The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
The essence of good and of evil lies in an attitude of the will. What are external things then?
They are materials for the will, in dealing with which it will find its own good or evil.
How will it find its good?
If it does not value over much the things that it deals with. For its judgements on matters presented to it, if they be right, make the will good, and if crooked and perverse make it bad. This law God has ordained and says, 'If you want anything good, get it from yourself.'
You say, 'Not so, but from another.'
I say, No, from yourself. So when the tyrant threatens and does not invite me, I say, 'What does he threaten?' If he says, 'I will bind you', I say, 'He threatens my hands and my feet.' If he says, 'I will behead you', I say, 'He threatens my neck'. If he says, 'I will put you in prison', I say, 'He threatens all my poor flesh', and if he threatens banishment, the same.
'Does he then not threaten you at all?'
Not at all, if I feel that these things are nothing to me: but if I fear any of them, he does threaten me. Who is there left for me to fear, and over what has he control? Over what is in my power? No one controls that. Over what is not in my power? I have no concern in that.
'Do you philosophers then teach us to despise kings?'
Heaven forbid! Which of us teaches men to resist them in the matters over which they have authority? Take my bit of a body, take my property, take my good name, take my companions. If I try to persuade any of them to resist, I give him leave to accuse me indeed.
'Yes, but I want to command your judgements.'
Who has given you this authority? How can you conquer another's judgement?
'I will conquer him', he says, 'by bringing fear to bear on him.'
You are not aware that it was the judgement that conquered itself, it was not conquered by another. The will may conquer itself, but nothing else can conquer it. That is the reason too why the noblest and most
just law of God is this: 'Let the better always be victorious over the worse.'
'Ten', you say, 'are better than one.'
Better for what? To bind, to slay, to carry off where they will, to take away property. Ten conquer one therefore only in so far as they are better.
'In what then are they worse?'
They are worse if the one has right judgements, and the ten have not. I ask you, can they conquer him in this? How can they? If we weigh them in the balance, must not the heavier pull down the scale?
'This is your outcome then, that Socrates should suffer the fate he did at the hands of the Athenians?'
Slave, why do you say, 'Socrates'? State the fact as it really is, That Socrates' vile body should be arrested and haled to prison by those who are stronger, and that some one should give hemlock to Socrates' vile body and it should die of chill—does this seem to you marvellous, does this seem unjust, is it for this you accuse God? Did Socrates then get nothing in exchange? In what did his true good consist? Which are we to attend to? To you or to him? Nay, what does Socrates say? 'Anytus or Meletus can slay me, but they cannot harm me' [Plato, Apology, 30c]: and again, 'If God so will, so be it.' [Plato, Crito, 43d] Prove, I say, that one who has worse judgements gains the mastery over him who is his superior in judgements. You will not prove it: far from it. For the law of nature and of God is this, 'Let the better always come out victor over the worse.' Victorious in what? In that wherein it is better. One body is stronger than another, the majority are stronger than one, the thief stronger than he who is not a thief. That is why I too lost my lamp, because in the matter of vigilance the thief was a stronger man than I. But he bought his lamp for this price: for a lamp he became a thief, for a lamp he broke his faith, for a lamp he became a brute. This seemed to his judgement to be profitable.
Very well: but now some one has laid hold on my cloak, and drags me into the market, then others raise a clamour against me, 'Philosopher, what good have your judgements done you? for, see, you are haled to prison, see, you are about to be beheaded.'
And what sort of Introduction to philosophy could I have studied, that would save me from being haled off, if a stronger man seizes my cloak, or, if ten men drag me about and cast me into prison, will save me from being cast there? Have I then learnt nothing else? I have learnt to see that everything that happens, if it is beyond the control of my will, is nothing to me. Have you not gained benefit then in this respect? Why do you seek benefit elsewhere than where you learnt that it is to be found?
I sit on then in prison and say, 'This person who clamours at me has no ear for the true meaning of things, he does not understand what is said, in a word he has taken no pains to know what philosophers do or say. Let him be.'
But the answer comes, 'Come out of your prison.'
If you have no more need of me in prison, I come out: if you need me again, I will come in. For how long? For as long as reason requires that I should abide by my vile body; but when reason demands it no longer, take it from me and good health to you! Only let me not cast it off without reason or from a faint heart, or for a casual pretext. For again God wills it not: for He has need of a world like this, and of such creatures as ourselves to move upon the earth. But if He give the signal of retreat, as He gave it to Socrates, one must obey His signal as that of the general in command.
'What then? must I say these things to the multitude?'
Why should you? Is it not sufficient to believe them yourself? For when children come up to us and clap their hands and say, 'A good Saturnalia to you to-day!' do we say 'These things are not good'? Not at all, we clap with them ourselves. So, when you cannot change a man's opinion, recognize that he is a child, clap with him, and if you do not wish to do this, you have only to hold your peace.
These things we must remember, and when called to face a crisis that is to test us we must realize that the moment is come to show whether we have learnt our lesson. For a young man going straight from his studies to face a crisis may be compared to one who has practised the analysis of syllogisms. If some one offers him one that is easy to analyse, he says, 'Nay, propound me one which is cunningly involved, that I may get proper exercise.' And so wrestlers are discontented if put to wrestle with young men of light weight: 'He cannot lift me', one says. Here is a young man of parts, yet when the crisis calls he must needs weep and say, 'I would fain go on learning.'
