Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 16


That one should enter cautiously into social intercourse

The man who consorts frequently with one person or another either for conversation, or for banquets, or for social purposes in general, is compelled either to become like them himself, or else to bring them over to his own style of living; for if you put by the side of a live coal one that has gone out, either the dead coal will put the live one out, or the latter will kindle the former. Since the risk, then, is so great, we ought to enter cautiously into such social intercourse with the laymen, remembering that it is impossible for the man who brushes up against the person who is covered with soot to keep from getting some soot on himself. For what are you going to do if he talks about gladiators, or horses, or athletes, or, worse still, about people: "So-and-so is bad, So-and-so is good; this was well done, this ill"; or again, if he scoffs, or jeers, or shows an ugly disposition? 5Has any of you the capacity of the expert lyre-player when he takes up his lyre, which enables him, the instant he touches the strings, to recognize the ones which are off pitch, and to tune the instrument? Or the power that Socrates had, which enabled him in every kind of social intercourse to bring over to his own side those who were in his company? How could you have? But you must necessarily be converted by the laymen.

Why, then, are they stronger than you are? Because their rotten talk is based on judgements, but your fine talk comes merely from your lips; that's why what you say is languid and dead, and why a man may well feel nausea when he hears your exhortations and your miserable "virtue," which you babble to and fro. And thus the laymen get the better of you; for everywhere judgement is strong, judgement is invincible. Therefore, until these fine ideas of yours are firmly fixed within you, and you have acquired some power which will guarantee you security, my advice to you is to be cautious about joining issue with the laymen; otherwise whatever you write down in the lecture-room will melt away by day like wax in the sun.[1] 10Retire, then, to some spot or other far away from the sun, so long as the ideas which you have are waxen. It is for this reason that the philosophers advise us to leave even our own countries, because old habits distract us and do not allow a beginning to be made of another custom, and we cannot bear to have men meet us and say, "Look, So-and-so is philosophizing, although he is this sort of a person or that." Thus also physicians send away to a different region and a different climate those who are suffering from chronic disorders, and that is well. Do you also introduce different habits; fix your ideas, exercise yourselves in them. But no, you go from the class-room to a show, a gladiatorial combat, a gymnasium-colonnade,[2] a circus; and then you come back here from these places, and you go back there again from here, and remain the same persons all the time.[3] 15And so you acquire no fine habit; you pay no regard or attention to your own self; you do not observe: "How do I deal with the external impressions which befall me? In accordance with nature, or contrary to it? How shall I respond to these impressions? As I should, or as I should not? Do I declare to the things which lie outside the sphere of my moral purpose that they mean nothing to me?" Why, if you have not yet acquired this state of mind, flee from your former habits, flee from the laymen, if you would begin to be somebody some time.

Footnotes edit

  1. Such lecture-notes were written on wax tablets.
  2. Where the athletes exercised in winter, or in bad weather.
  3. Cf. " . . . But evermore came out by the same door where in I went."—Omar Khayyam (Fitzgerald), 27.