Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 4/Chapter 5


Against the contentious and brutal

The good and excellent man neither contends with anyone, nor, as far as he has the power, does he allow others to contend. We have an example before us of this also, as well as of everything else, in the life of Socrates, who did not merely himself avoid contention upon every occasion, but tried to prevent others as well from contending. See in Xenophon's Symposium how many contentions he has resolved, and again how patient he was with Thrasymachus, Polus, and Callicles,[1] and habitually so with his wife, and also with his son when the latter tried to confute him with sophistical arguments.[2] For Socrates bore very firmly in mind that no one is master over another's governing principle. He willed, accordingly, nothing but what was his own. 5And what is that? [Not to try to make other people act[3]] in accordance with nature, for that does not belong to one; but, while they are attending to their own business as they think best, himself none the less to be and to remain in a state of harmony with nature, attending only to his own business, to the end that they also may be in harmony with nature. For this is the object which the good and excellent man has ever before him. To become praetor? No; but if this be given him, to maintain his own governing principle in these circumstances. To marry? No; but if marriage be given him, to maintain himself as one who in these circumstances is in harmony with nature. But if he wills that his son or his wife make no mistake, he wills that what is not his own should cease to be not his own. And to be getting an education means this: To be learning what is your own, and what is not your own.

Where, then, is there any longer room for contention, if a man is in such a state? Why, he is not filled with wonder at anything that happens, is he? Does anything seem strange to him? Does he not expect worse and harsher treatment from the wicked than actually befalls him? Does he not count it as gain whenever they fail to go to the limit? "So-and-so reviled you." I am greatly obliged to him for not striking me. "Yes, but he struck you too." I am greatly obliged to him for not wounding me. "Yes, but he wounded you too," I am greatly obliged to him for not killing me. 10For when, or from what teacher, did he learn that man is a tame animal,[4] that he manifests mutual affection, that injustice in itself is a great injury to the unjust man?[5] If, therefore, he has never learned this, or become persuaded of this, why shall he not follow what appears to him to be his advantage? "My neighbour has thrown stones." You have not made a mistake, have you? "No, but my crockery is broken." Are you a piece of crockery, then? No, but you are moral purpose. What, then, has been given you with which to meet this attack? If you seek to act like a wolf, you can bite back and throw more stones than your neighbour did; but if you seek to act like a man, examine your store, see what faculties you brought with you into the world. You brought no faculty of brutality, did you? No faculty of bearing grudges, did you? When, then, is a horse miserable? When he is deprived of his natural faculties. Not when he can't sing "cuckoo!" but when he can't run. And a dog? Is it when he can't fly? No, but when he can't keep the scent. Does it not follow, then, that on the same principles a man is wretched, not when he is unable to choke lions,[6] or throw his arms about statues[7] (for no man has brought with him from nature into this world faculties for this), but when he has lost his kindness, and his faithfulness? 15This is the kind of person for whom "men should come together and mourn, because of all the evils into which he has come"; not, by Zeus, "the one who is born," or "the one who has died,"[8] but the man whose misfortune it has been while he still lives to lose what is his own; not his patrimony, his paltry farm, and paltry dwelling, and his tavern, and his poor slaves (for none of these things is a man's own possession, but they all belong to others, are subservient and subject, given by their masters[9] now to one person and now to another); but the qualities which make him a human being, the imprints which he brought with him in his mind, such as we look for also upon coins, and, if we find them, we accept the coins, but if we do not find them, we throw the coins away. "Whose imprint does this sestertius bear? Trajan's? Give it to me. Nero's? Throw it out, it will not pass, it is rotten."[10] So also in the moral life. What imprint do his judgements bear? "He is gentle, generous, patient, affectionate." Give him to me, I accept him, I make this man a citizen, I accept him as a neighbour and a fellow-voyager. Only see that he does not have the imprint of Nero. Is he choleric, furious, querulous? "If he feels like it, he punches the heads of the people he meets."[11] Why, then, did you call him a human being? For surely everything is not judged by its outward appearance only, is it? Why, if that is so, you will have to call the lump of beeswax an apple.[12] 20No, it must have the smell of an apple and the taste of an apple; its external outline is not enough. Therefore, neither are the nose and the eyes sufficient to prove that one is a human being, but you must see whether one has the judgements that belong to a human being. Here is a man who does not listen to reason, he does not understand when he is confuted; he is an ass. Here is one whose sense of self-respect has grown numb; he is useless, a sheep, anything but a human being. Here is a man who is looking for someone whom he can kick or bite when he meets him; so that he is not even a sheep or an ass, but some wild beast.

