Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 5


To those who leave school[1] because of illness

I am ill here, says one of the students, and want to go back home.—What, were you free from illness at home? Do you not raise the question whether you are doing here any of the things that have a bearing upon your moral purpose, so that it shall be improved? For if you are not accomplishing anything, it was no use for you to have come in the first place. Go back and tend to your affairs at home. For if your governing principle cannot be brought into conformity with nature, no doubt your paltry piece of land can be made to conform with it.[2][† 1] You will increase the amount of your small change; you will care for your father in his old age, you will walk up and down in the market, you will hold office; a poor wretch yourself, you will do wretchedly whatever comes next. But if you understand yourself, namely, that you are putting away certain bad judgements and taking on others in their place, and that you have transferred your status from what lies outside the province of the moral purpose to what lies inside the same, and that if ever you say "Alas!" you are speaking, not for your father's sake, or your brother's sake, but "for my own sake," then why take account of illness any longer? 5Do you not know that disease and death needs must overtake us, no matter what we are doing? They overtake the farmer at his work in the fields, the sailor on the sea. What do you wish to be doing when it overtakes you? For no matter what you do you will have to be overtaken by death. If you have anything better to be doing when you are so overtaken, get to work on that.

As for me, I would fain that death overtook me occupied with nothing but my own moral purpose, trying to make it tranquil, unhampered, unconstrained, free. This is what I wish to be engaged in when death finds me, so that I may be able to say to God, "Have I in any respect transgressed Thy commands? Have I in any respect misused the resources which Thou gavest me, or used my senses to no purpose, or my preconceptions? Have I ever found any fault with Thee? Have I blamed Thy governance at all? I fell sick, when it was Thy will; so did other men, but I willingly. I became poor, it being Thy will, but with joy, I have held no office, because Thou didst not will it, and I never set my heart upon office. Hast Thou ever seen me for that reason greatly dejected? Have I not ever come before Thee with a radiant countenance, ready for any injunctions or orders Thou mightest give? 10And now it is Thy will that I leave this festival; I go, I am full of gratitude to Thee that Thou hast deemed me worthy to take part in this festival with Thee, and to see Thy works, and to understand Thy governance." Be this my thought, this my writing, this my reading, when death comes upon me.

But my mother will not hold my head in her arms when I am ill.—Very well, go back to your mother; you are just the sort of person that deserves to have his head held in somebody's arms when he is ill!—But at home I used to have a nice bed to lie on.—Go back to your bed; without doubt you deserve to lie on such a fine bed even when you are well! Pray, then, do not lose by staying here what you can do there.

But what does Socrates say? "As one man rejoices," remarks he, "in improving his own farm, and another his own horse, so I rejoice day by day in following the course of my own improvement."[3] 15In what respect; in little philosophic phrases?—Man, hold your tongue.—In little philosophic theories, then?—What are you doing?—Well, I don't see anything else that the philosophers spend their time on.—Is it nothing in your eyes never to bring accusation against anyone, be it God or man? Never to blame anyone? Always to wear the same expression on one's face, whether one is coming out or going in?[4] These are the things which Socrates knew, and yet he never said that he either knew or taught anything. But if someone called for little philosophic phrases or theories, he used to take him over to Protagoras or Hippias. It was just as though someone had come to him for fresh vegetables, and he would have taken him over to the market gardener. Who, then, among you makes this purpose of Socrates the purpose of his own life? Why, if you did, you would have been glad even to be ill, and to go hungry, and to die. If any one of you was ever in love with a pretty wench, he knows that what I say is true.


  1. The word "school" does not, of course, appear in the Greek, but such was the nature of the educational institution which Epictetus conducted, and that is clearly what is meant here. See in particular Ivo Bruns: De Schola Epicteii (1897), and the studies by Colardeau, Halbauer, and Hartmann, listed in Vol. I, Introduction.
  2. See the critical note.
  3. The closest parallels from Xenophon (Mem. I. 6. 8 and 14) and Plato (Prot. 318 A) express the idea so differently that we have here probably (through Chrysippus) a fragment from one of the lost Socratic dialogues, of which there was a large body.
  4. See also about Socrates in Aelian, Var. Hist. 9, 7.

Select critical notes

  1. δυνήσεται. εὐθενήσεται (will prosper) Elter rather plausibly.