Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

That it is possible to derive advantage from everything external

In the case of our intellectual impressions practically all men have agreed that the good and the evil are in ourselves, and not in externals. Nobody calls the statement that it is day, good, or that it is night, bad, and the greatest of evils, the statement that three is four. But what? They call knowledge good, and error evil; so that even in regard to what is false there arises a good, that is, the knowledge that the false is false. So it ought to be, then, also with our life. Is health a good, and illness an evil? No, man. What then? To be well for a good end is good, to be well for an evil end is evil.—So that it is possible to derive advantage even from illness, you mean?—Why, I call God to witness, isn't it possible to derive advantage from death? Why, isn't it possible from lameness?[1] 5Do you think that Menoeceus[2] derived but little good when he died?—May the one who says anything like that derive the same sort of good that he did!—Ho, there, man, did he not maintain the patriot that he was, the high-minded man, the man of fidelity, the man of honour? And had he lived on, would he not have lost all these? Would he not have won the very opposite? Would he not have acquired the character of the coward, the ignoble man, the disloyal, the lover of his own life? Come now, do you think that Menoeceus derived but little good by his death? Oh, no! But the father of Admetus derived great good from living so ignobly and wretchedly, did he? Why, didn't he die later? Make an end, I adjure you by the gods, of admiring material things, make an end of turning yourselves into slaves, in the first place, of things, and then, in the second place, on their account, slaves also of the men who are able to secure or to take away these things.

Is it possible, then, to derive advantage from these things?—Yes, from everything.—Even from the man who reviles me?—And what good does his wrestling-companion do the athlete? The very greatest. So also my reviler becomes one who prepares me for my contest; he exercises my patience, my dispassionateness, my gentleness. 10You say: No. But the man who lays hold of my neck and gets my loins and my shoulders into proper shape helps me, and the rubber does well when he says, "Lift the pestle with both hands,"[3] and the heavier it is, the more good I get out of doing so; whereas, if a man trains me to be dispassionate, does he do me no good? Your attitude means that you do not know how to derive advantage from men. Is your neighbour bad? Yes, for himself; but for me he is good; he exercises my good disposition, my fair-mindedness. Is your father bad? Yes, for himself; but for me he is good. This is the magic wand of Hermes. "Touch what you will," the saying goes,[† 1] "and it will turn into gold." Nay, but bring whatever you will and I will turn it into a good. Bring disease, bring death, bring poverty, reviling, peril of life in court; all these things will become helpful at a touch from the magic wand of Hermes. "What will you make of death?" Why, what else but make it your glory, or an opportunity for you to show in deed thereby what sort of person a man is who follows the will of nature. "What will you make of disease?" I will show its character, I will shine in it, I will be firm, I will be serene, I will not fawn upon my physician, I will not pray for death. 15What else do you still seek? Everything that you give I will turn into something blessed, productive of happiness, august, enviable.

Not so you; but, "Watch out that you don't get ill; it's bad." Just as if someone said, "Watch out that you never get the impression that three are four; it's bad." Man, how do you mean "bad"? If I get the right idea of it, how is it going to hurt me any more? Will it not rather even do me good? If, then, I get the right idea about poverty, or disease, or not holding office, am I not satisfied? Will they not be helpful to me? How, then, would you have me seek any longer amongst externals for things evil and things good?

But what? These things go thus far,[4] but nobody takes them home with him; nay, as soon as we leave here, there is war on with our slave attendant, our neighbours, those that mock, and those that laugh at us. Blessed be Lesbius,[5] because he convicts me every day of knowing nothing!

FootnotesEdit

  1. Perhaps a reference to his own case. See Introd. p. ix. f., in Vol. I.
  2. Who gave his life to save his native city, Thebes.
  3. The physical exercise referred to in III. 12, 9.
  4. That is, no farther than the class room.
  5. Presumably some scoffer or irritating person known to the audience.

Select critical notesEdit

  1. φασίν Upton: φησίν S. Cicero, Off. I. 158: Quod si omnia nobis . . . quasi virgula divina, ut aiunt, suppeditarent, shows clearly that this is a proverbial saying.