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Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus

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Rating: 10 / 10

Thoughts

The Handbook (Enchiridion) alone is worth 10 stars. Epictetus influenced Marcus Aurelius profoundly. I think that fact alone speaks volumes.


Discourses and Selected Writings

[30] Someone asked, ‘But how do we know what is in keeping with our character?’ Well, how does the bull realize its own strength, rushing out to protect the whole herd when a lion attacks? The possession of a particular talent is instinctively sensed by its owner; [31] so if any of you are so blessed you will be the first to know it. [32] It is true, however, that no bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight. We must endure a winter training, and can’t be dashing into situations for which we aren’t yet prepared.

Why should I worry about what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it. [30] ‘But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? [31] ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place?’ [32] Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?

‘I want everyone I meet to admire me, to follow me around shouting, “What a great philosopher!” ’ [4] And who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by? Aren’t they the same people you are in the habit of calling crazy? And is this your life ambition, then – to win the approval of lunatics?

And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them.

What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.

[21] What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do. [22] I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?

[32] ‘I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.’

In short, we do not abandon any discipline for despair of ever being the best in it.

[13] So let’s see some evidence of it. But no, it’s as if I were to say to an athlete, ‘Show me your shoulders,’ and he responded with, ‘Have a look at my weights.’ ‘Get out of here with you and your gigantic weights!’ I’d say, ‘What I want to see isn’t the weights but how you’ve profited from using them.’

Apply this to knowledge, as well. You main read and consume a lot of information; but did you learn it? Understood it? Put it to practice? When you have, then you have gained from your time spent reading.

[18] Where is progress, then? If there is anyone who renounces externals and attends instead to their character, cultivating and perfecting it so that it agrees with nature, making it honest and trustworthy, elevated, free, unchecked and undeterred; [19] and if they’ve learned that whoever desires or avoids things outside their control cannot be free or faithful, but has to shift and fluctuate right along with them, subject to anyone with the power to furnish or deprive them of these externals; [20] and if from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship [21] – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.

[22] But anyone whose sole passion is reading books, and who does little else besides, having moved here for this – my advice for them is to go back home immediately and attend to business there, [23] because they left home for nothing.

If what you learn doesn't change your actions, you haven't learned it. Don't read for the sake of reading; read to learn. Same goes for training. Train to become something, not to show off your weights or numbers. Show YOUR progress.

But no. There you sit, worrying that certain events might happen, already upset and in a state about your present circumstances. So then you reproach the gods. [39] What else can come of such weakness except impiety? [40] And yet God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but, as befitted a king and true father, he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way. [41] And even though you have these powers free and entirely your own, you don’t use them, because you still don’t realize what you have or where it came from. [42] Instead you sit crying and complaining – some of you blind to your benefactor, and unable to acknowledge his existence; others assailing God with complaints and accusations from sheer meanness of spirit.

So why take on the burden of matters which you cannot answer for? You are only making unnecessary problems for yourself.

Show them where they go wrong and you will find that they’ll reform. But unless they see it, they are stuck with nothing better than their usual opinion as their practical guide.

We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from there progress to things of greater value.

Walk upright and free, trusting in the strength of your moral convictions, not the strength of your body, like an athlete. You weren’t meant to be invincible by brute force, like a pack animal. [21] You are invincible if nothing outside the will can disconcert you.

When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.

The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. [2] For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish.

Whoever keeps in mind that our actions are all determined by our impressions, which can either be right or wrong – now, if the impression is correct, we are innocent, but if it is incorrect we pay for it ourselves, since it is impossible that someone else should be penalized for our error – whoever keeps this in mind will not be angry or upset with anyone, won’t curse, blame, resent or malign anyone either.

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?

Step forward and make use of what you’ve learned. [56] It isn’t more logic chopping that is needed – our Stoic texts are full of that. What we need now are people to apply their learning and bear witness to their learning in their actions.

Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear. Which is why we praise the poet who wrote, ‘Death is not fearful, but dying like a coward is.’

Pain too is just a scary mask: look under it and you will see. The body sometimes suffers, but relief is never far behind. And if that isn’t good enough for you, the door stands open; otherwise put up with it.

