (Schenkl), has probably fallen out at this point.
  7. "It is one of the paradoxes of conduct that a man cannot will to do good until in a sense he has become good, but Epictetus would doubtless admit that the will must from the first have exercise." Matheson, I. 32.
  8. Referring, no doubt, to the sputtering of excessively ardent lecturers.