Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 26

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To those who fear want

Aren't you ashamed to be more cowardly and ignoble than a runaway slave? How do they, when they run off, leave their masters? in what estates or slaves do they put their confidence? Don't they steal just a little bit to last them for the first few days, and then afterwards drift along over land or sea, contriving one scheme after another to keep themselves fed? And what runaway slave ever died of hunger? But you tremble, and lie awake at night, for fear the necessities of life will fail you. Wretch, are you so blind, and do you so fail to see the road to which lack of the necessities of life leads? Where, indeed, does it lead? Where also fever, or a stone that drops on your head, lead,—to death. Have you not, then, often said this same thing yourself to your companions, read much of the same sort, and written much? How many times have you boasted that, as far as death at least was concerned, you are in a fairly good state?—Yes, but my family too will starve.—What then? Their starvation does not lead to some other end than yours, does it? Have they not also much the same descent thereto, and the same world below? 5Are you not willing, then, to look with courage sufficient to face every necessity and want, at that place to which the wealthiest needs must go, and those who have held the highest offices, and very kings and tyrants? Only you will descend hungry, if it so happen, and they bursting with indigestion and drunkenness. Did you ever easily find a beggar who was not an old man? Wasn't he extremely old? But though they are cold night and day, and lie forlorn on the ground, and have to eat only what is absolutely necessary, they approach a state where it is almost impossible for them to die;[1] yet you who are physically perfect, and have hands and feet, are you so alarmed about starving? Can't you draw water, or write, or escort boys to and from school, or be another's doorkeeper?—But it is disgraceful to come to such a necessity.—Learn, therefore, first of all, what the disgraceful things are, and after you have done that, come into our presence and call yourself a philosopher. But as the case stands now, do not even allow anyone else to call you one!

Is anything disgraceful to you which is not your own doing, for which you are not responsible, which has befallen you accidentally, as a headache or a fever? If your parents were poor, or if they were rich but left others as their heirs, and if they give you no help though they are living, is all this disgraceful to you? Is that what you learned at the feet of the philosophers? Have you never heard that the disgraceful thing is censurable, and the censurable is that which deserves censure? And whom do you censure for what is not his own doing, which he didn't produce himself? 10Well, did you produce this situation? did you make your father what he is? Or is it in your power to reform him? Is that vouchsafed you? What follows? Ought you to wish for what is not given you, or to be ashamed when you fail to get it? And did you really, while studying philosophy, acquire the habit of looking to other persons, and of hoping for nothing yourself from yourself? Very well then, lament and groan, and eat in fear of not having food to-morrow; tremble about your paltry slaves, for fear they will steal something, or run away, or die! Live in this spirit and never cease to live so, you who in name only have approached philosophy, and, as far as in you lay, have discredited its principles by showing them to be useless and good for nothing to those who receive them! But you never desired stability, serenity, peace of mind; you never cultivated anybody's acquaintance for that purpose, but many persons' acquaintance for the sake of syllogisms; you never thoroughly tested for yourself any one of these external impressions, asking the questions: "Am I able to bear it, or am I not? What may I expect next?" but just as though everything about you were in an excellent and safe condition, you have been devoting your attention to the last of all topics, that which deals with immutability, in order that you may have immutable—what? your cowardice, your ignoble character, your admiration of the rich, your ineffectual desire, your aversion that fails of its mark![2] These are the things about whose security you have been anxious!

15Ought you not, first, to have acquired something from reason, and then to have made that something secure? Why, did you ever see anyone building a cornice all around without first having a wall about which to build it?[3][† 1] And what kind of doorkeeper is placed on guard where there isn't any door? But you practise to get the power to demonstrate; demonstrate what? You practise to avoid being shaken by sophisms; shaken from what? Show me first what you are maintaining, what you are measuring, or what you are weighing: and after that, and under those conditions, show me your scales or your bushel-measure. Or how long will you keep measuring ashes? Are not these what you ought to be demonstrating, the things, namely, that make men happy, that make their affairs prosper for them as they desire, that make it unnecessary for them to blame anybody, and to find fault with anybody, but to acquiesce in the government of the universe? Show me these. "See, I do show you," a man says; "I will analyse syllogisms for you." Slave, this is a mere measuring instrument, it is not the thing measured. 20That is why you are now being punished for what you neglected; you tremble, lie awake, take counsel with everyone, and, if your plans are not likely to win the approval of all men, you think that your deliberations have been faulty.

And then you fear hunger, as you fancy. Yet it is not hunger that you fear, but you are afraid that you will not have a professional cook, you will not have another servant to buy the delicacies, another to put on your shoes for you, another to dress you, others to give you your massage, others to follow at your heels, in order that when you have undressed in a bath, and stretched yourself out like men who have been crucified, you may be massaged on this side and on that; and that then the masseur may stand over you and say, "Move over, give me his side, you take his head, hand me his shoulder"; and then, when you have left the bath and gone home, that you may shout out, "Is no one bringing me something to eat?" and after that, "Clear away the tables; wipe them off with a sponge." What you are afraid of is this—that you may not be able to live the life of an invalid, since, I tell you, you have only to learn the life of healthy men—how the slaves live, the workmen, the genuine philosophers, how Socrates lived—he too with a wife and children—how Diogenes lived, how Cleanthes, who combined going to school and pumping water.[4] If this is what you want, you will have it everywhere, and will live with full confidence. Confidence in what? In the only thing in which one can have confidence—in what is faithful, free from hindrance, cannot be taken away, that is, in your own moral purpose. 25And why have you made yourself so useless and unprofitable, that no one is willing to take you into his house, no one willing to take care of you? But when a whole and useful implement has been thrown out, anyone who finds it will pick it up and count it gain; yet not when he picks up you, but everyone will count you a loss. You are so unable to serve the purpose of even a dog or a cock. Why, then, do you care to keep on living, if that is the sort of person you are?

