Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 4/Chapter 7


Of freedom from fear

What makes the tyrant an object of fear?—His guards, someone says, and their swords, and the chamberlain, and those who exclude persons who would enter.—Why, then, is it that, if you bring a child into the presence of the tyrant while he is with his guards, the child is not afraid? Is it because the child does not really feel the presence of the guards? If, then, a man really feels their presence, and that they have swords, but has come for that very purpose, for the reason that he wishes to die because of some misfortune, and he seeks to do so easily at the hand of another, he does not fear the guards, does he?—No, for what makes them terrible is just what he wants.—If, then, a man who has set his will neither upon dying nor upon living at any cost, but only as it is given him to live, comes into the presence of the tyrant, what is there to prevent such a man from coming into his presence without fear?—Nothing.5—If, then, a man feel also about his property just as this other person feels about his body, and so about his children, and his wife, and if, in brief, he be in such a frame of mind, due to some madness or despair, that he cares not one whit about having, or not having, these things; but, as children playing with potsherds strive with one another about the game, but take no thought about the potsherds themselves, so this man also has reckoned the material things of life as nothing, but is glad to play with them and handle them—what kind of tyrant, or guards, or swords in the hands of guards can any more inspire fear in the breast of such a man?

Therefore, if madness can produce this attitude of mind toward the things which have just been mentioned, and also habit, as with the Galilaeans,[1] cannot reason and demonstration teach a man that God has made all things in the universe, and the whole universe itself, to be free from hindrance, and to contain its end in itself, and the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole? Now all other animals have been excluded from the capacity to understand the governance of God, but the rational animal, man, possesses faculties that enable him to consider all these things, both that he is a part of them, and what kind of part of them he is, and that it is well for the parts to yield to the whole. And furthermore, being by nature noble, and high-minded, and free, the rational animal, man, sees that he has some of the things which are about him free from hindrance and under his control, but that others are subject to hindrance and under the control of others. Free from hindrance are those things which lie in the sphere of the moral purpose, and subject to hindrance are those which lie outside the sphere of the moral purpose. And so, if he regards his own good and advantage as residing in these things alone, in those, namely, which are free from hindrance and under his control, he will be free, serene, happy, unharmed, high-minded, reverent, giving thanks for all things to God, under no circumstances finding fault with anything that has happened, nor blaming anything; 10if, however, he regards his good and advantage as residing in externals and things outside the sphere of his moral purpose, he must needs be hindered and restrained, be a slave to those who have control over these things which he has admired and fears; he must needs be irreverent, forasmuch as he thinks that God is injuring him, and be unfair, always trying to secure for himself more than his share, and must needs be of an abject and mean spirit.

When a man has once grasped all this, what is there to prevent him from living with a light heart and an obedient disposition; with a gentle spirit awaiting anything that may yet befall, and enduring that which has already befallen? "Would you have me bear poverty?" Bring it on and you shall see what poverty is when it finds a good actor to play the part.[2] "Would you have me hold office?" Bring it on. "Would you have me suffer deprivation of office?" Bring it on. "Well, and would you have me bear troubles?" Bring them on too. "Well, and exile?" Wherever I go it will be well with me, for here where I am it was well with me, not because of my location, but because of my judgements, and these I shall carry away with me; nor, indeed, can any man take these away from me, but they are the only things that are mine, and they cannot be taken away, and with the possession of them I am content, wherever I be and whatever I do. 15"But it is now time to die." Why say "die"? Make no tragic parade of the matter, but speak of it as it is: "It is now time for the material of which you are constituted to be restored to those elements from which it came." And what is there terrible about that? What one of the things that make up the universe will be lost, what novel or unreasonable thing will have taken place? Is it for this that the tyrant inspires fear? Is it because of this that his guards seem to have long and sharp swords? Let others see to that; I have considered all this, no one has authority over me. I have been set free by God, I know His commands, no one has power any longer to make a slave of me, I have the right kind of emancipator, and the right kind of judges. "Am I not master of your body?" Very well, what is that to me? "Am I not master of your paltry property?" Very well, what is that to me? "Am I not master of exile or bonds?" Again I yield up to you all these things and my whole paltry body itself, whenever you will. Do make trial of your power, and you will find out how far it extends.

Who is there, then, that I can any longer be afraid of? Shall I be afraid of the chamberlains? For fear they do what? Lock the door in my face? If they find me wanting to enter, let them lock the door in my face!—Why, then, do you go to the gate of the palace?—Because I think it fitting for me to join in the game while the game lasts.20—How, then, is it that you are not locked out?[3]—Because, if anyone will not receive me, I do not care to go in, but always I wish rather the thing which takes place. For I regard God's will as better than my will. I shall attach myself to Him as a servant and follower, my choice is one with His, my desire one with His, in a word, my will is one with His will. No door is locked in my face, but rather in the face of those who would force themselves in. Why, then, do I not force myself in? Why, because I know that within nothing good is distributed among those who have entered. But when I hear someone called blessed, because he is being honoured by Caesar, I say, "What is his portion? Does he, then, get also a judgement such as he ought to have for governing a province?[† 1] Does he, then, get also the ability to administer a procuratorship? Why should I any longer push my way in? Somebody is scattering dried figs and nuts; the children snatch them up and fight with one another, the men do not, for they count this a small matter. But if somebody throws potsherds around, not even the children snatch them up. Governorships are being passed around. The children shall see[4] to that. Money. The children shall see to that. A praetorship, a consulship. Let the children snatch them up; let the children have the door locked in their faces, take a beating, kiss the hands of the giver, and the hands of his slaves. As for me, it's a mere scattering of dried figs and nuts." But what, then, if, when the man is throwing them about, a dried fig chances to fall into my lap? I take it up and eat it. For I may properly value even a dried fig as much as that. But neither a dried fig, nor any other of the things not good, which the philosophers have persuaded me not to think good, is of sufficient value to warrant my grovelling and upsetting someone else, or being upset by him, or flattering those who have flung the dried figs among us.

