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


To those who have set their hearts upon living in peace

Remember that it is not merely desire for office and wealth which makes men abject and subservient to others, but desire also for peace, and leisure, and travel, and scholarship. For it makes no difference what the external object be, the value you set upon it makes you subservient to another. What difference, then, does it make for you to set your heart on the senate, or on not becoming a senator? What difference does it make to desire office or to desire not to hold office? What difference does it make to say, "I am in a bad way, I have nothing to do, but am tied to my books as though I were a corpse," or to say, "I am in a bad way, I have no leisure to read"? For just as salutations and office-holding are among things external and those which lie outside the province of the moral purpose, so also is a book. Or for what purpose do you wish to read? Tell me. If you turn to reading merely for entertainment, or in order to learn something, you are futile and lazy. But if you refer reading to the proper standard, what else is this but a life of serenity? However, if reading does not secure for you a life of serenity, of what good is it?5—Nay, it does secure me serenity, one says, and that is why I am discontented because I am deprived of it.—And what kind of serenity is this which any chance comer can impede, not merely Caesar, or a friend of Caesar, but a crow, a flutist, fever, thirty thousand other things? But no feature of serenity is so characteristic as continuity and freedom from hindrance.

At this instant I am being called to do something;[1] at this instant I shall go home with the purpose of observing the due measure which I ought to maintain, acting with self-respect, with security, apart from desire and avoidance of things external; and in the second place I observe men, what they say, how they move, and this in no malignant spirit, nor in order to have something to censure or ridicule, but I look at myself the while, to see if I too am making the same mistakes.[2] "How, then, shall I cease to make mistakes?" There was a time when I too made mistakes, but now no longer, thanks be to God. . . .[3][† 1]

Come, if you have acted like this and devoted yourself to these things, have you done anything worse than reading a thousand lines, or writing a thousand?[4] For when you eat, are you annoyed because you are not reading? Are you not satisfied to be eating in accordance with the principles you learned by reading? And when you bathe and take exercise? Why, then, are you not consistent in everything, both when you approach Caesar, and when you approach So-and-so? If you are maintaining the character of a man of tranquillity, of imperturbability, of sedateness, 10if you are observing what happens rather than being yourself observed, if you are not envying those who are preferred in honour above you, if the mere subject-matter of actions does not dazzle you, what do you lack? Books? How, or for what end? What, is not the reading of books a kind of preparation for the act of living? But the full measure of the act of living is made up of things other than books. It is as though the athlete on entering the stadium were to fall a-wailing because he is not exercising outside. This was what you exercised for, this is the purpose of your jumping-weights, your wrestler's sand,[5] your young training partners. And are you now asking for these things, when the time for action is come? It is as if, when in the sphere of assent we were surrounded with sense-impressions, some of them convincing, and others not convincing, we should not wish to distinguish between them, but to read a treatise On Comprehension!

What, then, is the reason for this? It is because we have never read for this purpose, we have never written for this purpose—in our actions, to treat in accordance with nature the sense-impressions which come to us; but we stop with having learned what is said, and with the ability to explain it to someone else, and with analysing the syllogism, and examining the hypothetical argument. 15That is why, where our heart is set, there also our impediment lies. Do you wish at any cost to have the things that are not under your control? Very well then, be hindered, be obstructed, fail. If we should read a treatise On Choice, not in order to know about the subject, but in order to make correct choices; a treatise On Desire and Aversion, in order that we may never fail in our desire nor fall into that which we are trying to avoid; a treatise On Duty, in order that we may remember our relations in society and do nothing irrationally or contrary to the principles of duty; we should not be vexed by being hindered in regard to what we have read, but we should find satisfaction in doing the deeds required by our mutual relations, and we should be reckoning, not the things which we have been accustomed hitherto to reckon: "To-day I have read so many lines, I have written so many," but, "To-day I made a choice in the way that the philosophers teach, I did not entertain desire, I avoided only those things that are in the sphere of the moral purpose, I was not overawed by So-and-so, I was not put out of countenance by So-and-so, I exercised my patience, my abstinence, my co-operation," and thus we should be giving thanks to God for those things for which we ought to give Him thanks. But as it is, we do not realize that we ourselves, though in a different fashion, grow like the multitude. Another man is afraid that he will not have an office; you are afraid that you will. Do not so, man! 20But just as you laugh at the man who is afraid he will not have an office, so also laugh at yourself. For it makes no difference whether a person is thirsty with fever, or is afraid of water like a man with the rabies. Or how can you any longer say with Socrates, "If so it please God, so be it"?[6] Do you suppose that, if Socrates had yearned to spend his leisure in the Lyceum or the Academy,[7] and to converse daily with the young men, he would have gone forth cheerfully on all the military expeditions in which he served? Would he not have wailed and groaned, "Wretched man that I am I here I am now in misery and misfortune, when I might be sunning myself in the Lyceum"? What, was this your function in life, to sun yourself? Was it not rather to be serene, to be unhampered, to be unhindered? And how would he have been Socrates any longer, if he had wailed like this? How would he have gone on to write paeans in prison?[8]