Does a good man fear that food will fail him? It does not fail the blind, it does not fail the lame; will it fail a good man? A good soldier does not lack someone to give him pay, or a workman, or a cobbler; and shall a good man?[5] Does God so neglect His own creatures, His servants, His witnesses, whom alone He uses as examples to the uninstructed, to prove that He both is, and governs the universe well, and does not neglect the affairs of men, and that no evil befalls a good man either in life or in death?[6]—Yes, but what if He does not provide food?—Why, what else but that as a good general He has sounded the recall? I obey, I follow, lauding my commander, and singing hymns of praise about His deeds. 30For I came into the world when it so pleased Him, and I leave it again at His pleasure, and while I live this was my function—to sing hymns of praise unto God, to myself and to others, be it to one or to many. God does not give me much, no abundance. He does not want me to live luxuriously; He did not give much to Heracles, either, though he was His own son, but someone else was king over Argos and Mycenae, while he was subject, and suffered labours and discipline. And Eurystheus, such as he was, was not king over either Argos or Mycenae, for he was not king even over himself; but Heracles was ruler and leader of all the land and sea, purging them of injustice and lawlessness, and introducing justice and righteousness; and all this he did naked and by himself. And when Odysseus was shipwrecked and cast ashore, did his necessity make abject his spirit, or break it? Nay, but how did he advance upon the maidens to ask for food, which is regarded as being the most disgraceful thing for one person to ask of another?

As a lion reared in the mountains.[7]

In what did he trust? Not in reputation, or money, or office, but in his own might, that means, his judgements about the things which are under our control, and those which are not under our control. 35For these are the only things that make men free, that make men unhampered, that lift up the neck of those who have become abject, that make them look with level eyes into the faces of the rich, and the faces of tyrants. And all this was what the philosopher had to give, yet will you not come forth bold, instead of trembling for your paltry clothes and silver plate? Miserable man, have you so wasted your time down to the present?

Yes, but what if I fall ill?—You will bear illness well.—Who will nurse me?—God and your friends.—I shall have a hard bed to lie on.—But like a man.—I shall not have a suitable house.—Then you will fall ill in an unsuitable house.[8]—Who will prepare my food for me?—Those who prepare it for others also. You will be ill like Manes.[9]—And what is also the end of the illness?—Anything but death? Will you, then, realize that this epitome of all the ills that befall man, of his ignoble spirit, and his cowardice, is not death, but it is rather the fear of death? Against this fear, then, I would have you discipline yourself, toward this let all your reasoning tend, your exercises, your reading; and then you will know that this is the only way in which men achieve freedom.


  1. The argument is, one need hardly remark, quite unsound, for the death-rate among the poor is unquestionably much higher than among the wealthy.
  2. So the text as it stands in S, but the singular mixture of technical terms in ἀποτευκτικὴ ἔκκλισις is incredible. Elsewhere, and quite properly, it is desire that fails to get what it wills (ἀποτευκτική), and aversion that falls into what it would avoid (see III. 6, 6 and especially IV. 10, 4). Hence there is great plausibility in Schenkl's suggestion (partly after Reiske), ὄρεξιν, τὴν ἀποτευκτικήν, <τὴν περιπτωτικὴν> ἔκκλισιν "desire, that fails to get what it wills, and aversion that falls into what it would avoid."
  3. The figure is reminiscent of Plato, Rep. VII, 534 E
  4. Diogenes Laertius, 7, 168.
  5. The scholiast appropriately compares Matt. vi. 31 and 33: "Take no thought," and "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you."
  6. This last clause is slightly modified from Plato, Apol. 41 D.
  7. Homer, Odyssey, VI. 130.
  8. The text is very uncertain. Schenkl reads 'Ἐν ἐπιτηδείῳ οὐ νοσήσεις; which would appear to mean something like: "Will you not choose a suitable house in which to fall ill?" But that sort of reply seems scarcely to fit the context.
  9. That is, like a slave, for this was a typical slave name, like "Sambo" among American negroes. In particular the reference seems to be to Zeno, who, when his physicians ordered him to eat young pigeons, insisted, "Cure me as you do Manes." Musonius, frag. 18 A (p. 98, 4 ff., Hense).

Select critical notes

  1. μηδενὶ τειχίῳ περιβαλόμενον αὐτον Sb (περιβαλόμενον Schenkl): μηδενὶ τειχίον περιβαλλόμενον αὐτὸ αὐτοῦ S. The correct form of the text is highly uncertain, and the version in Sb is acceptable only as meeting in a general way the requirement of the context.