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The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, [1916], at



Some one said to him, 'I often came to you, desiring to hear you and you never gave me an answer, and now, if it may be, I beg you to say something to me'.

Do you think, he replied, that there is an art of speaking, like other arts, and that he who has it will speak with skill and he who has it not, without skill?

'I think so.'

Is it true then that he who by his speech gains benefit himself and is able to benefit others would speak with skill, and he who tends to be harmed himself and harm others would be unskilled in the art of speaking?

'Yes, you would find that some are harmed, some benefited.'

But what of the hearers? Are they all benefited by what they hear, or would you find that of them too some are benefited and some harmed?

'Yes, that is true of them too', he said.

Here too then it is true that those who hear with skill are benefited, and those who hear without skill are harmed?

He agreed.

Is there then a skill in hearing as well as in speaking?

'So it appears.'

If you will, look at the question thus. Whose part do you think it is to touch an instrument musically?

'The musician's.'

And whose part do you think it is to make a statue properly?

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'The sculptor's.'

Does it not seem to you to require any art to look at a statue with skill?

'Yes, this requires art too.'

If then right speaking demands a skilled person, do you see that hearing with profit also demands a skilled person? As for perfection and profit in the full sense, that, if you like, we may for the moment dismiss, as we are both far from anything of that sort; but this I think every one would admit, that he who is to listen to philosophers must have at least some practice in listening. Is it not so?

Show me then what it is you would have me speak to you about. What are you able to hear about? About things good and bad? Good what? A good horse?


A good ox?


What then? A good man?


Do we know then what man is, what his nature is, what the notion is? Are our ears open in any degree with regard to this? Nay, do you understand what Nature is, or can you in any measure follow me when I speak? Am I to demonstrate to you? How am I to do it? Do you really understand what demonstration is, or how a thing is demonstrated, or by what means, or what processes are like demonstration without being demonstrations? Do you know what is true or what is false, what follows what, what is in conflict, or disagreement or discord with what? Can I rouse you to philosophy? How can I show you the conflict of the multitude, their disputes as to things good and evil, useful and harmful, when you do not so much as know what conflict is? Show me then what good I shall do you by conversing with you.

'Rouse my interest.'

As the sheep when he sees the grass that suits him has his desire roused to eat, but if you set a stone or loaf by him he will not be roused, so there are in us certain natural inclinations toward discourse, when the appropriate hearer appears and provokes the inclination; but if he lies there like a stone or a piece of grass, how can he rouse a man's will? Does the vine say to the farmer, 'Attend to me'? No, its very appearance shows that it will be to his profit to attend to it and so calls out his energies. Who does not answer the call of winning and saucy children to play with them and crawl with them and talk nonsense with them, but who wants to play or bray with an ass? However small he may be, he is still an ass.

'Why then do you say nothing to me?'

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There is only one thing I can say to you, that he who is ignorant who he is and for what he is born and what the world is that he is in and who are his fellows, and what things are good and evil, noble and base; who cannot understand reasoning or demonstration, or what is true or what false, and is unable to distinguish them, such a man will not follow nature in his will to get or to avoid, in his impulses or designs, in assent, refusal, or withholding of assent; to sum up, he will go about the world deaf and blind, thinking himself somebody, when he is really nobody. Do you think there is anything new in this? Ever since the race of men began, have not all errors and misfortunes arisen from this ignorance?

Why did Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel with one another? Was it not because they did not know what was expedient or inexpedient? Did not one say that it was expedient to give back Chryseis to her father, and the other that it was not? Did not one say that he ought to take the other's prize, and the other that he ought not? Did not this too make them forget who they were and for what they had come?

Let be, man, what have you come for? To win women for your love or to make war?

'To make war.'

With whom? Trojans or Greeks?


Why then do you leave Hector and draw your sword on your own king? And you, best of men, have you left your duties as a king,

trusted with clans and all their mighty cares,

[Homer, Iliad, II. 25]

to fight a duel for a paltry damsel with the most warlike of your allies, whom you ought by all means to respect and guard? Do you show yourself inferior to the courteous high priest who pays all attention to you noble gladiators? Do you see what ignorance as to things expedient leads to?

'But I too am rich.'

Are you any richer than Agamemnon?

'But I am handsome as well.'

Are you any handsomer than Achilles?

'But I have a fine head of hair.'

Had not Achilles a finer, and golden hair too, and he did not comb and smooth it to look fine?

'But I am strong.'

Can you lift a stone as big as Hector or Ajax could?

'But I am noble too.'

Was your mother a goddess, or your father of the seed of Zeus? What

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good do these things do Achilles, when he sits weeping for his darling mistress?

'But I am an orator.'

And was not he? Do not you see how he handled Odysseus and

Phoenix, the most eloquent of the Hellenes, how he shut their mouths? This is all I can say to you, and even this I have no heart for. 'Why?'

Because you do not excite my interest. Is there anything in you to excite me as men who keep horses are excited at sight of a well-bred horse? Your poor body? You make an ugly figure. Your clothes? They are too luxurious. Your air, your countenance? There is nothing to see. When you wish to hear a philosopher, do not say to him, 'You say nothing to me,' but only show yourself worthy to hear and you will see how you will rouse him to discourse!

Next: Chapter XXV. How The Art of Reasoning is Necessary