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The ne plus ultra of Stoicism, Discourses outline clear-cut principles of right conduct and true thinking, offering secular thinkers a mode of reasoning that dismisses the strictures of absolutism and emotionalism in exchange for a more peaceful and productive life. The Discourses report wide-ranging discussions between Epictetus and his students.
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CHAPTER 1: On Things in Our Power and Things Not in Our Power
Of our faculties in general you will find that none can take cognizance of itself; none therefore has the power to approve or disapprove its own action. Our grammatical faculty for instance: how far can that take cognizance? Only so far as to distinguish expression. Our musical faculty? Only so far as to distinguish tune. Does any one of these then take cognizance of itself? By no means. If you are writing to your friend, when you want to know what words to write grammar will tell you; but whether you should write to your friend or should not write grammar will not tell you. And in the same way music will tell you about tunes, but whether at this precise moment you should sing and play the lyre or should not sing nor play the lyre it will not tell you. What will tell you then? That faculty which takes cognizance of itself and of all things else. What is this? The reasoning faculty: for this alone of the faculties we have received is created to comprehend even its own nature; that is to say, what it is and what it can do, and with what precious qualities it has come to us, and to comprehend all other faculties as well. For what else is it that tells us that gold is a goodly thing? For the gold does not tell us. Clearly it is the faculty which can deal with our impressions.12 What else is it which distinguishes the faculties of music, grammar, and the rest, testing their uses and pointing out the due seasons for their use? It is reason and nothing else.
The gods then, as was but right, put in our hands the one blessing that is best of all and master of all, that and nothing else, the power to deal rightly with our impressions, but everything else they did not put in our hands. Was it that they would not? For my part I think that if they could have entrusted us with those other powers as well they would have done so, but they were quite unable. Prisoners on the earth and in an earthly body and among earthly companions, how was it possible that we should not be hindered from the attainment of these powers by these external fetters?
But what says Zeus? “Epictetus, if it were possible I would have made your body and your possessions (those trifles that you prize) free and untrammelled. But as things are—never forget this—this body is not yours, it is but a clever mixture of clay. But since I could not make it free, I gave you a portion in our divinity, this faculty of impulse to act and not to act, of will to get and will to avoid,13 in a word the faculty which can turn impressions to right use. If you pay heed to this, and put your affairs in its keeping, you will never suffer let nor hindrance, you will not groan, you will blame no man, you will flatter none. What then? Does all this seem but little to you?”
“Are you content then?”
So surely as I hope for the gods’ favour.
But, as things are, though we have it in our power to pay heed to one thing and to devote ourselves to one, yet instead of this we prefer to pay heed to many things and to be bound fast to many—our body, our property, brother and friend, child and slave. Inasmuch then as we are bound fast to many things, we are burdened by them and dragged down. That is why, if the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask, “What wind is blowing?” “The north wind.” What have we to do with that? “When will the west wind blow?” When it so chooses, good sir, or when Aeolus chooses. For God made Aeolus the master of the winds, not you. What follows? We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it. What do you mean by “nature”? I mean, God’s will.
“What? Am I to be beheaded now, and I alone?”
Why? would you have had all beheaded, to give you consolation? Will you not stretch out your neck as Lateranus14 did in Rome when Nero ordered his beheadal? For he stretched out his neck and took the blow, and when the blow dealt him was too weak he shrank up a little and then stretched it out again. Nay more, on a previous occasion, when Nero’s freedman Epaphroditus15 came to him and asked him the cause of his offence, he answered, “If I want to say anything, I will say it to your master.”
What then must a man have ready to help him in such emergencies? Surely this: he must ask himself, “What is mine, and what is not mine? What may I do, what may I not do?”
I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace?
“Tell the secret!”
I refuse to tell, for this is in my power.
“But I will chain you.”
What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that.
“I will imprison you.”
My bit of a body, you mean.
“I will behead you.”
Why? When did I ever tell you that I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?
