Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 21

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To those who enter light-heartedly upon the profession of lecturing

Those who have learned the principles and nothing else are eager to throw them up immediately,[1] just as persons with a weak stomach throw up their food. First digest your principles, and then you will surely not throw them up this way. Otherwise they are mere vomit, foul stuff[† 1] and unfit to eat. But after you have digested these principles, show us some change in your governing principle that is due to them; as the athletes show their shoulders as the results of their exercising and eating, and as those who have mastered the arts can show the results of their learning. The builder does not come forward and say, "Listen to me deliver a discourse about the art of building"; but he takes a contract for a house, builds it, and thereby proves that he possesses the art. 5Do something of the same sort yourself too; eat as a man, drink as a man, adorn yourself, marry, get children, be active as a citizen; endure revilings, bear with an unreasonable brother, father, son, neighbour, fellow-traveller. Show us that you can do these things, for us to see that in all truth you have learned something of the philosophers. No, but "Come and listen to me deliver my comments," you say. Go to! Look for people on whom to throw up! "Yes, but I will set forth to you the doctrines of Chrysippus as no one else can; his language I will analyse so as to make it perfectly clear; possibly I will throw in a bit of the vivacity of Antipater and Archedemus."[2]

And then it's for this, is it, that the young men are to leave their fatherlands and their own parents,—to come and listen to you interpreting trifling phrases? Ought they not to be, when they return home, forbearing, ready to help one another, tranquil, with a mind at peace, possessed of some such provision for the journey of life, that, starting out with it, they will be able to bear well whatever happens, and to derive honour from it? 10And where did you get the ability to impart to them these things which you do not possess yourself? Why, from the first did you ever do anything but wear yourself out over the question how solutions can be found for syllogisms, for the arguments that involve equivocal premisses, and those which derive syllogisms by the process of interrogation?[3] "But So-and-so lectures; why shouldn't I too?" Slave, these things are not done recklessly, nor at random, but one ought to be of a certain age, and lead a certain kind of life, and have God as his guide. You say: No. But no man sails out of a harbour without first sacrificing to the gods and invoking their aid, nor do men sow hit-or-miss, but only after first calling upon Demeter; and yet will a man, if he has laid his hand to so great a task as this without the help of the gods, be secure in so doing, and will those who come to him be fortunate in so coming? What else are you doing, man, but vulgarizing the Mysteries, and saying, "There is a chapel at Eleusis; see, there is one here too. There is a hierophant there; I too will make a hierophant. There is a herald there; I too will appoint a herald. There is a torch-bearer there; I too will have a torch-bearer. There are torches there; and here too. The words said are the same; and what is the difference between what is done here and what is done there?"? Most impious man, is there no difference? Are the same acts helpful, if they are performed at the wrong place and at the wrong time? Nay, but a man ought to come also with a sacrifice,[† 2] and with prayers, and after a preliminary purification, and with his mind predisposed to the idea that he will be approaching holy rites, and holy rites of great antiquity. 15Only thus do the Mysteries become helpful, only thus do we arrive at the impression that all these things were established by men of old time for the purpose of education and for the amendment of our life. But you are publishing the Mysteries abroad and vulgarizing them, out of time, out of place, without sacrifices, without purification; you do not have the dress which the hierophant ought to wear, you do not have the proper head of hair, nor head-band, nor voice, nor age; you have not kept yourself pure as he has, but you have picked up only the words which he utters, and recite them. Have the words a sacred force all by themselves?

One ought to approach these matters in a different fashion; the affair is momentous, it is full of mystery, not a chance gift, nor given to all comers. Nay, it may be that not even wisdom is all that is needed for the care of the young; one ought also to have a certain readiness and special fitness for this task, by Zeus, and a particular physique, and above all the counsel of God advising him to occupy this office, as God counselled Socrates to take the office of examining and confuting men, Diogenes the office of rebuking men in a kingly manner, and Zeno that of instructing men and laying down doctrines. 20But you are opening up a doctor's office although you possess no equipment other than drugs, but when or how these drugs are applied you neither know nor have ever taken the trouble to learn. "See," you say, "that man has these eye-salves, and so have I." Have you, then, at all the faculty of using them aright? Do you know at all when and how and for whom they will do good? Why, then, do you play at hazard in matters of the utmost moment, why do you take things lightly, why do you put your hand to a task that is altogether inappropriate for you? Leave it to those who are able to do it, and do it with distinction. Do not yourself by your own actions join the number of those who bring disgrace upon philosophy, and do not become one of those who disparage the profession. If, however, you find the principles of philosophy entertaining, sit down and turn them over in your mind all by yourself, but don't ever call yourself a philosopher, and don't allow anyone else to say it of you, but say, rather, "He is mistaken; for my desire is no different from what it used to be, nor my choice, nor my assent, nor, in a word, have I changed at all, in my use of external impressions, from my former state." Think this and say this about yourself, if you wish to think aright. If not, keep on playing at hazard and doing what you are doing now; for it becomes you.


  1. Compare Schiller:

    "Was sie gestern gelernt, das wollen sie heute schon lehren;
    Ach, was haben die Herrn doch für ein kurzes Gedärm.

  2. Called principes dialecticorum by Cicero, Acad. II. 143.
  3. See note on I. 7, 1.

Select critical notes

  1. ἀκάθαρτον Wolf: καθαρόν S. But possibly the reading can be retained (with Schegk) in the sense: "What was clean food becomes mere vomit and unfit to eat."
  2. καὶ παρὰ τόπον ταὐτὰ ὠφελεῖ καὶ παρὰ καιρόν: οὐ· ἀλλὰ καὶ μετὰ θυσίας Oldfather: καὶ παρὰ τόπον ταῦτα ὠφελεῖ καὶ παρὰ καιρόν: καὶ μετὰ θυσίας S and all editors, except Upton, who saw that the passage was corrupt, but not how to heal it. ταῦτα is ambiguous and misses the obvious point. Besides, within eight lines, to have exactly the same phrases, παρὰ τόπον and παρὰ καιρόν:, in a diametrically opposite sense, where the text is certainly sound, seems to me intolerable. The plain sense of the entire context appears to require these changes, the first of which is the slightest imaginable, and the second, not absolutely necessary perhaps, in the abrupt and dramatic style of Epictetus, but probably what would have been written, had he been writing instead of speaking.