Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 2

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


How may a man preserve his proper character[1] upon every occasion?

To the rational being only the irrational is unendurable, but the rational is endurable. Blows are not by nature unendurable.—How so?—Observe how: Lacedaemonians take a scourging[2] once they have learned that it is rational.—But is it not unendurable to be hanged?—Hardly; at all events whenever a man feels that it is rational he goes and hangs himself. In short, if we observe, we shall find mankind distressed by nothing so much as by the irrational, and again attracted to nothing so much as to the rational.

5Now it so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable, are different for different persons. It is for this reason especially that we need education, so as to learn how, in conformity with nature, to adapt to specific instances our preconceived idea of what is rational and what is irrational. But for determining the rational and the irrational, we employ not only our estimates of the value of external things, but also the criterion of that which is in keeping with one's own character. For to one man it is reasonable to hold a chamber-pot for another, since he considers only that, if he does not hold it, he will get a beating and will not get food, whereas, if he does hold it, nothing harsh or painful will be done to him; but some other man feels that it is not merely unendurable to hold such a pot himself, but even to tolerate another's doing so. 10If you ask me, then, "Shall I hold the pot or not?" I will tell you that to get food is of greater value than not to get it, and to be flayed is of greater detriment than not to be; so that if you measure your interests by these standards, go and hold the pot. "Yes, but it would be unworthy of me." That is an additional consideration, which you, and not I, must introduce into the question. For you are the one that knows yourself, how much you are worth in your own eyes and at what price you sell yourself. For different men sell themselves at different prices.

Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero's festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it, Agrippinus said to him, "Enter." And when Florus asked, "Why do you not enter yourself?" he replied, "I? why, I do not even raise the question." For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their own proper character. 15Come, what is this you ask me? "Is death or life preferable?" I answer, life. "Pain or pleasure?" I answer, pleasure. "But unless I take a part in the tragedy[3] I shall be beheaded." Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. "Why not?" Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red,[4] that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, "Be like the majority of people?" And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?

This is what Helvidius Priscus also saw, and, having seen, did. When Vespasian sent him word not to attend a meeting of the Senate, he answered, "It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am one I must attend its meetings." 20"Very well then, but when you attend, hold your peace." "Do not ask for my opinion and I will hold my peace." "But I must ask for your opinion." "And I must answer what seems to me right." "But if you speak, I shall put you to death." "Well, when did I ever tell you that I was immortal? You will do your part and I mine. It is yours to put me to death, mine to die without a tremor; yours to banish, mine to leave without sorrow." What good, then, did Priscus do, who was but a single individual? And what good does the red do the mantle? What else than that it stands out conspicuous in it as red, and is displayed as a goodly example to the rest? But had Caesar told another man in such circumstances not to attend the meetings of the Senate, he would have said, "I thank you for excusing me." A man like that Caesar would not even have tried to keep from attending, but would have known that he would either sit like a jug, or, if he spoke, would say what he knew Caesar wanted said, and would pile up any amount more on the top of it.

25In like manner also a certain athlete acted, who was in danger of dying unless his private parts were amputated. His brother (and he was a philosopher) came to him and said, "Well, brother, what are you going to do? Are we going to cut off this member, and step forth once more into the gymnasium?" He would not submit, but hardened his heart and died. And as someone asked, "How did he do this? As an athlete, or as a philosopher?" As a man, replied Epictetus; and as a man who had been proclaimed at the Olympic games and had striven in them, who had been at home in such places, and had not merely been rubbed down with oil in Bato's[5] wrestling school. But another would have had even his neck cut off, if he could have lived without his neck. This is what we mean by regard for one's proper character; and such is its strength with those who in their deliberations habitually make it a personal contribution. "Come then, Epictetus, shave off your beard."[6] If I am a philosopher, I answer, "I will not shave it off" "But I will take off your neck." If that will do you any good, take it off.

30Someone inquired, "How, then, shall each of us become aware of what is appropriate to his own proper character?" How comes it, replied he, that when the lion charges, the bull alone is aware of his own prowess and rushes forward to defend the whole herd? Or is it clear that with the possession of the prowess comes immediately the consciousness of it also? And so, among us too, whoever has such prowess will not be unaware of it. Yet a bull does not become a bull all at once, any more than a man becomes noble, but a man must undergo a winter training,[7] he must prepare himself and must not plunge recklessly into what is inappropriate for him.

Only consider at what price you sell your freedom of will. If you must sell it, man, at least do not sell it cheap. But the great and pre-eminent deed, perhaps, befits others, Socrates and men of his stamp.—Why then, pray, if we are endowed by nature for such greatness, do not all men, or many, become like him? What, do all horses become swift, all dogs keen to follow the scent? 35What then? Because I have no natural gifts, shall I on that account give up my discipline? Far be it from me! Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest.


  1. The word πρὀσωπον carries something of the figurative meaning "rôle" from the language of drama.
  2. Referring to the scourging of Spartan youths before the altar of Artemis.
  3. This was clearly the contribution to Nero's festival which Florus was expected to make.
  4. The reference is to the band of bright red (commonly called "purple") woven into the hem of the toga praetexta.
  5. Bato seems to have been a well-known athletic trainer of the time. At least one, and possibly two gladiators at Rome bore this name. C.I.L. I. 718, VI. 10188.
  6. Philosophers, especially Stoics and Cynics, regularly wore beards in antiquity. See I. 16, 9 ff.
  7. Ancient armies generally disbanded or went into permanent quarters during the winter. To continue military training throughout the winter months was indicative of a sincere and strenuous endeavour.