Learning what? If you did not learn your lesson to display it in action, what did you learn it for?
I imagine one of those who are sitting here crying out in the travail of his heart, 'Why does not a crisis come to me such as has come to him? Am I to wear my life out idly in a corner, when I might win a crown at Olympia? When will some one bring me news of a contest like that?' Such ought to be the attitude of you all. Why, among Caesar's gladiators there are some who are vexed that no one brings them out or matches them in fight, and they pray to God and go to the managers and implore them to let them fight; and shall no one of you display a like spirit? That is exactly why I should like to take ship for Rome to see how my wrestler puts his lesson into practice.
'I do not want', says he, 'an exercise of this sort.'
What? is it in your power to take the task you choose? No, a body is given you of such a kind, parents of such a kind, brothers of such a kind, a country of such a kind, a position in it of such a kind: and yet you come to me and say, 'Change the task set me.' What! have you not resources, to deal with what is given you? Instead of saying, 'It is yours to set the task, and mine to study it well', you say, 'Do not put before me such a syllogism, but such an one: do not impose on me such a conclusion, but such an one.' A time will soon come when tragic actors will imagine that they are merely mask and shoes and robe, and nothing else. Man, you have these things given you as your subject and task. Speak your pan, that we may know whether you are a tragic actor or a buffoon: for except their speech they have all else in common. Does the tragic actor disappear, if you take away his shoes and mask and bring him on the stage in the bare guise of a ghost, or is he there still? If he has a voice he is there still.
So it is in life: 'Take a post of command'; I take it, and taking it show how a philosopher behaves.
'Lay aside the senator's dress, and put on rags and appear in that character.' Very well: is it not given me still to display a noble voice? In what part then do you appear now?
As a witness called by God: 'Come and bear witness for me, for I count you worthy to come forward as my witness. Is anything good or evil which lies outside the range of the will? Do I harm any one? Do I put each man's advantage elsewhere than in himself?'
What is the witness you now bear to God?
'I am in danger, O Lord, and in misfortune; no man heeds me, no man gives me anything, all blame me and speak evil of me.'
Is this the witness you are going to bear, and so dishonour the calling that he has given you, in that he honoured you thus and counted you worthy to be brought forward to bear such weighty witness?
But suppose that he who has authority pronounces, 'I judge you to be godless and unholy', how does this affect you?
'I am judged to be godless and unholy.'
If he had been giving judgement on a hypothetical proposition and had declared, 'I judge the proposition "if it be day, there is light" to be false', how would it have affected the proposition? Who is judged here? Who is condemned? The proposition or the man who is deluded about it? Who in the world then is this who has authority to pronounce upon you? Does he know what godliness or ungodliness is? Has he
made a study of it? Has he learnt it? Where and with what master? If a musician pays no heed to him when he pronounces that the lowest note is the highest, nor a geometrician when he decides that the lines from the centre of a circle to the circumference are not equal, shall he who is educated in true philosophy pay any heed to an uneducated man when he gives judgement on what is holy and unholy, just and unjust? What a great wrong for philosophers to be guilty of! Is this what you have learnt by coming to school?
Leave other people, persons of no endurance, to argue on these matters to little purpose. Let them sit in a corner and take their paltry fees, or murmur that no one offers them anything, and come forward yourself and practise what you have learnt. For it is not arguments that are wanting nowadays: no, the books of the Stoics are full of them. What then is the one thing wanting? We want the man who will apply his arguments, and bear witness to them by action. This is the character I would have you take up, that we may no longer make use of old examples in the school, but may be able to show an example from our own day.
Whose business then is it to take cognizance of these questions? It is for him that has studied at school; for man is a creature with a faculty of taking cognizance, but it is shameful for him to exercise it in the spirit of runaway slaves. No: one must sit undistracted and listen in turn to tragic actor or harp-player, and not do as the runaways do. At the very moment one of them is attending and praising the actor, he gives a glance all round, and then if some one utters the word 'master' he is fluttered and confounded in a moment. It is shameful that philosophers should take cognizance of the works of nature in this spirit. For what does 'master' mean? No man is master of another man; his masters are only death and life, pleasure and pain. For, apart from them, you may bring me face to face with Caesar and you shall see what constancy I show. But when he comes in thunder and lightning with these in his train, and I show fear of them, I am only recognizing my master as the runaway does. But so long as I have respite from them I am just like the runaway watching in the theatre; I wash, drink, sing, but do everything in fear and misery. But if I once free myself from my masters, that is from those feelings which make masters formidable, my trouble is past, and I have a master no more.
'Should I then proclaim this to all men?'
No! One should study the weakness of the uninstructed and say to them, 'This man advises me what he thinks good for himself, and I excuse him.' For Socrates too excused the gaoler who wept when he was going to drink the poison, and said, 'How nobly he has wept for
us!' Does he say to the gaoler, 'That is why we dismissed the women'? No, he says that to his intimate friends, who were fit to hear it, but the gaoler he treats considerately like a child. [Plato, Phaedo, 116d]