Selections from “The Discourses, Handbook, Fragments” of Epictetus


trans. Christopher Gill and Robin Hard

All things obey and serve the universe, both earth and sea, and the sun and the other stars, and the plants and animals of the earth. Our body likewise obeys it, both in sickness and health (when the universe wills) and when young and old, and as it passes through all other changes. It is therefore reasonable also that what depends on ourselves, that is to say, our judgement, should not be the only thing to strive against it. For the universe is powerful, and superior to ourselves, and has taken better counsel on our behalf than we can, by embracing us too in its governance in conjunction with the whole. Moreover, to act against it is to align ourselves with unreason, and achieving nothing but futile harassment, embroils us in pains and sorrows. (Fragments, 3)

Some things are up to us and others are not. Up to us are opinion, impulse, desire, aversion and, in a word, whatever is our own action. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, office and, in a word, whatever is not our own action. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; but those that are not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember then that if you suppose what is naturally enslaved to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault with both gods and men. But if you suppose only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own not to be your own (as is indeed the case), no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will not do a single thing against your will, you will have no enemy, and no one will harm you because no harm can affect you. (Handbook, 1)

It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have appeared so to Socrates too. But the terror lies in our judgement about death, that death is terrible. So, whenever we are frustrated, or disturbed, or upset, let us never blame others, but only ourselves, that is, our own judgements. It is the action of an uneducated person to lay the blame for his own bad condition upon others; of one who has made a start on his education to lay the blame on himself; and of one who is fully educated, to blame neither others nor himself. (Handbook, 5)

Where is progress then? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own faculty of choice, working at it and perfecting it, so as to bring it fully into harmony with nature; elevated, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, self-respecting: if he has learned too, that whoever desires, or is averse to, things outside his own power can neither be faithful nor free, but must necessarily be changed and tossed back and forth with them; must necessarily too be subject to others; who can procure or prevent what he desires or wants to avoid: if, finally, when he rises in the morning, he observes and keeps to these rules; bathes and eats as a man of fidelity and honour; and thus, in every matter that befalls, puts his guiding principles to work, just as the runner does in the business of running, or the voice trainer in the training of voices: this is the man who is truly making progress, this is the man who has not travelled in vain. ( Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 4:18-21)

Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling master, has matched you with a rough young man. For what end? That you may become an Olympic victor, and that cannot be done without sweat. No man, in my opinion has a more advantageous difficulty on his hands than you have, if only you will but use it as an athlete uses the young man he is wrestling against. (Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 24:2-3)

‘But I cannot’, say you, ‘attend to all these things at once.’ Why, does any one tell you that you posses a power equal to Zeus? No! But nevertheless he has assigned to each man a director, his own personal daemon, and committed him to his guardianship; a director whose vigilance no slumbers interrupt, and whom no false reasonings can deceive. For to what better and more careful guardian could he have committed us? So when you have shut your doors, and darkened your room, remember never to say that you are alone; for you are not but god is within, and your daemon is within, and what need have they of light to see what you are doing? To this god you also should swear such allegiance as soldiers do to Caesar. For they, in order to receive their pay, swear to put the safety of Caesar before all things, so will you not swear your oath to god, who have received so many and such great favours, or if you have sworn, will you not abide by your oath? And what must you swear? Never to disobey , never to accuse, never to find fault with anything that god has bestowed, never to do or suffer unwillingly and with a bad grace anything that is inevitable. Is this oath like the former? In the first case, men swear not to honour any other beyond Caesar; but we swear to honour our true selves above all things. (Discourses, Book 1, Ch. 14: 11-17)

How then is this to be effected? You must wish to satisfy your true self, you must wish to appear beautiful in the sight of god; you must desire to become pure in the presence of your pure self and of god… If you set these thoughts against your impressions, you will overpower it, and not be swept away.

But, in the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by its intensity: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do it will lead you where-ever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one. (Discourses, Book 2, Ch.18: 19-25)

These are three areas of study, in which a person who is going to be good and noble must be trained. That concerning desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into that which he would avoid. That concerning the impulse to act and not to act, and, in general appropriate behaviour; so that he may act in an orderly manner and after due consideration, and not carelessly. The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, in general whatever is connected with assent. Of these, the principal and most urgent is that which has to do with the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason. The next has to do with appropriate action. For I should not be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. The third falls to those who are already making progress and is concerned with the achievement of certainly in the matters already covered, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness or melancholy no untested impression may catch us off guard. “ (Discourses, Book 3, ch. 2: 1-5)

Remember that you must behave in life as you do at a symposium. Something is being passed round and comes to you: put out your hand and take your share politely. It goes by: do not detain it. It has not yet come: do not stretch your desire out towards it, but wait till it comes to you. Do this with regard to your children, to your wife, to public offices, to wealth, and the time will come when you are worthy to share in the symposia of the gods. (Handbook, 15)

On every occasion we ought to have these thoughts at hand:

“Lead me Zeus, and thou O Destiny,
To where-so-ever your decrees have assigned me.
I follow cheerfully; or if my will should fail,
Base though I be, I must follow still.” (Handbook, 53)

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