Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 15


That we ought to approach each separate thing with circumspection

In each separate thing that you do consider the matters which come first, and those which follow after, and only then approach the thing itself. Otherwise, at the start you will come to it enthusiastically because you have never reflected upon any of the subsequent steps, but later on, when some of them appear, you will give up disgracefully. "I wish to win an Olympic victory." But consider the matters which come before that and those which follow after; and only when you have done that, then, if it profits you, put your hand to the task. You have to submit to discipline, follow a strict diet, give up sweet-cakes, train under compulsion, at a fixed hour, in heat or in cold; you must not drink cold water,[2] nor wine just whenever you feel like it; you must have turned yourself over to your trainer precisely as you would to a physician. Then when the contest comes on, you have to "dig in" beside[3] your opponent, sometimes dislocate your wrist, sprain your ankle, swallow quantities of sand, take a scourging;[4] yes, and then sometimes get beaten along with all that. 5After you have counted up these points, go on into the games, if you still wish to; otherwise, I would have you observe that you will be turning back like children. Sometimes they play athletes, again gladiators, again they blow trumpets, and then act a play about anything that they have seen and admired. So you too are now an athlete, now a gladiator, then a philosopher, after that a rhetorician, yet with your whole soul nothing, but like an ape you imitate whatever you see, and one thing after another is always striking your fancy, but what you are accustomed to bores you. For you have never gone out after anything with circumspection, nor after you have examined the whole matter all over and tested it, but you act at haphazard and half-heartedly.[5]

In the same way, when some people have seen a philosopher and heard someone speaking like Euphrates[6] (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), they wish to be philosophers themselves. Man, consider first what the business is, and then your own natural ability, what you can bear. If you wish to be a wrestler, look to your shoulders, your thighs, your loins. 10For one man has a natural talent for one thing, another for another. Do you suppose that you can do the things you do now, and yet be a philosopher? Do you suppose that you can eat in the same fashion, drink in the same fashion, give way to anger and to irritation, just as you do now? You must keep vigils, work hard, overcome certain desires, abandon your own people, be despised by a paltry slave, be laughed to scorn by those who meet you, in everything get the worst of it, in office, in honour, in court. Look these drawbacks over carefully, and then, if you think best, approach philosophy, that is, if you are willing at the price of these things to secure tranquillity, freedom, and calm. Otherwise, do not approach; don't act like a child—now a philosopher, later on a tax-gatherer, then a rhetorician, then a procurator of Caesar. These things do not go together. You must be one person, either good or bad; you must labour to improve either your own governing principle or externals; you must work hard either on the inner man, or on things outside; that is, play the rôle of a philosopher, or else that of a layman.[7]

When Galba[8] was assassinated, someone said to Rufus,[9] "Is the universe governed now by Providence?" But he replied, "Did I ever, even in passing, take the case of Galba as the basis for an argument that the universe is governed by Providence?"


  1. Repeated with slight variations in Encheiridion, 29.
  2. See note on Ench. 29, 2.
  3. A technical term (Diog. Laert. 6, 27) of somewhat uncertain meaning, but probaby referring to a preliminary wallowing in dust or mud before the wrestling match at the pancratium.
  4. That is, for any foul committed.
  5. Although the expression (lit. "with cold desire") seems a bit strange, because the fault seems to lie especially in the lack of forethought and circumspection, still it is supported by the version in the Encheiridion, and particularly by the phrase, "yet with your whole soul nothing," in § 6 above. Mere desire, without reason and deliberation, is apparently regarded by Epictetus as a weak thing.
  6. An eminent Stoic lecturer, highly praised by Pliny (Ep. I. 10), and a bitter enemy of Apollonius of Tyana. A specimen of his eloquence is given below, IV. 8, 17-20.
  7. See note on III. 13, 20.
  8. The Roman emperor; the incident took place in A.D. 69.
  9. Musonius Rufus, the distinguished philosopher and teacher of Epictetus, to whom the latter was greatly indebted. See the indices to the two vols. of this translation, and Vol. I. Introduction, p. viii.