In a word, then, remember this—that if you are going to honour anything at all outside the sphere of the moral purpose, you have destroyed your moral purpose. And outside the sphere of your moral purpose lie not merely office, but also freedom from office; not merely business, but also leisure. "Am I now, therefore, to pass my life in this turmoil?" What do you mean by "turmoil"? Among many people? And what is there hard about that? Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival. There, too, one man shouts this and another that; one man does this and another that; one man jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths.[9] And yet who of us does not take delight in the Olympic festival and leave it with sorrow? 25Do not become peevish or fastidious towards events. "The vinegar is rotten, for it is sour." "The honey is rotten, for it upsets my digestion." "I don't like vegetables." In the same fashion you say, "I don't like leisure, it is a solitude." "I don't like a crowd, it is turmoil." Say not so, but if circumstances bring you to spend your life alone or in the company of a few, call it peace, and utilize the condition for its proper end; converse with yourself, exercise your sense-impressions, develop your preconceptions. If, however, you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people. For what is pleasanter to a man who loves his fellow-men than the sight of large numbers of them?[10] We are glad to see herds of horses or cattle; when we see many ships we are delighted; is a person annoyed at the sight of many human beings? "Yes, but they deafen me with their shouting." Oh, well, it is your hearing that is interfered with! What, then, is that to you? Your faculty of employing external impressions is not interfered with, is it? And who prevents you from making natural use of desire and aversion, of choice and refusal? What manner of turmoil avails to do that?

Do but keep in remembrance your general principles: "What is mine? What is not mine? What has been given me? What does God will that I do now, what does He not will?" 30A little while ago it was His will for you to be at leisure, to converse with yourself, to write about these things, to read, to listen, to prepare yourself; you had time sufficient for that. Now, God says to you, "Come at length to the contest, show us what you have learned, how you have trained yourself. How long will you exercise alone? Now the time has come for you to discover whether you are one of the athletes who deserve victory, or belong to the number of those who travel about the world and are everywhere defeated." Why, then, are you discontented? No contest is held without turmoil. There must be many training-partners, many to shout applause, many officials, many spectators.—But I wanted to live a life of peace.—Wail, then, and groan, as you deserve to do. For what greater penalty can befall the man who is uninstructed and disobedient to the divine injunctions than to grieve, to sorrow, to envy, in a word to have no good fortune but only misfortune? Do you not wish to free yourself from all this?

And how shall I free myself?—Have you not heard over and over again that you ought to eradicate desire utterly, direct your aversion towards the things that lie within the sphere of the moral purpose, and these things only, that you ought to give up everything, your body, your property, your reputation, your books, turmoil, office, freedom from office? For if once you swerve aside from this course, you are a slave, you are a subject, you have become liable to hindrance and to compulsion, you are entirely under the control of others. Nay, the word of Cleanthes is ready at hand,

Lead thou me on, O Zeus, and Destiny.[11]

Will ye have me go to Rome? I go to Rome. To Gyara? I go to Gyara.[12] To Athens? I go to Athens. To prison? I go to prison. 35If but once you say, "Oh, when may a man go to Athens?" you are lost. This wish, if unfulfilled, must necessarily make you unfortunate; if fulfilled, vain and puffed up over the wrong kind of thing; again, if you are hindered, you suffer a misfortune, falling into what you do not wish. Give up, then, all these things. "Athens is beautiful." But happiness is much more beautiful, tranquillity, freedom from turmoil, having your own affairs under no man's control. "There is turmoil in Rome, and salutations." But serenity is worth all the annoyances. If, then, the time for these things has come, why not get rid of your aversion for them: Why must you needs bear burdens like a belaboured donkey? Otherwise, I would have you see that you must be ever the slave of the man who is able to secure your release, to the man who is able to hinder you in everything,[13] and you must serve him as an Evil Genius.[14]

