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

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What is the subject-matter with which the good man has to deal; and what should he the chief object of our training?

The subject-matter with which the good and excellent man has to deal is his own governing principle, that of a physician and the masseur is the body, of a farmer is his farm; but the function of the good and excellent man is to deal with his impressions in accordance with nature. Now just as it is the nature of every soul to assent to the true, dissent from the false, and to withhold judgement in a matter of uncertainty, so it is its nature to be moved with desire toward the good, with aversion toward the evil, and feel neutral toward what is neither evil nor good. For just as neither the banker nor the greengrocer may legally refuse the coinage of Caesar, but if you present it, whether he will or no, he must turn over to you what you are purchasing with it, so it is also with the soul. The instant the good appears it attracts the soul to itself, while the evil repels the soul from itself. A soul will never refuse a clear sense-impression of good, any more than a man will refuse the coinage of Caesar, On this concept of the good hangs every impulse to act both of man and of God.

10That is why the good is preferred above every form of kinship. My father is nothing to me, but only the good. "Are you so hard-hearted?" Yes, that is my nature. This is the coinage which God has given me. For that reason, if the good is something different from the noble and the just, then father and brother and country and all relationships simply disappear. But shall I neglect my good, so that you may have it, and shall I make way for you? What for? "I am your father." But not a good. "I am your brother." But not a good. If, however, we define the good as consisting in a right moral purpose, then the mere preservation of the relationships of life becomes a good; and furthermore, he who gives up some of the externals achieves the good. "My father is taking away my money," But he is doing you no harm, "My brother is going to get the larger part of the farm," Let him have all he wants. That does not help him at all to get a part of your modesty, does it, or of your fidelity, or of your brotherly love? Why, from a possession of this kind who can eject you? Not even Zeus. Nay, nor did He even wish to, but this matter He put under my control, and He gave it to me even as He had it Himself, free from hindrance, compulsion, restraint.

When, therefore, different persons have different pieces of coinage, a man offers the coin and gets what is bought by it. A thief has come to the province as Proconsul. What coinage does he use? Silver. Offer it and carry away what you wish. An adulterer has come. What coinage does he use? Frail wenches. "Take," says one, "the coin and sell me the little baggage." Give, and buy. Another is interested in boys. Give him the coin and take what you wish. Another is fond of hunting. Give him a fine horse or dog; with sighs and groans he will sell for it what you wish; for Another constrains him from within, the one who has established this currency.[1]

It is chiefiy with this principle in mind that a man must exercise himself. Go out of the house at early dawn, and no matter whom you see or whom you hear, examine him and then answer as you would to a question. What did you see? A handsome man or a handsome woman? Apply your rule. Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it. 15What did you see? A man in grief over the death of his child? Apply your rule. Death lies outside the province of the moral purpose. Out of the way with it. Did a Consul meet you? Apply your rule. What sort of thing is a consulship? Outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it, too, it does not meet the test; throw it away, it does not concern you. If we had kept doing this and had exercised ourselves from dawn till dark with this principle in mind,—by the gods, something would have been achieved! But as it is, we are caught gaping straightway at every external impression that comes along, and we wake up a little only during the lecture, if indeed we do so even then. After that is over we go out, and if we see a man in grief, we say, "It is all over with him"; if we see a Consul, we say, "Happy man"; if we see an exile, "Poor fellow"; or a poverty-stricken person, "Wretched man, he has nothing with which to get a bite to eat." These, then, are the vicious judgements which we ought to eradicate; this is the subject upon which we ought to concentrate our efforts. Why, what is weeping and sighing? A judgement. What is misfortune? A judgement. What are strife, disagreement, fault-finding, accusing, impiety, foolishness? They are all judgements, and that, too, judgements about things that lie outside the province of moral purpose, assumed to be good or evil. Let a man but transfer his judgements to matters that lie within the province of the moral purpose, and I guarantee that he will be steadfast, whatever be the state of things about him.

20The soul is something like a bowl of water, and the external impressions something like the ray of light that falls upon the water. Now when the water is disturbed, it looks as though the ray of light is disturbed too, but it is not disturbed. And so, therefore, when a man has an attack of vertigo, it is not the arts and the virtues that are thrown into confusion, but the spirit in which they exist; and when this grows steady again, so do they too.


  1. The reference is to God, who has ordained that every man should prefer what he regards as "good" to everything else. See § 5 above. The fault consists in making a wrong choice of what is to be considered "good." For "Another" as a reverent form of reference to Zeus, see I. 25, 13 and note.