Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 24

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To one of those whom he did not deem worthy

Someone said to him: I have often come to you, wishing to hear you and you have never given me an answer; and now, if it be possible, I beg you to say something to me. He answered: Do you think that, just as in anything else there is an art, so there is also an art in speaking, and that he who has this art will speak with skill, while he who does not have it will speak without skill?—I do.—Then he who by speaking benefits himself and is able to benefit others would be speaking with skill, while he who confers injury rather than benefit would be without skill in this art of speaking? You would find that some are injured and others benefited. And are all those who hear benefited by what they hear, or would you find that of them too some are benefited but others injured?—Yes, that is true of them also, he said.—Then in this case too are all those that show skill in listening benefited, but all those that do not show such skill are injured?—He agreed.5—Is there, therefore, also a certain skill in listening, just as there is in speaking?—So it seems.—But, if you please, look at the matter from this angle also: whose part do you think it is to handle an instrument musically?—The musician's.—Very well, and whose part does it appear to you to be to make a statue properly?—The sculptor's.—Does it appear to you to require no art to look at a statue with skill?—This also requires art.—If, then, to speak as one ought is the part of a skilled person, do you see that to hear with benefit to himself is also the part of the skilled person? Now as for perfection and benefit, if you please, let us drop the consideration of them for the present, since both of us are far removed from anything of that sort; 10but this I think everyone would admit, that the man who is going to listen to the philosophers needs at least a certain amount of practice in listening. Is it not so?

What, then, shall I talk to you about? Tell me. What are you capable of hearing about? About things good and evil? Good and evil for what? Do you mean for a horse?—No.—Well then, for an ox?—No.—What then? For a man?—Yes.—Do we know, then, what a man is, what his nature is, what the concept of man is? And have we ears that are to any degree open with regard to this? Nay, have you a conception of what nature is, or can you in any measure follow me when I speak? But shall I use a demonstration for you? How can I? For do you really understand what a proof is, or how anything is demonstrated, or by what means? Or what things resemble demonstration, but are not demonstration? Do you know, for instance, what is true, or what is false; what follows what, what contradicts, or is out of agreement, or out of harmony with what? But am I to interest you in philosophy? 15How shall I set before you the contradiction in the ideas of the multitude, which leads them to disagree about things good and evil, advantageous and disadvantageous, when you do not know what contradiction itself is? Show me, then, what I shall accomplish by a discussion with you. Arouse in me an eagerness for it. Just as suitable grass when shown to the sheep arouses in it an eagerness to eat, whereas if you set before it a stone or a loaf of bread,[1] it will not be moved to eat, so we have certain moments of natural eagerness for speech also, when the suitable hearer appears, and when he himself stimulates us. But when the would-be hearer by our side is like a stone, or grass, how can he arouse desire in the breast of a man? Does the vine say to the husbandman, "Pay attention to me"? Nay, but the vine by its very appearance shows that it will profit him to pay attention to it, and so invites him to devote his attention. Who is not tempted by attractive and wide-awake children to join their sports, and crawl on all fours with them, and talk baby talk with them? But who is eager to play with an ass, or to join its braying? For however small it may be, it is still nothing but a little ass.

Why, then, have you nothing to say to me?—There is only one thing I can say to you—that the man who does not know who he is, and what he is born for, and what sort of a world this is that he exists in, and whom he shares it with; and does not know what the good things are and what are the evil, what the noble and what the base; and is unable to follow either reason or demonstration, or what is true and what is false, and cannot distinguish one from the other; and will manifest neither desire, nor aversion, nor choice, nor purpose in accordance with nature; will not assent, will not dissent, will not withhold judgement—such a man, to sum it all up, will go about deaf and blind, thinking that he is somebody, when he really is nobody. 20What I do you think that this is something new? Has it not been true from the time when the human race began to be, that every mistake and every misfortune has been due to this kind of ignorance? Why did Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel? Was it not because they did not know what things are expedient and what are inexpedient? Does not one of them say that it is expedient to give Chryseïs back to her father, while the other says that it is not expedient? Does not one of them say that he ought to get some other man's meed of honour, while the other says that he ought not? Is it not true that this made them forget who they were and what they had come for? Ho, there, man, what have you come for? To get sweethearts or to fight? "To fight" With whom? The Trojans or the Greeks? "The Trojans." Well, then, are you turning your back on Hector and drawing your sword against your own king? As for you, O best of men, are you turning your back on your duties as king,

Who has the charge of nations and sustains
Such mighty cares,[2]

and for the sake of a paltry damsel engage in a fist-fight with the greatest warrior among your allies, a man whom you ought to honour and protect in every way? And do you sink below the level of an elegant high priest who treats the noble gladiators with all respect?[3] Do you see the sort of thing that ignorance of what is expedient leads to?

"But I too am rich." You are not, then, richer than Agamemnon, are you? "But I am also handsome." You are not, then, handsomer than Achilles, are you? "But I have also a fine head of hair." And did not Achilles have a finer, and golden hair, too? And did he not comb it elegantly and dress it up? 25"But I am also strong." You are not, then, able to lift as large a stone as Hector or Aias lifted, are you? "But I am also noble born." Your mother is not a goddess, is she, or your father of the seed of Zeus? What good, then, does all this do him when he sits in tears about the damsel? "But I am an orator." And was not he? Do you not observe how he has dealt with Odysseus and Phoenix, the most skilful of the Greeks in eloquence, how he stopped their mouths?[4]

This is all I have to say to you, and even for this I have no heart.—Why so?—Because you have not stimulated me. For what is there in you that I may look at and be stimulated, as experts in horseflesh are stimulated when they see thoroughbred horses? At your paltry body? But you make it ugly by the shape which you give to it.[5] At your clothes? There is something too luxurious about them, also. At your air, at your countenance? I have nothing to look at. When you wish to hear a philosopher, do not ask him, "Have you nothing to say to me?" but only show yourself capable of hearing him, and you will see how you will stimulate the speaker.


  1. The observation of nature is faulty; sheep will upon occasion eat bread, vegetables, and even meat.
  2. Homer, Iliad, II. 25, translated by Bryant.
  3. The reference is obscure; possibly Chryses is meant (Wolf and others), but this seems most unlikely, or there may be a sneering allusion to some contemporary of the philosopher, who was excessively interested in gladiators (Schenkl). I am inclined to think rather of Calchas, the high priest of the Achaeans, who treats both Agamemnon and Achilles with more civility than they would seem to deserve, at least in the opinion of Epictetus, who had no undue reverence for the great figures of the Epic.
  4. The reference is to the spirited and convincing speeches of Achilles (Iliad, IX.) in answer to the appeals of Odysseus and Phoenix.
  5. That is, by pasture, overeating, or lack of exercise.