What then? Do you want me to be despised?—By whom? By men of understanding? And how will men of understanding despise the gentle and the self-respecting person? No, but by men without understanding? What difference is that to you? Neither you nor any other craftsman cares about those who are not skilled in his art.—Yes, but they will fasten themselves upon me all the more.—What do you mean by the word "me"? Can anyone hurt your moral purpose, or prevent you from employing in a natural way the sense-impressions which come to you?—No.—Why, then, are you any longer disturbed, and why do you want to show that you are a timid person? Why do you not come forth and make the announcement that you are at peace with all men, no matter what they do, and that you are especially amused at those who think that they are hurting you? "These slaves do not know either who I am, or where my good and my evil are; they cannot get at the things that are mine."

25In this way also those who inhabit a strong city laugh at the besiegers:[13] "Why are these men taking trouble now to no end? Our wall is safe, we have food for ever so long a time, and all other supplies." These are the things which make a city strong and secure against capture, and nothing but judgements make similarly secure the soul of man. For what manner of wall is so strong, or what manner of body so invincible, or what manner of possession so secure against theft, or what manner of reputation so unassailable? For all things everywhere are perishable, and easy to capture by assault, and the man who in any fashion sets his mind upon any of them must needs be troubled in mind, be discouraged, suffer fear and sorrow, have his desires fail, and his aversions fall into what they would avoid. If this be so, are we not willing to make secure the one means of safety which has been vouchsafed us? And are we not willing to give up these perishable and slavish things, and devote our labours to those which are imperishable and by nature free? And do we not remember that no man either hurts or helps another, but that it is his judgement about each of these things which is the thing that hurts him, that overturns him; this is contention, and civil strife, and war? That which made Eteocles and Polyneices[14] what they were was nothing else but this—their judgement about a throne, and their judgement about exile, namely, that one was the greatest of evils, the other the greatest of goods. 30And this is the nature of every being, to pursue the good and to flee from the evil; and to consider the man who robs us of the one and invests us with the other as an enemy and an aggressor, even though he be a brother, even though he be a son, even though he be a father; for nothing is closer kin to us than our good. It follows, then, that if these externals are good or evil, neither is a father dear to his sons, nor a brother dear to a brother, but everything on all sides is full of enemies, aggressors, slanderers. But if the right kind of moral purpose and that alone is good, and if the wrong kind of moral purpose and that alone is bad, where is there any longer room for contention, where for reviling? About what? About the things that mean nothing to us? Against whom? Against the ignorant, against the unfortunate, against those who have been deceived in the most important values?

All this is what Socrates bore in mind as he managed his house, putting up with a shrewish wife and an unkindly son.[15] For to what end was she shrewish? To the end that she might pour all the water she pleased over his head, and might trample underfoot the cake.[16] Yet what is that to me, if I regard these things as meaning nothing to me? But this control over the moral purpose is my true business, and in it neither shall a tyrant hinder me against my will, nor the multitude the single individual, nor the stronger man the weaker; for this has been given by God to each man as something that cannot be hindered. 35These are the judgements which produce love in the household, concord in the State, peace among the nations, make a man thankful toward God, confident at all times, on the ground that he is dealing with things not his own, with worthless things. We, however, although we are capable of writing and reading these things, and praising them when read, are nowhere near capable of being persuaded of them. Wherefore, the proverb about the Lacedaemonians,

Lions at home, but at Ephesus foxes,[17]

will fit us too: Lions in the school-room, foxes outside.