There is but one way to serenity (keep this thought ready for use at dawn, and by day, and at night), and that is to yield up all claim to the things that lie outside the sphere of the moral purpose, to regard nothing as your own possession; to surrender everything to the Deity, to Fortune; to yield everything to the supervision of those persons whom even Zeus has made supervisors; 40and to devote yourself to one thing only, that which is your own, that which is free from hindrance, and to read referring your reading to this end, and so to write and so to listen. That is why I cannot call a man industrious, if I hear merely that he reads or writes, and even if one adds that he sits up all night, I cannot yet say that the man is industrious, until I know for what end he does so. For neither do you call a man industrious who loses sleep for the sake of a wench; no more do I. But if he acts this way for the sake of reputation, I call him ambitious; if for the sake of money, I call him fond of money, not fond of toil. If, however, the end for which he toils is his own governing principle, to have it be, and live continually, in accordance with nature, then and then only I call him industrious. For I would not have you men ever either praise or blame a man for things that may be either good or bad, but only for judgements. Because these are each man's own possessions, which make his actions either base or noble. 45Bearing all this in mind, rejoice in what you have and be satisfied with what the moment brings. If you see any of the things that you have learned and studied thoroughly coming to fruition for you in action, rejoice in these things. If you have put away or reduced a malignant disposition, and reviling, or impertinence, or foul language, or recklessness, or negligence; if you are not moved by the things that once moved you, or at least not to the same degree, then you can keep festival day after day; to-day because you behaved well in this action, to-morrow because you behaved well in another. How much greater cause for thanksgiving is this than a consulship or a governorship! these things come to you from your own self and from the gods. Remember who the Giver is, and to whom He gives, and for what end. If you are brought up in reasonings such as these, can you any longer raise the questions where you are going to be happy, and where you will please God? Are not men everywhere equally distant from God? Do they not everywhere have the same view of what comes to pass?


  1. Answering the man who complains because he has "nothing to do" (§ 2).
  2. So Horace, Sat. I. 4, 136 f.: . . . numquid ego illi imprudens olim faciam simile? Both were following the custom of Plato as recorded by Plutarch, De capienda ex inimicis utilitate, 5.
  3. The exact connection of these two sentences is obscure. Matheson, with a certain degree of plausibility, divides them between the interlocutor and Epictetus, but they are generally assigned to one person.—See also the crit. note.
  4. In the absence of pages, as in the case of the papyrus roll, prose as well as poetry was counted by lines.
  5. See III. 15, 4.
  6. Plato, Crito, 43 D (slightly modified). Compare I. 4, 24, where the quotation is exact.
  7. Referring to the famous gymnasia in these places.
  8. Plato, Phaedo, 60 D, says that he translated some fables of Aesop into verse and composed a hymn (προοίμιον) to Apollo. This latter composition is called a paean by Diogenes Laertius, 2, 42, who professes to give the first line of it.
  9. Referring clearly, I believe, to the baths at Olympia, where the accommodation seems to have been inadequate. See I. 6, 26.
  10. Cf. "But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them" (Matt. ix. 36); and the remark attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "God must have loved the common people; He made so many of them." The characteristic emotions here indicated as arising at the contemplation of large numbers of one's fellow-men, though somewhat ditferent in tone from that in Epictetus, as well as from one another, are still essentially at one with the Stoic ideal of sympathetic fellowship, and are fundamentally opposed to that selfish or snobbish aversion towards mankind, which became so prevalent, even in religious circles, during the great decadence of ancient civilization.
  11. From a celebrated hymn. See on II. 23, 42.
  12. An island used as a place of exile. See on I. 25, 19.
  13. There may be here an allusion (before Lucian and Apuleius) to the theme of a (bewitched) ass trying to escape from being an ass, and constantly being hindered. In the famous romance the ass is certainly often enough overloaded and soundly cudgelled.
  14. For this rare spirit of folk-lore, see Aristophanes, Equites, 111-12, where he is called the Δαίμων Κακοδαίμων. His counterpart is the much commoner Ἀγαθὸς Δαίμων. The Evil Genius, though seldom referred to (and in fact ignored by many, if not all the standard works of reference, I believe), is presupposed by the association of the Κακοδαιμωνιταί (Lysias, frag. 53, 2, Thalheim), and by the very word κακοδαίμων itself. For similar devil-worship, cf. I. 19, 6, of the God Fever.

Select critical notesEdit

  1. The lacuna marked by Oldfather. An answer to the question is obviously required.