Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 12

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Of training

We ought not to take our training in things that are unnatural or fantastic, since in that case we who profess to be philosophers will be no better than the mountebanks. For it is a hard thing also to walk a tight-rope, and not merely hard but dangerous too. Ought we also for this reason to practise walking a tight-rope, or setting up a palm, or throwing our arms about statues?[1] Not a bit of it. Not every difficult and dangerous thing is suitable for training, but only that which is conducive to success in achieving the object of our effort. And what is the object of our effort? To act without hindrance in choice and in aversion. And what does this mean? Neither to fail to get what we desire, nor to fall into what we would avoid. Toward this end, therefore, our training also should tend. 5For since it is impossible without great and constant training to secure that our desire fail not to attain, and our aversion fall not into what it would avoid, be assured that, if you allow training to turn outwards, towards the things that are not in the realm of the moral purpose, you will have neither your desire successful in attaining what it would, nor your aversion successful in avoiding what it would. And since habit is a powerful influence, when we have accustomed ourselves to employ desire and aversion only upon these externals, we must set a contrary habit to counteract this habit, and where the very slippery nature of sense-impressions is in play, there we must set our training as a counteracting force.

I am inclined to pleasure; I will betake myself to the opposite side of the rolling ship, and that beyond measure, so as to train myself. I am inclined to avoid hard work; I will strain and exercise my sense-impressions to this end, so that my aversion from everything of this kind shall cease. For who is the man in training? He is the man who practises not employing his desire, and practises employing his aversion only upon the things that are within the sphere of his moral purpose, yes, and practises particularly in the things that are difficult to master. And so different men will have to practise particularly to meet different things. To what purpose is it, then, under these conditions, to set up a palm tree, or to carry around a leather tent, or a mortar and pestle?[2] 10Man, practise, if you are arrogant, to submit when you are reviled, not to be disturbed when you are insulted. then you will make such progress, that, even if someone strikes you, you will say to yourself, "Imagine that you have thrown your arms about a statue." Next train yourself to use wine with discretion, not with a view to heavy drinking (for there are some clumsy fools who practise with this in mind), but first for the purpose of achieving abstention from wine, and keeping your hands off a wench, or a sweet-cake. And then some day, if the occasion for a test really comes, you will enter the lists at a proper time for the sake of discovering whether your sense-impressions still overcome you just as they did before. But first of all flee far away from the things that are too strong for you. It is not a fair match that, between a pretty wench and a young beginner in philosophy. "A pot," as they say, "and a stone do not go together."[3]

After your desire and your aversion the next topic[4] has to do with your choice and refusal. Here the object is to be obedient to reason, not to choose or to refuse at the wrong time, or the wrong place, or contrary to some other similar propriety.

The third topic has to do with cases of assent; it is concerned with the things that are plausible and attractive. 15For, just as Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination,[5] so we ought not to accept a sense-impression unsubjected to examination, but should say, "Wait, allow me to see who you are and whence you come"[6] (just as the night-watch say, "Show me your tokens").[7] "Do you have your token from nature, the one which every sense-impression which is to be accepted must have?" And, in conclusion, all the methods which are applied to the body by the persons who are giving it exercise, might also themselves be conducive to training, if in some such way as this they tend toward desire and aversion; but if they tend toward display, they are characteristic of a man who has turned toward the outside world, and is hunting for something other than the thing itself which he is doing, and is looking for spectators who will say, "Ah, what a great man!" It is this consideration which renders admirable the remark that Apollonius used to make: "When you wish to train for your own sake, then when you are thirsty some hot day take a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out—[8] and don't tell anybody about it!"


  1. "Setting up a palm" may possibly mean climbing a pole with only the hands and the feet, like the climbers of palms, as Upton and Schweighäuser (after Bulinger) suggest. There was a "palm-bearer" (φοινεικοφόρος or σπαδεικοφόρος) connected with the gymnasium at Tegea in Arcadia (I.G. V. 2, Nos. 47, 48, 50, 53), who possibly had charge of the exercise referred to here, whatever its exact character may have been. As for embracing statues, Diogenes was said to have done that nude in cold weather, so as to harden himself. Diog. Laert. 6, 23.
  2. For the "palm tree," see above, note on § 2. As for the other items, it is conceivable that some Cynics may have carried about with them such equipment ostentatiously to indicate that they had all they needed for life; that is, shelter and the simplest utensils to prepare grain for food, somewhat as Diogenes was content with his pithos and a cup (although eventually he discarded even the latter). But it must be confessed that the passage is very obscure. Seneca, De ira, 2, 12, speaks somewhat disparagingly of ille qui meditatus est . . . sarcinae ingenti cervices supponere (that is, "the man who has practised carrying about enormous burdens on his back"), pretty clearly in reference to this same custom, but without throwing much light upon it.
  3. Compare the fable about the earthenware pot and the bronze jar in Babrius 193 (Crusius) = Aesop 422 (Halm), Avianus 11, etc.
  4. Upon this division of the field of philosophy, which appears to be peculiar to Epictetus, see note on III. 2, 1.
  5. See note on I. 26, 18.
  6. Compare II. 18, 24.
  7. A token or mark of identification was frequently called for in ancient times by the police (especially at night), much as in some of the occupied and annexed districts of Europe since the Great War.
  8. Something of the same sort is said, but upon somewhat dubious authority, to have been an exercise often practised by Plato (Stobaeus, Flor. III. 17, 35).