Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 4/Chapter 10


What ought we to despise and on what place a high value?

Men find all their difficulties in externals, their perplexities in externals. "What shall I do? How is it to take place? How is it to turn out? I am afraid that this will befall me, or that." All these are the expressions of men who concern themselves with the things that lie outside the sphere of the moral purpose. For who says, "How am I to avoid giving assent to the false? How am I to refuse to swerve aside from the true?"? If a man is so gifted by nature as to be in great anxiety about these things, I shall remind him, "Why are you in great anxiety? It is under your own control; rest secure. Do not be in a hurry to give your assent before applying the rule of nature."

Again, if a man is in great anxiety about desire, for fear lest it become incomplete and miss its mark, 5or about aversion, for fear lest it fall into what it would avoid, I shall first give him a kiss of congratulation, because he has got rid of what the rest of mankind are excited about, and their fears, and has turned his serious thought to his own true business in the realm where he himself is. And after that I shall say to him, "If you do not wish to desire without failing to get, or to avoid without falling into the object of your aversion, desire none of those things which are not your own, and avoid none of those things which are not under your control. If not, you are of necessity bound to fail in achieving your desires, and to fall into what you would avoid." Where is there any difficulty in that case? What room is there to ask, "How is it to take place?" and "How is it to turn out?" and to say, "I am afraid that this will befall me, or that"?

Is not the future outside the sphere of the moral purpose now?—Yes.—And is not the true nature of the good and evil inside the sphere of the moral purpose?—Yes.—Are you permitted, then, to make a natural use of every outcome? No one can prevent you, can he?—No one.—Therefore, say no longer to me, "How is it to take place?"' Because, whatever takes place, you will turn it to good purpose, and the outcome will be a blessing for you. 10Or what would Heracles have been had he said "How am I to prevent a great lion from appearing, or a great boar, or savage men?"? And what do you care for that? If a great boar appears, the struggle in which you are to engage will be greater; if evil men appear, you will clear the world of evil men.— But if I die in so doing?—You will die as a good man, bringing to fulfilment a noble action. Why, since you have to die in any event, you must be found doing something or other—farming, or digging, or engaged in commerce, or holding a consulship, or suffering with dyspepsia or dysentery. What is it, then, you wish to be doing when death finds you? I for my part should wish it to be some work that befits a man, something beneficent, that promotes the common welfare, or is noble. But if I cannot be found doing such great things as these, I should like at least to be engaged upon that which is free from hindrance, that which is given me to to do, and that is, correcting myself, as I strive to perfect the faculty which deals with the external impressions, labouring to achieve calm, while yet giving to each of my human relationships its due; and, if I am so fortunate, striving to attain to the third field of study,[1] that which has to do with security in the formation of judgements.

If death finds me occupied with these matters, it is enough for me if I can lift up my hands unto God, and say,[2] "The faculties which I received from Thee to enable me to understand Thy governance and to follow it, these I have not neglected; I have not dishonoured Thee as far as in me lay. 15Behold how I have dealt with my senses, behold how I have dealt with my preconceptions. Have I ever blamed Thee? Have I been discontented with any of these things which happen, or wished it to have been otherwise? Have I at all violated my relationships with others? For that Thou didst beget me I am grateful; for what Thou hast given I am grateful also. The length of time for which I have had the use of Thy gifts is enough for me. Take them back again and assign them to what place Thou wilt, for they were all Thine, and Thou gavest them me." Is it not enough for a man to take his departure from the world in this state of mind? And what among all the kinds of life is superior to this, or more seemly than his who is so minded, and what kind of end is more fortunate?

But that this may take place a man must accept no small troubles, and must miss no small things. You cannot wish for a consulship and at the same time wish for this; you cannot have set your heart upon having lands and this too; you cannot at the same time be solicitous for your paltry slaves and yourself too. But if you wish for any one of the things that are not your own, what is your own is lost. This is the nature of the matter: Nothing is done except for a price. 20And why be surprised? If you wish to be consul you must keep vigils, run around, kiss men's hands, rot away at other men's doors, say and do many slavish things, send presents to many persons, and guest-gifts to some people every day. And what is the outcome of it all? Twelve bundles of rods,[3] and the privilege of sitting three or four times on the tribune, and giving games in the Circus, and lunches in little baskets.[4] Or else let someone show me what there is in it beyond this. For calm, then, for peace of mind, for sleeping when you are asleep, and being awake when you are awake, for fearing nothing, for being in great anxiety about nothing, are you unwilling to spend anything, to make any exertion? But if something that belongs to you be lost while you are engaged in these affairs, or be spent to no purpose, or someone else get what you ought to have got, are you going to be vexed immediately at what has happened? Will you not balance off what you are getting in return for what, how much in return for how much? Nay, do you wish to get such valuable things for nothing? And how can you? "One serious business with another."[5]