Well, it is ridiculous to imagine that you will learn anything but what you want to learn; in other words, you can’t hope to make progress in areas where you have made no application.

Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. [2] If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. [3] And if you’re laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to walk any distance you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. [4] So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different.

If you lose the struggle once, but insist that next time it will be different, then repeat the same routine – be sure that in the end you will be in so sad and weakened a condition that you won’t even realize your mistakes, you’ll begin to rationalize your misbehaviour.

Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid.

FRAGMENTS

Whoever chafes at the conditions dealt by fate is unskilled in the art of life; whoever bears with them nobly and makes wise use of the results is a man who deserves to be considered good.

We should realize that an opinion is not easily formed unless a person says and hears the same things every day and practises them in real life.

ENCHIRIDION

So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’

Remove it from anything not in our power to control, and direct it instead toward things contrary to our nature that we do control. As for desire, suspend it completely for now. Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, with discipline and detachment.1

So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves – that is, our judgements – accountable. An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.

Don’t pride yourself on any assets but your own. We could put up with a horse if it bragged of its beauty. But don’t you see that when you boast of having a beautiful horse, you are taking credit for the horse’s traits? What quality belongs to you? The intelligent use of impressions. If you use impressions as nature enchiridion prescribes, go ahead and indulge your pride, because then you will be celebrating a quality distinctly your own.

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.

Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened – because other people are not upset when the same thing happens to them – but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.

You will never have to experience defeat if you avoid contests whose outcome is outside your control. [2] Don’t let outward appearances mislead you into thinking that someone with more prestige, power or some other distinction must on that account be happy. If the essence of the good lies within us, then there is no place for jealousy or envy, and you will not care about being a general, a senator or a consul – only about being free. And the way to be free is to look down on externals. (Page 0)

The first part, I do not take to mean that one should never try to accomplish anything. It is simply to realize that you should try to control things that you cannot control. Some things you can partly control. Say, you're playing game of skill — chess, maybe. You can't control if you win or loose, but you can choose to do your best. And doing your best is causally linked to winning. But by having your goal merely be "doing your best", you do not become fluttered if you are losing.

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control.

Now if someone pays an obol and gets the head of lettuce, while you will not pay this much and therefore go without, don’t imagine that you necessarily come off second best. As he has the lettuce, you still have the money.

If your body was turned over to just anyone, you would doubtless take exception. Why aren’t you ashamed that you have made your mind vulnerable to anyone who happens to criticize you, so that it automatically becomes confused and upset?

Settle on the type of person you want to be and stick to it, whether alone or in company.

It is a hard thing to do; but a worthy ideal to strive for.

Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – commonplace stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.

If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’

In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.

If you decide to do something, don’t shrink from being seen doing it, even if the majority of people disapprove. If you’re wrong to do it, then you should shrink from doing it altogether; but if you’re right, then why worry how people will judge you?

Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own; so if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided. I mean, if someone declares a true conjunctive proposition to be false, the proposition is unaffected, it is they who come off worse for having their ignorance exposed. With this in mind you will treat your critic with more compassion. Say to yourself each time, ‘He did what he believed was right.’

So don’t make a show of your philosophical learning to the uninitiated, show them by your actions what you have absorbed.

Whatever your mission, stick by it as if it were a law and you would be committing sacrilege to betray it. Pay no attention to whatever people might say; this no longer should influence you.

How long will you wait before you demand the best of yourself, and trust reason to determine what is best? You have been introduced to the essential doctrines, and claim to understand them. So what kind of teacher are you waiting for that you delay putting these principles into practice until he comes? You’re a grown man already, not a child any more. If you remain careless and lazy, making excuse after excuse, fixing one day after another when you will finally take yourself in hand, your lack of progress will go unnoticed, and in the end you will have lived and died unenlightened.

Finally decide that you are an adult who is going to devote the rest of your life to making progress. Abide by what seems best as if it were an inviolable law. When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day. [3] That’s how Socrates got to be the person he was, by depending on reason to meet his every challenge. You’re not yet Socrates, but you can still live as if you want to be him.

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