Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 18

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That we ought not to be angry with the erring

If what the philosophers[1] say is true, that in all men thought and action start from a single source, namely feeling—as in the case of assent the feeling that a thing is so, and in the case of dissent the feeling that it is not so, yes, and, by Zeus, in the case of suspended judgement the feeling that it is uncertain, so also in the case of impulse towards a thing, the feeling that it is expedient for me and that it is impossible to judge one thing expedient and yet desire another, and again, to judge one thing fitting, and yet be impelled to another—if all this be true, why are we any longer angry with the multitude?—"They are thieves," says someone, "and robbers."—What do you mean by "thieves and robbers?" They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil. Ought we, therefore, to be angry with them, or rather pity them? Only show them their error and you will see how quickly they will desist from their mistakes. But if their eyes are not opened, they have nothing superior to their mere opinion.

5Ought not this brigand, then, and this adulterer to be put to death? you ask. Not at all, but you should ask rather, "Ought not this man to be put to death who is in a state of error and delusion about the greatest matters, and is in a state of blindness, not, indeed, in the vision which distinguishes between white and black, but in the judgement which distinguishes between the good and the evil?" And if you put it this way, you will realize how inhuman a sentiment it is that you are uttering, and that it is just as if you should say, "Ought not this blind man, then, or this deaf man to be put to death?" For if the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that can befall a man, while the greatest thing in each man is a right moral purpose, and if a man is deprived of this very thing, what ground is left for you to be angry at him? Why, man, if you must needs be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the misfortunes of another, pity him rather, but do not hate him: drop this readiness to take offence and this spirit of hatred; 10do not introduce those words which the multitude of the censorious use: "Well, then, these accursed and abominable fools!" Very well; but how is it that you have so suddenly been converted to wisdom that you are angry at fools? Why, then, are we angry? Because we admire the goods of which these men rob us. For, mark you, stop admiring[2] your clothes, and you are not angry at the man who steals them; stop admiring your wife's beauty, and you are not angry at her adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among the things that are another's and that are not under your control. If you give these things up and count them as nothing, at whom have you still ground to feel angry? But so long as you admire these things, be angry at yourself and not at the men that I have just mentioned. For consider; you have fine clothes and your neighbour does not; you have a window and wish to air them. He does not know wherein the true good of man consists, but fancies that it consists in having fine clothes, the very same fancy that you also entertain. Shall he not come, then, and carry them off? Why, when you show a cake to gluttonous men and then gulp it down all to yourself, are you not wanting them to snatch it? Stop provoking them, stop having a window, stop airing your clothes.

15Something similar happened to me also the other day. I keep an iron lamp by the side of my household gods, and, on hearing a noise at the window, I ran down. I found that the lamp had been stolen. I reflected that the man who stole it was moved by no unreasonable motive. What then? To-morrow, I say, you will find one of earthenware. Indeed, a man loses only that which he already has. "I have lost my cloak." Yes, for you had a cloak. "I have a pain in my head." You don't have a pain in your horns, do you? Why, then, are you indignant? For our losses and our pains have to do only with the things which we possess.

"But the tyrant will chain———" What? Your leg. "But he will cut off———" What? Your neck. What, then, will he neither chain nor cut off? Your moral purpose. This is why the ancients gave us the injunction, "Know thyself." What follows, then? Why, by the Gods, that one ought to practise in small things, and beginning with them pass on to the greater. "I have a head-ache." Well, do not say "Alas!" "I have an ear-ache." Do not say "Alas!" And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the centre of your being. And if your slave is slow in bringing your bandage, do not cry out and make a wry face and say, "Everybody hates me." Why, who would not hate such a person? 20For the future put your confidence in these doctrines and walk about erect, free, not putting your confidence in the size of your body, like an athlete; for you ought not to be invincible in the way an ass is invincible.[3]

Who, then, is the invincible man? He whom nothing that is outside the sphere of his moral purpose can dismay. I then proceed to consider the circumstances one by one, as I would do in the case of the athlete. "This fellow has won the first round. What, then, will he do in the second? What if it be scorching hot? And what will he do at Olympia?" It is the same way with the case under consideration. If you put a bit of silver coin in a man's way, he will despise it. Yes, but if you put a bit of a wench in his way, what then? Or if it be in the dark, what then? Or if you throw a bit of reputation in his way, what then? Or abuse, what then? Or praise, what then? Or death, what then? All these things he can overcome. What, then, if it be scorching hot—that is, what if he be drunk? What if he be melancholy-mad?[4] What if asleep? The man who passes all these tests is what I mean by the invincible athlete.


  1. It is not known just what persons are here referred to, but the doctrine that feeling (πάθος) is a kind of judgement (κρίσις) or opinion (δὀξα) is common among the Stoics. See Bonhöffer, Epiktet und die Stoa, I. 265 ff., and on the general argument in this chapter, p. 276 f.
  2. An illustration of the famous principle, nil admirari (Horace, Epist. I. 6, 1).
  3. That is, a man should prove himself invincible by reason and reflection, not by brute strength, or the sheer obstinacy of passive resistance.
  4. Under all ordinary circumstances the man who is being tested will resist the temptations of money, a maid, secrecy, reputation, and the like. But if, like the athlete, he be tested under abnormal conditions, as when drunk, or mad, or asleep, will he hold out against these temptations even then? If he can, he is indeed invincible.