Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 14

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To Naso

Once when a certain Roman citizen[1] accompanied by his son had come in and was listening to one of his readings, Epictetus said: This is the style of my teaching, and then lapsed into silence. But when the other requested to know what came next, he replied: Instruction in the technique of any art is boring to the layman who has had no experience in it. Now the products of the arts show immediately their use towards the purpose for which they are made, and most of them possess also a certain attractiveness and charm. For example, to stand by and watch the process by which a shoemaker learns his trade is, indeed, not pleasant, yet the shoe is useful and not an unpleasant thing to look at either. 5And the process of education in the case of a carpenter is especially tiresome to the layman who happens to be watching, but the work which the carpenter does shows the use of his art. You will find the same much more true in the case of music; for if you are standing by when someone is taking a lesson, the process of instruction will strike you as the most unpleasant of all, yet the results of music are sweet and pleasing to the ear of the layman.

So also in our own case, we picture the work of the philosopher to be something like this: He should bring his own will into harmony with what happens, so that neither anything that happens happens against our will, nor anything that fails to happen fails to happen when we wish it to happen. The result of this for those who have so ordered the work of philosophy is that in desire they are not disappointed, and in aversion they do not fall into what they would avoid; that each person passes his life to himself, free from pain, fear, and perturbation, at the same time maintaining with his associates both the natural and the acquired relationships, those namely of son, father, brother, citizen, wife, neighbour, fellow-traveller, ruler, and subject.

Something like this is our picture of the work of the philosopher. The next thing after this is that we seek the means of achieving it. 10We see, then, that the carpenter becomes a carpenter by first learning something, the helmsman becomes a helmsman by first learning something. May it not be, then, that in our case also it is not sufficient to wish to become noble and good, but that we are under the necessity of learning something first? We seek, then, what this is. Now the philosophers say that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts. Next we must learn what the gods are like; for whatever their character is discovered to be, the man who is going to please and obey them must endeavour as best he can to resemble them. If the deity is faithful, he also must be faithful; if free, he also must be free; if beneficent, he also must be beneficent; if high-minded, he also must be high-minded, and so forth; therefore, in everything he says and does, he must act as an imitator of God.

Where, then, ought I to start?—If you enter upon this task, I will say that in the first place you ought to understand the meaning of terms.15—So you imply that I do not now understand the meaning of terms?—You do not.—How comes it, then, that I use them?—Why, you use them as the illiterate use written speech, as the cattle use external impressions; for use is one thing, and understanding another. But if you think you understand terms, propose any term you please, and let us put ourselves to the test, to see whether we understand it.—But it is unpleasant to be subjected to an examination when one is already somewhat advanced in years, and, if it so chance, has served his three campaigns.[2]—I realize that myself. For now you have come to me like a man who stood in need of nothing. But what could anyone even imagine you to be in need of? You are rich, you have children, possibly also a wife, and many slaves; Caesar knows you, you have many friends in Rome, you perform the duties incumbent upon you, and when a man has done you either good or harm you know how to pay him back in kind. What do you still lack? If, therefore, I show you that what you lack are things most necessary and important for happiness, and that hitherto you have devoted your attention to everything but what was appropriate for you to do, and if I add the colophon,[3] saying: You know neither what God is, nor what man is, nor what good, nor what evil is—20if I say that you are ignorant of these other matters you may possibly endure that; but if I say that you do not understand your own self, how can you possibly bear with me, and endure and abide my questioning? You cannot do so at all, but immediately you go away offended. And yet what harm have I done you? None at all, unless the mirror also does harm to the ugly man by showing him what he looks like; unless the physician insults the patient, when he says to him, "Man, you think there is nothing the matter with you; but you have a fever; fast to-day and drink only water"; and no one says, "What dreadful insolence!" Yet if you tell a man, "Your desires are feverish, your attempts to avoid things are humiliating, your purposes are inconsistent, your choices are out of harmony with your nature, your conceptions are hit-or-miss and false," why, immediately he walks out and says, "He insulted me."

Our position is like that of those who attend a fair.[4] Cattle and oxen are brought there to be sold, and most men engage in buying and selling, while there are only a few who go merely to see the fair, how it is conducted, and why, and who are promoting it, and for what purpose. So it is also in this "fair" of the world in which we live; some persons, like cattle, are interested in nothing but their fodder; for to all of you that concern yourselves with property and lands and slaves and one office or another, all this is nothing but fodder! 25And few in number are the men who attend the fair because they are fond of the spectacle. "What, then, is the universe," they ask, "and who governs it? No one? Yet how can it be that, while it is impossible for a city or a household to remain even a very short time without someone to govern and care for it, nevertheless this great and beautiful structure should be kept in such orderly arrangement by sheer accident and chance? There must be, therefore, One who governs it. What kind of a being is He, and how does He govern it? And what are we, who have been created by Him, and for what purpose were we created? Do we, then, really have some contact and relation with Him or none at all?" That is the way these few are affected; and thenceforward they have leisure for this one thing only—to study well the "fair" of life before they leave it. With what result, then? They are laughed to scorn by the crowd, quite as in the real fair the mere spectators are laughed at by the traffickers; yes, and if the cattle themselves had any comprehension like ours of what was going on, they too would laugh at those who had wonder and admiration for anything but their fodder!


  1. Apparently named Naso, to judge from the title to this chapter. A Julius Naso, the son of a man of letters, is mentioned not infrequently in the correspondence of the younger Pliny. See Prosop. Imp. Romani, II. p. 202, no. 293.
  2. By the municipal law of Caesar (C.I.L. I², 593 = Dessau, Inscr. Lat. 6085, § 89), a man to be eligible to the Senate of a municipality must have served three campaigns in the cavalry, or six in the infantry, and it is probable that this provision is referred to here. Cf. IV. 1, 37-40, and on the tres militiae equestres see Mommsen: Römischces Staatsrecht, III. (1887), 543, n. 2-4; 549, n. 1. On the other hand the scholiast (probably Arethas, see Schenkl, pp. lxxii. ff.) on § 17 apparently took this to mean that Naso had once been a commanding officer (for the corrupt διὰ τὸν ἄσωνα λέγει κ.τ.λ, one ought probably to read something like στρατηγὸν Νάσωνα λέγει, ἦν γὰρ τῶν μεγάλων τῆς Ῥώμης) although this can hardly have been more than a guess on his part.
  3. i.e. the finishing touch; a word (sometimes derived from the ancient city Colophon because of a tradition that its efficient cavalry gave the finishing stroke in every war in which it was engaged [Strabo, XIV. i, 28], but more probably a common noun in the sense of "tip," "summit," "finishing point,") used to indicate the title and other explanatory data when entered at the end of a work.
  4. A famous comparison, ascribed to Pythagoras. See Cicero, Tuscul. Disp. v. 9; Diog. Laert. VIII. 8; Iamblichus, Vita Pythagori, 58. Cf. Menander, frg. 481K (Allinson, p. 442).