These are the thoughts that those who pursue philosophy should ponder, these are the lessons they should write down day by day, in these they should exercise themselves.
Thrasea16 used to say, “I had rather be killed today than exiled tomorrow.” What then did Rufus17 say to him? “If you choose it as the harder, what is the meaning of your foolish choice? If as the easier, who has given you the easier? Will you not study to be content with what is given you?”
It was in this spirit that Agrippinus18 used to say—do you know what? “I will not stand in my own way!” News was brought him, “Your trial is on in the Senate!” “Good luck to it, but the fifth hour is come”—this was the hour when he used to take his exercise and have a cold bath—“let us go and take exercise.” When he had taken his exercise they came and told him, “You are condemned.” “Exile or death?” he asked. “Exile.” “And my property?” “It is not confiscated.” “Well then, let us go to Aricia19 and dine.”
Here you see the result of training as training should be, of the will to get and will to avoid, so disciplined that nothing can hinder or frustrate them. I must die, must I? If at once, then I am dying: if soon, I dine now, as it is time for dinner, and afterwards when the time comes I will die. And die how? As befits one who gives back what is not his own.
CHAPTER 2: How One May Be True to One’s Character in Everything
To the rational creature that which is against reason is alone past bearing; the rational he can always bear. Blows are not by nature intolerable.
“What do you mean?”
Let me explain; the Lacedaemonians bear flogging, because they have learnt that it is in accord with reason.
“But is it not intolerable to hang oneself?”
At any rate, when a man comes to feel that it is rational, he goes and hangs himself at once. In a word, if we look to it we shall see that by nothing is the rational creature so distressed as by the irrational, and again to nothing so much attracted as to the rational.
But rational and irrational mean different things to different persons, just as good and evil, expedient and inexpedient, are different for different persons. That is the chief reason why we need education, that we may learn so to adjust our preconceptions20 of rational and irrational to particular conditions as to be in harmony with nature. But to decide what is rational and irrational we not only estimate the value of things external, but each one of us considers what is in keeping with his character. For one man thinks it reasonable to perform the meanest office for another; for he looks merely to this, that if he refuses he will be beaten and get no food, while if he does it nothing hard or painful will be done to him. To another it seems intolerable not only to do this service himself, but even to suffer another to do it. If then you ask me, “Am I to do it or not?” I shall say to you, to get food is worth more than to go without it, and to be flogged is worth less than to escape flogging: therefore, if you measure your affairs by this standard, go and do it.
“But I shall be false to myself.”
That is for you to bring into the question, not for me. For it is you who know yourself; you know at how much you put your worth, and at what price you sell yourself. For different men sell at different prices.
That is why Agrippinus, when Florus21 was considering whether he should go down to Nero’s shows, to perform some part in them himself, said to him, “Go down.” And when he asked, “Why do you not go down yourself?” said, “Because I do not even consider the question.” For when a man once lowers himself to think about such matters, and to value external things and calculate about them he has almost forgotten his own character. What is it you ask me? “Is death or life to be preferred?” I say “life.” “Pain or pleasure?” I say “pleasure.”22
“But, if I do not act in the tragedy, I shall be beheaded.”
Go then and act your tragedy, but I will not do so. You ask me, “Why?” I answer, “Because you count yourself to be but an ordinary thread in the tunic.” What follows then? You ought to think how you can be like other men, just as one thread does not wish to have something special to distinguish it from the rest: but I want to be the purple, that touch of brilliance which gives distinction and beauty to the rest. Why then do you say to me, “Make yourself like unto the many?” If I do that, I shall no longer be the purple.
Priscus Helvidius23 too saw this, and acted on it. When Vespasian sent to him not to come into the Senate he answered, “You can forbid me to be a senator; but as long as I am a senator I must come in.”
“Come in then,” he says, “and be silent.”
“Question me not and I will be silent.”
“But I am bound to question you.”
“And I am bound to say what seems right to me.”
“But, if you say it, I shall kill you.”
