Epictetus: The Discourses

THE Stoic philosopher Epictetus, born at Hierapolis, in Phrygia, about A.D. 50, was at first a slave at Rome, and on being freed devoted himself to philosophy. He lived and taught at Nicopolis in Epirus from about A.D. 90 to A.D. 138. He left no works, but his utterances were collected in four books of Discourses or Dissertations by his pupil and friend Arrian. In the Encheiridion Epictete--a Handbook to Epictetus complied and condensed from the Discourses--Arrian gives the most authentic account of the philosophy of the Greek and Roman Stoics. The Discourses and Encheiridion of Epictetus have both been drawn upon in the following selections.


THE reasoning faculty alone considers both itself and all other powers, and judges of the appearance of things. And, as was fit, this most excellent and superior faculty, the faculty of a right use of the appearances of things, is that alone which the gods have placed in our own power, while all the other matters they have placed not in our power. Was it because they would not? I rather think that if they could, they had granted us these, too ; but they certainly could not. For, placed upon earth, and confined to such a body and such companions, how was it possible that we should not be hindered by things without us?

But what says Jupiter? 'O Epictetus, if it were possible, I had made this little body and possession of thine free, and not liable to hindrance. But now do not mistake: it is not thine own, but only a finer mixture of clay. Since, then, I could not give thee this, I have given thee a certain portion of myself--this faculty of exerting the powers of pursuit and avoidance, of desire and aversion and, in a word, the use of the appearances of things. Taking care of this point, and making what is thy own to consist in this, thou wilt never be restrained, never be hindered; thou wilt not groan, wilt not complain, wilt not flatter anyone. How then! Do all these advantages seem small to thee? Let them suffice, and thank the gods.'

But now, when it is in our power to take care of one thing, and apply ourselves to it, we choose rather to encumber ourselves with many--body, property, brother, friend, child, slave--and thus we are burdened and weighed down. When the weather happens not to be fair for sailing, we sit screwing ourselves and perpetually looking out for the way of the wind.

What then is to be done?

To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

And how is that?

As it pleases God.

To a reasonable creature, that alone is unsupportable which is unreasonable; everything reasonable may be supported. When Vespasian had sent to forbid Priscus Helvidius going to the senate, he said, "It is in your power to prevent my continuing a senator, but while I am one I must go."

"Well, then, at least be silent there."

"Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent."

"But I must ask it."

"And I must speak what appears to me to be right."

"But if you do I will put you to death."

"Did I ever tell you that I was immortal?

You will do your part, and I mine; it is yours to kill, and mine to die intrepid; yours to banish me, mine to depart untroubled."

What good, then, did Priscus do, who was but a single person? Why, what good does the purple do to the garment? What but the being a shining character in himself, and setting a good example to others? Another, perhaps, if in such circumstances Caesar had forbidden his going to the senate, would have said, 'I am obliged to you for excusing me.' But such a one Caesar would not have forbidden, well knowing that he would either sit like a statue, or, if he spoke, would say what he knew to be agreeable to Caesar.

Only consider at what price you sell your own will and choice, man--if for nothing else, that you may not sell it for a trifle.

If a person could be persuaded, as he ought of this principle, that we are all originally descended from God, and that He is the Father of gods and men, I conceive he never would think meanly or degenerately concerning himself. Suppose Caesar were to adopt you, there would be no bearing your haughty looks. Will you not be elated on knowing yourself to be the son of Jupiter, of God Himself? Yet, in fact, we are not elated; but having two things in our composition, intimately united, a body in common with the brutes, and reason and sentiment in common with the gods, many of us incline to this unhappy and moral kindred, and only some few to the divine and happy one.

By means of this animal kindred some of us, deviating towards it, become like wolves, faithless and insidious and mischievous; others like lions, wild and savage and untamed; but most of us like foxes, wretches even among brutes. For what else is a slanderous and ill-natured man than a fox, or something still more wretched and mean?

To Triptolemus all men have raised temples and altars, because he gave us a milder kind of food; but to Him who was has discovered and communicated to all the truth, the means not of living but of living well, who ever raised an altar or built a statue?

IF what philosophers say of the kindred between God and man be true, what has anyone to do but, like Socrates, when he is asked what countryman he is, never to say that he is a citizen of Athens, or of Corinth, but of the world? Why may not he who has learnt that from God the seeds of being are descended, not only to my father or grandfather, but to all things that are produced and born on the earth--and especially to rational natures, as they alone are qualified to partake of a communication with the Deity, being connected with Him by reason--why may not such a one call himself a citizen of the world? Why not a son of God? And why shall he fear anything that happens among men? Shall kindred to Caesar enable a man to live secure, above contempt and fear; and shall not the having God for our Maker and Father and Guardian free us from griefs and terrors?


You are a distinct portion of the essence of God, and contain a certain part of Him in yourself. Why do not you consider whence you came? You carry a god about with you, wretch, and know nothing of it. Do you suppose I mean some god without you, of gold or silver? It is within yourself you carry Him, and profane Him, without being sensible of it, by impure thoughts and unclean actions. If even the image of God were present, you would not dare to act so; when God Himself is within you, ashamed to think and act thus, insensible of your own nature and hateful to God?

You are a citizen of the world, and a part of it; not a subservient, but a principal part. You are capable of comprehending the divine economy and of considering the connexions of things. What then, does the character of a citizen promise? To hold no private interest, to deliberate to nothing as a separate individual but like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason, and comprehended the constitution of nature, would never pursue, or desire, but with a reference to the whole.

'Ah, when shall I see Athens and the citadel again?'

Wretch, are not you contented with what you see every day? Can you see anything better than the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole earth, the sea? If, besides, you comprehend Him who administers the whole, and carry Him about in yourself, do you still long after pebbles and a fine rock?

Boldly make a desperate push, man, for prosperity, for freedom, for magnanimity. Lift up your head at last as free from slavery. Dare to look up to God, and say, 'Make use of me for the future as Thou wilt. I am of the same mind; I am equal with Thee. I refuse nothing which seems good to Thee. Lead me whither Thou wilt. Clothe me in whatever dress Thou wilt. Is it Thy will that I should be in a public or a private condition, dwell here or be banished, be poor or rich? Under all these circumstances I will make Thy defence to men. I will show what the nature of everything is.' No, rather sit alone in a warm place, and wait till your nurse comes to feed you. If Hercules had sat loitering at home, what would he have been? You are not Hercules, to exptirpate the evils of others. Extirpate your own, then. Expel grief, fear, desire, envy, malevolence, avarice, effeminacy, intemperance, from your mind.

But these can be no otherwise expelled than by looking up to God alone as your pattern and being consecrated to His commands. If you wish for anything else, you will, with sighs and groans, follow what is stronger than you, always seeking prosperity without, and never finding it. For you seek it where it is not, and neglect to seek it where it is.

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