25Show me the swords of the guards. "See how large and how sharp they are!" What, then, do these large and sharp swords do? "They kill." And what does fever do? "Nothing else." And what does a tile do? "Nothing else." Do you want me, then, to respect and do obeisance to all these things, and to go about as the slave of them all? Far from it! But if once I have learned that what is born must also perish, so that the world may not stand still, nor be hampered, it makes no difference to me whether a fever shall bring that consummation, or a tile, or a soldier; but, if I must make a comparison, I know that the soldier will bring it about with less trouble and more speed. Seeing, therefore, that I neither fear anything of all that the tyrant is able to do with me, nor greatly desire anything of all that he is able to provide, why do I any longer admire him, why any longer stand in awe of him? Why am I afraid of his guards? Why do I rejoice if he speaks kindly to me and welcomes me, and why do I tell others how he spoke to me? He is not Socrates, is he, or Diogenes, so that his praise should be a proof of what I am? 30I have not been ambitious to imitate his character, have I? Nay, but acting as one who keeps the game going, I come to him and serve him so long as he commands me to do nothing foolish or unseemly. If, however, he says, "Go and bring Leon of Salamis,"[5] I reply, "Try to get someone else, for I am not playing any longer." "Take him off to prison," says the tyrant about me. "I follow, because that is part of the game." "But your head will be taken off." And does the tyrant's head always stay in its place, and the heads of you who obey him? "But you will be thrown out unburied."[6] If the corpse is I, then I shall be thrown out; but if I am something different from the corpse, speak with more discrimination, as the fact is, and do not try to terrify me. These things are terrifying to the children and the fools. But if a man who has once entered a philosopher's lecture does not know what he himself is, he deserves to be in a state of fear, and also to flatter those whom he used to flatter before;[7] if he has not yet learned that he is not flesh, nor bones, nor sinews, but that which employs these, that which both governs the impressions of the senses and understands them.

Oh yes, but statements like these make men despise the laws.—Quite the contrary, what statements other than these make the men who follow them more ready to obey the laws? Law is not simply anything that is in the power of a fool. And yet see how these statements make us behave properly even toward these fools, because they teach us to claim against such persons nothing in which they can surpass us. 35They teach us to give way when it comes to our paltry body, to give way when it comes to our property, to our children, parents, brothers, to retire from everything, let everything go; they except only our judgements, and it was the will of Zeus also that these should be each man's special possession. What do you mean by speaking of lawlessness and stupidity here? Where you are superior and stronger, there I give way to you; and again, where I am superior, you retire in favour of me. For I have made these matters my concern, and you have not. It is your concern how to live in marble halls,[8] and further, how slaves and freedmen are to serve you, how you are to wear conspicuous clothing, how to have many hunting dogs, citharoedes,[9] and tragedians. I do not lay claim to any of these, do I? You, then, have never concerned yourself with judgements, have you? Or with your own reason, have you? You do not know, do you, what are its constituent parts, how it is composed, what its arrangement is, what faculties it has, and what their nature is? Why, then, are you disturbed if someone else, the man, namely, who has concerned himself with these matters, has the advantage of you therein?—But these are the most important things that there are.—And who is there to prevent you from concerning yourself with these matters, and devoting your attention to them? And who is better provided with books, leisure, and persons to help you? 40Only begin some time to turn your mind to these matters; devote a little time, if no more, to your own governing principle; consider what this thing is which you possess, and where it has come from, the thing which utilizes everything else, submits everything else to the test, selects, and rejects. But so long as you concern yourself with externals, you will possess them in a way that no one else can match, but you will have this governing faculty in the state in which you want to have it, that is, dirty and neglected.

Footnotes edit

  1. Obviously referring to the Christians, as the Scholiast saw. Cf. also II. 9, 19-21 and note, and Introd. p. xxvi f.
  2. See Encheiridion, 17, and frag. 11 for parallels.
  3. That is, it cannot properly be said of a man that he is "locked out" if he does not "wish" to enter.
  4. See note on IV. 6, 23.
  5. See note on IV. 1, 160.
  6. As was sometimes done as a last insult to the dead. Epictetus may also have had in mind the celebrated remark of Diogenes before his death, who, when his friends protested against his request that he be thrown out unburied (Diogenes Laertius, 6, 79), ironically suggested that his staff be laid by his side to keep away the dogs and carrion birds. Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 1, 104; Ps.-Diog. Epist. 25.
  7. That is, before he began to attend lectures in philosophy. But the text is highly uncertain.
  8. Strictly speaking, walls covered with a veneer of variegated marble.
  9. Those who sang to their own accompaniment on the harp.

Select critical notes edit

  1. ἐπαρχία Schenkl: ἐπαρχίαν S. The passage is extremely condensed if not actually lacunose. This comparatively simple change enables one to secure the general sense required, whether or not it was originally expressed in this form.