Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

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

p. 355



When the Commissioner, who was an Epicurean, came into his lecture-room, It is proper, said Epictetus, that we who are ignorant should inquire of you philosophers what is the Best Thing in the world, just as those who come to a strange city make inquiry of the citizens who know the place; that having learnt what it is we may pursue it for ourselves, and come to the sight of it, as foreigners visit the sights of the cities. For all, one may say, are agreed that man has to do with three things, soul and body and external things; it only remains for you to answer the question, 'What is the best in man?' What shall we say to men? Shall we say, 'The flesh'? and was it for this that Maximus sailed as far as Cassiope to see his son on his way? Was it to have pleasure in the flesh? When the Commissioner denied it, saying, 'God forbid!' Epictetus went on, Is it not proper to devote our efforts to what is best in us?

'It is most proper.'

What have we then better than the flesh?

'The soul', he said.

And which are better, the goods of the best element in us or the goods of the inferior?

'Those of the best.'

Are the goods of the soul in the sphere of the will or beyond it?

'Within the sphere of the will.'

Is the pleasure of the soul then within the sphere of the will?

'Yes', he said.

And what gives rise to it? Does it arise of itself? That is inconceivable; for we must assume the existence of the good as something which has value in itself, by partaking in which we shall have pleasure in the soul.

To this too he agreed.

What then will give rise to this pleasure of the soul in us? If the goods of the soul give rise to it, then the nature of the good is discovered; for it is impossible that the good and that which gives us rational delight should be different from one another, or that the consequence should be good unless that on which it depends is good. For the primary end must be good, if that which follows on it is to be rational. But you cannot say this if you have any sense, for you will be saying what is

p. 356

inconsistent with Epicurus, and with the other judgements of your school. You will be reduced to saying that the pleasure of the soul is pleasure in bodily things: these, as it now appears, are of primary value and are identical with the nature of the good.

Therefore Maximus acted foolishly, if he had any motive in sailing but the flesh, that is the highest principle. He acts like a fool too if, as a judge, he refrains from other men's goods when he can take them. If you think fit to do it, the only point for us to look to is that it be done secretly, securely, without any one's knowledge. For even Epicurus himself does not set down stealing as evil, but only detected stealing: and he says 'Do not steal', only because 'it is impossible to be sure of escaping detection'. But I tell you that if it be done cleverly and cautiously, we shall escape detection. Further, we have powerful friends in Rome, both men and women, and the Greeks are feeble folk: no one will have the courage to go to Rome to prosecute. Why do you refrain from your own good? It is foolish and silly. Nay, even if you tell me you refrain, I will not believe you; for just as it is impossible to assent to what appears false and to reject what is true, so it is impossible to hold aloof from what appears good. Now wealth is a good thing, and, so to speak, most productive of pleasure. Why should not one acquire it? Why should we not corrupt our neighbour's wife, if we can do it without detection; and if her husband talks nonsense, why should we not break his neck as well? This, if you wish to be a philosopher of the right sort, to be perfect and consistent with your own judgements. Otherwise you will be no better than we so-called Stoics, for we too say one thing and do another: we say noble words and do shameful deeds! You will be suffering from the opposite perversion, of uttering shameful judgements, and doing noble deeds!

Before God, I ask you, can you imagine a city of Epicureans? 'I shall not marry' (says one).

'Nor shall I,' (says another) 'for it is wrong to marry.'

Yes, and it is wrong to get children, and wrong to be a citizen!

What is to happen then? Where will your citizens come from? Who will educate them? Who will be Governor of the Ephebi? Who will manage the Gymnasia? Yes, and what will be their education? Will it be the education the Lacedaemonians or Athenians received? Take me a young man and bring him up in accordance with your judgements. The judgements are bad, subversive of the city, ruinous to family life, not even fit for women. Man, leave these principles alone. You live in an imperial city: you must hold office, judge justly, refrain from other men's property: no woman but your wife must seem fair in your eyes, no boy, no silver or gold plate. You must look for judgements that will be in

p. 357

keeping with such conduct, and will enable you to refrain with pleasure from things so persuasive to attract and to overcome you. If on the other hand we back up their persuasive power by this philosophy, such as it is, that we have discovered, thrusting us forward and confirming us in the same direction, what is to become of us? What is the best part of a piece of plate, the silver or the art spent on it? The hand in itself is mere flesh, it is the products of the hand that claim precedence. So too appropriate actions are of three kinds: the first class relative to k mere existence, the second relative to particular conditions, the third commanding and absolute. On this principle too we ought not to honour man's material being, his rags of flesh, but his leading characteristics. What are these? Citizenship, marriage, procreation of children, worship of God, care of parents, and in general, will to get and to avoid, impulse to act and not to act, each in its proper and natural manner.

What is our nature? To be free, noble, self-respecting. What other animal blushes? What other can have a conception of shame? We must subordinate pleasure to these principles, to minister to them as a servant, to evoke our interests and to keep us in the way of our natural activities.

'But I am rich, and have need of nothing.'

Why then do you still pretend to be a philosopher? Gold and silver plate are enough for you: what need have you of judgements? 'Nay, but I also sit as judge over the Greeks.'

What! you know how to judge? What made you know that? 'Caesar wrote me a patent.'

Let him write to you to judge questions of music: what use will it be to you? But let that pass. How did you get made a judge? Whose hand did you kiss? Was it Symphorus’ or Numenius’? 3-5 In whose antechamber did you sleep? To whom did you send gifts? After all, do you not see that being judge is worth no more nor less than Numenius is worth?

'Well, but I can put any one I wish in prison.'

As you may a stone!

'But I can cudgel to death any one I wish.'

As you can an ass! This is not governing men. Govern us as rational creatures by showing us what is expedient, and we will follow it: show us what is inexpedient and we will turn away from it. Make us admire and emulate you, as Socrates made men do. He was the true ruler of men, for he brought men to submit to him their will to get and to avoid, their impulse to act and not to act.

'Do this, refrain from this, or I will put you in prison.' This is not how rational beings are ruled. But, 'Do this as Zeus ordained: if not, you will suffer penalty and harm.' What kind of harm? No harm but that of failing to do your duty: you will destroy the trustworthy, self-

p. 358

respecting, well-behaved man in you. Look not for any greater harm than this!

Next: Chapter VIII. How We Should Train Ourselves to Deal With Impressions