Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 2/Chapter 8

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What is the true nature of the good?

God is helpful; but the good also is helpful. It would seem, therefore, that the true nature of the good will be found to be where we find that of God to be. What, then, is the true nature of God? Flesh? Far from it! Land? Far from it! Fame? Far from it! It is intelligence, knowledge, right reason. Here, therefore, and only here, shall you seek the true nature of the good. Surely you do not seek it at all in a plant, do you? No. Nor in an irrational creature? No. If, then, you seek it in that which is rational, why do you keep on seeking it somewhere else than in that which differentiates the rational from the irrational? Plants are incapable of dealing even with external impressions; for that reason you do not speak of the "good" in referring to them. The good requires, therefore, the faculty of using external impressions. 5Can that be all that it requires? For, if that be all, then you must assert that things good, and happiness and unhappiness, are to be found in the other animals as well as in man. But, as a matter of fact, you do not so assert, and you are right; for even if they have in the highest degree the faculty of using external impressions, still they do not have the faculty of understanding, at all events, their use of the external impressions. And with good reason; for they are born to serve others, and are not themselves of primary importance.[1] The ass, for example, is not born to be of primary importance, is it? No; but because we had need of a back that was able to carry something. But, by Zeus, we had need that it should be able also to walk around; therefore it has further received the faculty of using external impressions; for otherwise it would not be able to walk around. And at about that stage there was an end.[2] But if it, like man, had somehow received the faculty of understanding the use of its external impressions, it is also clear that consequently it would no longer be subject to us, nor would it be performing these services, but would be our equal and our peer. Will you not, therefore, seek the true nature of the good in that quality the lack of which in all creatures other than man prevents you from using the term "good" of any of these? 10"But what then? Are not those creatures also works of God?" They are, but they are not of primary importance, nor portions of Divinity. But you are a being of primary importance; you are a fragment of God; you have within you a part of Him. Why, then, are you ignorant of your own kinship? Why do you not know the source from which you have sprung? Will you not bear in mind, whenever you eat, who you are that eat, and whom you are nourishing? Whenever you indulge in intercourse with women, who you are that do this? Whenever you mix in society, whenever you take physical exercise, whenever you converse, do you not know that you are nourishing God, exercising God? You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not! Do you suppose I am speaking of some external God, made of silver or gold? It is within yourself that you bear Him, and do not perceive that you are defiling Him with impure thoughts and filthy actions. Yet in the presence of even an image of God you would not dare to do anything of the things you are now doing. But when God Himself is present within you, seeing and hearing everything, are you not ashamed to be thinking and doing such things as these, O insensible of your own nature, and object of God's wrath!

15Again, when we send a young man forth from the school to sundry activities, why are we afraid that he will do something amiss—eat amiss, have intercourse with women amiss, be abased if dressed in rags or conceited if he has on fine clothes? This fellow does not know the God within him, this fellow does not know the companion with whom he is setting forth. Nay, can we allow him to say, "O God, would that I had Thee here"? Have you not God there, where you are? And when you have Him, do you seek for someone else? Or will He have other commands for you than these? Nay, if you were a statue of Pheidias, his Athena or his Zeus,[3] you would have remembered both yourself and your artificer, and if you had any power of perception you would have tried to do nothing unworthy of him that had fashioned you, nor of yourself, and you would have tried not to appear in an unbecoming attitude before the eyes of men; but as it is, because Zeus has made you, do you on that account not care what manner of person you show yourself to be? And yet what comparison is there between the one artificer and the other, or between the one work of art and the other? 20And what work of an artificer has forthwith within itself the faculties which its workmanship discloses? Is it not mere stone, or bronze, or gold, or ivory? And the Athena of Pheidias, when once it had stretched out its hand and received the Nike[4] upon it, stands in this attitude for all time to come; but the works of God are capable of movement, have the breath of life, can make use of external impressions, and pass judgement upon them. Do you dishonour the workmanship of this Craftsman, when you are yourself that workmanship? Nay more, do you go so far as to forget, not only that He fashioned you, but also that He entrusted and committed you to yourself alone, and moreover, by forgetting, do you dishonour your trust? Yet if God had committed some orphan to your care, would you so neglect Him? He has delivered your own self into your keeping, saying, "I had no one more faithful than you; keep this man for me unchanged from the character with which nature endowed him—reverent, faithful, high-minded, undismayed, unimpassioned, unperturbed." After that do you fail so to keep him?

"But men will say, 'Where do you suppose our friend here got his proud look and his solemn countenance?'" Ah, but my bearing is not yet what it should be! For I still lack confidence in what I have learned and agreed to; I am still afraid of my own weakness. 25Just let me gain confidence and then you will see the right look in my eye and the right bearing; then, when the statue is finished and polished, I will show it to you. What do you think of it? A lofty air, say you? Heaven forbid! For the Zeus at Olympia does not show a proud look, does he? No, but his gaze is steady, as befits one who is about to say.

No word of mine can be revoked or prove untrue.[5]

Of such character will I show myself to you—faithful, reverent, noble, unperturbed. You do not mean, therefore, immortal, or ageless, or exempt from disease? No, but one who dies like a god, who bears disease like a god. This is what I have; this is what I can do; but all else I neither have nor can do. I will show you the sinews of a philosopher. What do you mean by sinews? A desire that fails not of achievement, an aversion proof against encountering what it would avoid, an appropriate choice, a thoughtful purpose, a well-considered assent. This is what you shall see.


  1. That is, things that are an end in themselves, like man, in the characteristic Stoic anthropocentric view. Cf. also II. 10, 3.
  2. That is, the ass went no further in the development of its faculties.
  3. Referring to the chryselephantine statues at Athens and at Olympia, upon which the fame of Pheidias principally rested. The statue of Athena held a Nike in the out-stretched right hand; cf. § 20 below.
  4. See the note on p. 262.
  5. Homer, Iliad, I. 526, Bryant's translation.