“When did I tell you, that I was immortal? You will do your part, and I mine. It is yours to kill, mine to die without quailing: yours to banish, mine to go into exile without groaning.”
What good, you ask, did Priscus do, being but one? What good does the purple do to the garment? Just this, that being purple it gives distinction and stands out as a fine example to the rest. Another man, had Caesar in such circumstances told him not to come into the Senate, would have said, “Thank you for sparing me.” Such a one he would never have forbidden to come in; he would know that he would either sit silent like a pipkin or if he spoke would say what he knew Caesar wished and pile on more besides.
This spirit too was shown by a certain athlete, who was threatened with death if he did not sacrifice his virility. When his brother, who was a philosopher, came to him and said, “Brother, what will you do? Are we to let the knife do its work and still go into the gymnasium?” he would not consent, but endured to meet his death. (Here some one asked, “How did he do so, as an athlete or as a philosopher?”) He did so as a man, and a man who had wrestled at Olympia and been proclaimed victor, one who had passed his days in such a place as that, not one who anoints himself at Bato’s.24 Another man would have consented to have even his head cut off, if he could have lived without it.
That is what I mean by keeping your character: such is its power with those who have acquired the habit of carrying it into every question that arises.
“Go to, Epictetus, have yourself shaved.”
If I am a philosopher I say, “I will not be shaved.”
“I must behead you then.”
Behead me, if it is better for you so.
One asked, “How then shall we discover, each of us, what suits his character?”
How does the bull, he answered, at the lion’s approach, alone discover what powers he is endowed with, when he stands forth to protect the whole herd? It is plain that with the possession of his power the consciousness of it also is given him. So each of us, who has power of this sort, will not be unaware of its possession. Like the bull, the man of noble nature does not become noble of a sudden; he must train through the winter, and make ready, and not lightly leap to meet things that concern him not.
Of one thing beware, O man; see what is the price at which you sell your will. If you do nothing else, do not sell your will cheap. The great, heroic style, it may be, belongs to others, to Socrates25 and men like him.
“If then this is our true nature, why do not all men, or many, show it?”
What? Do all horses turn out swift, are all dogs good at the scent?
“What am I to do then? Since I have no natural gifts, am I to make no effort for that reason?”
Heaven forbid. Epictetus is not better than Socrates: if only he is as good as Socrates I am content. For I shall never be a Milo, yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property;26 nor, in a word, do we abandon our effort in any field because we despair of the first place.
CHAPTER 3: What Conclusions May Be Drawn from the Fact That God Is Father of Men
If a man could only take to heart this judgement, as he ought, that we are all, before anything else, children of God and that God is the Father of gods and men, I think that he will never harbor a mean or ignoble thought about himself. Why, if Caesar adopts you, your arrogance will be past all bearing; but if you realize that you are a son of Zeus, will you feel no elation? We ought to be proud, but we are not; as there are these two elements mingled in our birth, the body which we share with the animals, and the reason and mind which we share with the gods, men in general decline upon that wretched and dead kinship with the beasts, and but few claim that which is divine and blessed.
And so, since every one, whoever he be, must needs deal with each person or thing according to the opinion that he holds about them, those few who think that they have been born to be faithful, born to be honorable, born to deal with their impressions without error, have no mean or ignoble thought about themselves. But the thoughts of most men are just the opposite to this. “What am I? A miserable creature of a man”; and “my wretched rags of flesh.” Wretched indeed, but you have too something better than your “rags of flesh.” Why then do you discard the better and cling to your rags?
By reason of this lower kinship some of us fall away and become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous, others like lions, savage and brutal and untameable, but the greater part of us become foxes and the most god-forsaken creatures in the animal world. For a foul-mouthed and wicked man is no better than a fox or the meanest and most miserable of creatures. Look to it then and beware lest you turn out to be one of these god-forsaken creatures.
CHAPTER 4: On Progress, or Moral Advance
How shall we describe “progress”?27 It is the state of him who having learnt from philosophers that man wills ...