The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
Once when a Roman came in with his son and was listening to one of his lectures Epictetus said: 'This is the method of my teaching', and broke off short. And when the Roman begged him to continue, he replied:—Every art, when it is being taught, is tiresome to one who is unskilled and untried in it. The products of the arts indeed show at once the use they are made for, and most of them have an attraction and charm of their own; for though it is no pleasure to be present and follow the process by which a shoemaker learns his art, the shoe itself is useful and a pleasant thing to look at as well. So too the process by which a carpenter learns is very tiresome to the unskilled person who happens to be by, but his work shows the use of his art. This you will see still more in the case of music, for if you are by when a man is being taught you will think the process of all things the most unpleasant, yet the effects of music are pleasant and delightful for unmusical persons to hear.
So with philosophy; we picture to ourselves the work of the philosopher to be something of this sort: he must bring his own will into harmony with events, in such manner that nothing which happens should happen against our will, and that we should not wish for anything to happen that does not happen. The result of this is that those who have thus ordered their life do not fail to get what they will, and do not fall into what they will to avoid: each man spends his own life free from pain, from fear, and from distraction, and maintains the natural and acquired relations which unite him to his fellows—the part of son, father, brother, citizen, husband, wife, neighbour, fellow traveller, ruler, subject.
Such is the business of the philosopher as we picture it. The next thing is that we seek how we are to achieve it. Now we see that the carpenter becomes a carpenter by learning certain things, the helmsman becomes a helmsman by learning certain things. May we, then, infer that in the sphere of conduct too it is not enough merely to wish to become good, but one must learn certain things? We have, then, to look and see what these things are. The philosophers say that the first thing one must learn is this: 'that God exists and provides for the universe, and it is impossible for a man to act or even to conceive a thought or reflection without God knowing. The next thing is to learn the true nature of the gods. For whatever their nature is discovered to
be, he that is to please and obey them must needs try, so far as he can, to make himself like them.' If God is faithful, he must be faithful too; if free, he must be free too; if beneficent, he too must be beneficent: if high-minded, he must be high-minded: he must, in fact, as one who makes God his ideal, follow this out in every act and word.
'At what point, then, must we begin?'
If you attempt this task, I will tell you, that you must first understand terms.
'What? Do you imply that I do not understand terms now?' You do not.
'How then do I use them?'
You use them as illiterate persons deal with written sounds, as cattle deal with impressions: for it is one thing to use them, and another to understand. If you think you understand them, let us take any term you like and put ourselves to the test, to see if we understand.
'But it is vexatious when one is getting old, and has served, if it so chance, one's three campaigns, to be put through an examination.' 2-4
I know that as well as you. You have come to me now as if you were in want of nothing: and indeed what could you be imagined as wanting? You are rich, you have children, it may be, and a wife and many servants, the Emperor knows you, you possess many friends in Rome, you perform the acts appropriate to you, you know how to return good for good and evil for evil. What do you lack? If I show you that you lack what is most necessary and important for happiness, and that hitherto you have paid attention to everything rather than to acting appropriately, and if I conclude my criticism by saying that you do not know what God or man is, or what good or evil is, though perhaps you may bear being told of your ignorance in other ways, you cannot bear with me when I say that you do not know your own self; how can you submit to examination and abide my question? You cannot bear it at all: you go away at once in disgust. And yet what evil have I done you? Unless indeed the mirror does harm to the ugly man, by showing him what sort of man he is: unless the physician too insults the sick man, when he says to him, 'Sir, you think there is nothing wrong with you, but you are in a fever; take no food to-day and drink water'; and no one says, 'What shocking insolence!' But if you say to a man, 'There is fever in your will to get, your will to avoid is degraded, your designs are inconsistent, your impulses out of harmony with nature, your conceptions random and false', he goes away at once and says, 'He insulted me!'
Our condition may be compared to the gathering at a public festival. Cattle and oxen are brought thither for sale, and the mass of men come to buy or to sell; only some few come to look at the assembled people
and see how and why the assembly gathers and who instituted it and with what object. It is just the same here, in this assembly of the world: some are like cattle and trouble themselves about nothing but their fodder, for you who busy yourselves with property and lands and servants and public offices are busy with fodder and nothing else. There are but few who come to this assembly with a desire to see what really is the meaning of the universe and Who governs it. Does no one govern it? How can that be? A city or a household cannot endure even for a brief span of time without one to govern and take charge of it, and can this great and noble frame of things be administered in such good order by mere random chance?
There is, then, One who governs it. What is His nature and how does He govern? And we, what are we, His creations, and to what work are we born? Have we any connexion and relation with Him or not? Such are the thoughts which occur to these few, and so they devote their time to this and this alone, to investigate the assembly of life before they leave it. What follows? They are laughed at by the multitude, just as in the other assembly those who look on are laughed at by those who buy and sell. Nay, the cattle themselves, if they shared our perception, would laugh at those who have made anything else but fodder the object of their wonder and regard!