Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 25


To those who fail to achieve their purposes

Consider which of the things that you purposed at the start you have achieved, and which you have not; likewise, how it gives you pleasure to recall some of them, and pain to recall others, and, if possible, recover also those things which have slipped out of your grasp. For men who are engaged in the greatest of contests ought not to flinch, but to take also the blows; for the contest before us is not in wrestling or the pancratium, in which, whether a man succeeds or fails, he may be worth a great deal, or only a little,—yes, by Zeus, he may even be extremely happy or extremely miserable,—but it is a contest for good fortune and happiness itself. What follows? Why here, even if we give in for the time being, no one prevents us from struggling again, and we do not have to wait another four-year period for another Olympic festival to come around, but the moment a man has picked himself up, and recovered himself, and exhibits the same eagerness, he is allowed to contest; and if you give in again, you can enter again; and if once you win a victory, you are as though you had never given in at all. 5Only don't begin cheerfully to do the same thing over again out of sheer habit, and end up as a bad athlete, going the whole circuit of the games, and getting beaten all the time, like quails that have once run away.[1] "I am overcome by the impression of a pretty maid. Well, what of it? Wasn't I overcome just the other day?" "I feel strongly inclined to censure somebody, for didn't I censure somebody just the other day?" You talk thus to us as though you had come off scot-free; just as if a man should say to his physician who was forbidding him to bathe, "Why, but didn't I bathe just the other day?" If, then, the physician is able to say to him, "Very well, after you had bathed, then, how did you feel? Didn't you have a fever? Didn't your head ache?" So, too, when you censured somebody the other day, didn't you act like an ugly-spirited man, like a silly babbler? Didn't you feed this habit by citing the example of your own previous acts? And when you were overcome by the maid, did you escape scot-free? Why, then, do you talk about what you were doing just the other day? In my opinion, you ought to have remembered, as slaves remember their blows, and to have kept away from the same mistakes. 10But one case is not like the other; for with slaves it is the suffering which produces the memory, but in the case of your mistakes, what suffering is there, what penalty do you feel? Why, when did you ever acquire the habit of avoiding evil activities?


  1. The comparison is brief, but I presume that a fighting quail, on once having submitted to defeat, became very ready to do so again, as is the case among ordinary chickens. One shouted into his ear in order to make him forget, as they said, the voice of the victor, and to restore his courage. Pollux, 9, 109.