25You cannot be continually giving attention to both externals and your own governing principle. But if you want the former, let the latter go; otherwise you will have neither the latter nor the former, being drawn in both directions. If you want the latter, you must let the former go. The oil will be spilled, my paltry furniture will perish, but I shall be calm. There will be a fire when I am not at home, and my books will perish, yet I shall deal with my external impressions according to nature. But I shall have nothing to eat. If I am so badly off as all that, death is my harbour. And this is the harbour of all men, even death, and this their refuge. That is why no one of the things that befall us in our life is difficult. Whenever you wish, you walk out of the house, and are no longer bothered by the smoke.[6] Why, then, are you consumed with anxiety? Why do you keep vigils? And why do you not forthwith reckon up where your good and your evil lie, and say, "They are both under my control; no man can either rob me of the one, or plunge me in the other against my will? Why, then, do I not throw myself down and snore? What is mine is safe. What is not mine shall be the concern of whoever gets it, according to the terms upon which it may be given by Him who has authority over it. 30Who am I to wish that what is not mine should be either thus or so? For it has not been given me to make a choice among these things, has it? For no one has made me an administrator of them, has he? I am satisfied with the things over which I have authority. These I ought to treat so that they may become as beautiful as possible, but everything else as their master may desire."

Does any man who has all this before his eyes keep vigils, and does he "toss hither and thither"?[7] What does he wish, or what does he yearn for? For Patroclus, or Antilochus, or Protesilaus?[8] Why, when did he regard any of his friends as immortal? Yes, and when did he not have before his eyes the fact that on the morrow or the day after either he or his friend must die?[9] "Yes," he says, "but I had thought he was going to survive me, and bring up my son." No doubt, but then you were a fool, and were thinking of things that were uncertainties. Why, then, do you not blame yourself, instead of sitting and crying like little girls? "Nay, but he used to set my food before me." Yes, fool, for then he was alive; and now he cannot. But Automedon[10] will set your food before you, and if Automedon too die, you will find somebody else. If the pot in which your meat used to be boiled gets broken, do you have to die of hunger because you do not have your accustomed pot? Won't you send out and buy a new one to take its place? He says,

35Ill no greater than this could befall me.[11]

Why, is this what you call an ill? And then, forbearing to get rid of it, do you blame your mother, because she did not foretell it to you, so that you might continue to lament from that time forth?

What do you men think? Did not Homer compose this in order for us to see that there is nothing to prevent the persons of highest birth, of greatest strength, of most handsome appearance, from being most miserable and wretched, when they do not hold the right kind of judgements?

Footnotes edit

  1. See III. 2, 1, and note.
  2. These imaginary last words of Epictetus have given much offence to Elizabeth Carter (author of the most famous of the English translations), and no doubt others, who find them ostentatious and lacking in humility. They represent, however, an ideal and not an actual condition, and as such are entirely innocent. Epictetus, who was in fact the most humble of men (see Vol. I. pp. xviii-xx), does not say, "It is enough for me because I can lift up my hands unto God, and say," but, "if I can," which is a very different matter.
  3. The consular fasces.
  4. The sportulae which were distributed at Rome by a patron among his clients.
  5. Supply: "has no partnership." See IV. 6, 30, where the proverb is given in full.
  6. The reference is to suicide. Cf. I. 25, 18 and 20.
  7. Homer, Iliad, XXIV. 5, referring to Achilles on his bed when mourning for Patroclus.
  8. Patroclus and Antilochus were well-known friends of Achilles, but "Menelaus" (the reading of S) must be wrong, partly because he was not in any way a special friend, and particularly because he was not killed, as the context requires. Some other friend of the hero, who was killed, must be supplied, and that can hardly be anyone but Protesilaus, who was one of his playmates under the tutelage of Cheiron. Philostratus, Her. 176 K. Achilles leaped on shore immediately after Protesilaus and avenged his death. See Escher in the Real-Encyclopädie², I. 229, 9 ff.
  9. A kind of proverbial expression. Compare Marcus Aurelius, 4. 47.
  10. Comrade and charioteer of both Patroclus and Achilles.
  11. Homer, Iliad, XIX. 321.