  1. The first in Plato's Republic, Book I; the other two in his Gorgias.
  2. This may be a reference to Xenophon, Memorabilia, II. 2, as is commonly supposed, but if so, it is a highly inadequate presentation of the case there described, where Socrates is the "confuter," and the son merely makes a few natural and quite conventional attempts to defend himself. I suspect that Epictetus was referring (following Chrysippus, probably) to some other incident recorded in the very large body of Socratic dialogues that once existed.
  3. This is probably the general sense of a passage where something has evidently been lost.
  4. See IV. 1, 120.
  5. A familiar idea in Plato, especially in the Crito, Gorgias, and Republic, but nowhere, as I recall, in exactly these words, though Crito 49 B and Republic 366 E and 367 D bear a close resemblance.
  6. That is, accomplish something almost superhuman, like Heracles.
  7. That is, in cold weather, as Diogenes was able to do. See III. 12, 2.
  8. The quotations (slightly modified) are from a famous passage in Euripides, Cresphontes, frag. 449, Nauck²: "For we ought rather to come together to mourn for the one who is born, because of all the evils into which he is coming; but, on the other hand, the one who has died, we ought with joy and words of gladness to send forth from his former abode."
  9. The gods.
  10. This reference is most obscure, for the coins of Nero still preserved are numerous and excellent, and there was a great systematic reform of coinage in A.D. 64, which became "the most complete monetary system of ancient times" (Mattingly and Sydenham, The Roman Imperial Coinage (1923), I, 138). After the death of Caligula, indeed, the senate ordered all his bronze coinage to be melted down (Dio, LX. 22, 3), but nothing of the sort is recorded, so far as I know, for Nero. There was, of course, a slight reduction in weight for the aureus and the denarius, and "the amount of alloy in the silver was increased from 5 to about 10 per cent.," changes which have been regarded as the first step in the process of debasement that reached its climax in the third century. See E. A. Sydenham, Num. Chron., ser. 4, vol. 16 (1916), 19. Nero's particular system of brass and copper coinage was also discontinued after his death (ibid. p. 28). Yet it is scarcely credible that Epictetus can have had any trifles like these in mind.—Of course the moral point here, which Dr. Page wishes to have emphasized, is that Trajan was the typically good man (felicior Augusto, melior Traiano was an acclamation in the Roman Senate for centuries after his death—Eutropius, 8, 5), and Nero the opposite. But the difficulty in the passage is to understand how it ever occurred to Epictetus to imply that people actually refused to take coins of Nero, simply because they bore the imprint of a morally bad man, when, as a matter of fact, it is extremely doubtful if any human being, except perhaps some hopeless fanatic, ever really did so refuse. A note by T. O. Mabbott, "Epictetus and Nero's Coinage", CP 36 (1941) 398-9, explains this perfectly.
  11. Suetonius, Nero, 26.
  12. It would seem that the beeswax used in leather sewing was familiarly called "the cobbler's apple," and when on sale may have been moulded in that shape. Such metaphors are common enough, as is also the habit of making things like vases, cakes, candy, pincushions, soap, etc., in the shape fruits or animals.
  13. Perhaps a reference to Xenophon, Cyropaedeia, VII. 5, 13.
  14. Famous enemy brothers: cf. II. 22, 13–14.
  15. Perhaps referring to Xenophon, Memorabilia, II. 2, where his son Lamprocles is represented as having lost his temper at the constant scolding of Xanthippe.
  16. It was a present from Alcibiades. For the incidents here referred to see Seneca, De Constantia, 18, 5; Diogenes Laertius, 2, 36; Athenaeus, 5, 219 B and 14, 643 F; Aelian, Varia Historia, 11, 12.
  17. Because of their ill-success in Asia Minor. See also the scholium on Aristophanes, Pax, 1189.