Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 7

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A conversation with the Imperial Bailiff[1] of the Free Cities, who was an Epicurean

When the Imperial Bailiff, who was an Epicurean, came to visit him, Epictetus said: It is proper for us laymen to make inquiry of you philosophers what the best thing in the world is—just as those who have come to a strange town make inquiry of the citizens and people who are familiar with the place—so that, having learned what it is, we may go in quest of it ourselves and behold it, as do strangers with the sights in the cities. Now that three things belong to man, soul, and body, and things external, hardly anyone denies; all you have to do, then, is to answer the question, Which is the best? what are we going to tell men? The flesh? And was it for this that Maximus[2] sailed all the way to Cassiope[3] during the winter with his son, to see him on his way? Was it to have pleasure in the flesh? When the other had denied that and said "God forbid!" Epietetus continued: Is it not proper to have been very zealous for that which is best?—It is certainly most proper.—What have we better, then, than the flesh?—The soul, said he.—Are the goods of the best thing better, or those of the inferior?5—Those of the best thing.—Do goods of the soul belong in the sphere of the moral purpose, or do they not?—To the sphere of the moral purpose.—Is the pleasure of the soul, therefore, something that belongs in this sphere?—He agreed.—At what is this produced? At itself?[4] But that is inconceivable. For we must assume that there is already in existence a certain antecedent essence of the good, by partaking of which we shall feel pleasure of soul.—He agreed to this also.—At what, then, are we going to feel this pleasure of soul? If it is at the goods of the soul, the essence of the good has already been discovered. For it is impossible that one thing be good, and yet that it is justifiable for us to take delight in something else; nor again, that when the antecedent is not good the consequent be good; because, in order to justify the consequent, the antecedent must be good. But say not so, you Epicureans, if you are in your right mind; for you will be saying what is inconsistent both with Epicurus and with the rest of your doctrines. The only thing left for you to say is that pleasure of soul is pleasure in the things of the body, and then they become matters of prime importance, and the true nature of the good.

10That is why Maximus acted foolishly if he made his voyage for the sake of anything but the flesh, that is, for the sake of anything but the best. And a man acts foolishly too, if, when he is judge and able to take the property of other men, he keeps his hands off it. But, if you please, let us consider this point only, that the stealing be done secretly, safely, without anybody's knowledge. For even Epicurus himself does not declare the act of theft evil, but only getting caught, and merely because it is impossible to feel certain that one will not be detected, he says, "Do not steal." But I tell you that if it is done adroitly and circumspectly, we shall escape detection; besides that, we have influential friends in Rome, both men and women; and the Greeks are a feeble folk, none of them will have the courage to go up to Rome for that purpose. Why refrain from your own good? This is foolish, it is silly. And again, I shall not believe you, even if you tell me that you do refrain. 15For just as it is impossible to assent to what is seen to be false, and to reject what is true, so it is impossible to reject what is seen to be good. Now wealth is a good, and when it comes to pleasures is, so to speak, the thing most productive of them. Why should you not acquire it? And why should we not seduce our neighbour's wife, if we can escape detection? And if her husband talks nonsense, why should we not break his neck to boot? That is, if you wish to be a proper sort of philosopher, a perfect one, consistent with your own doctrines. If not, you will be no better than we who bear the name of Stoics; for we too talk of one thing and do another. We talk of the noble and do the base; but you will be perverse in the opposite way, laying down base doctrines, and doing noble deeds.

In the name of God, I ask you, can you imagine an Epicurean State? One man says, "I do not marry." "Neither do I," says another, "for people ought not to marry." No, nor have children; no, nor perform the duties of a citizen. And what, do you suppose, will happen then? Where are the citizens to come from? Who will educate them? Who will be superintendent of the ephebi,[5] or gymnasium director? Yes, and what will either of these teach them? What the young men of Lacedaemon or Athens were taught? 20Take me a young man; bring him up according to your doctrines. Your doctrines are bad, subversive of the State, destructive to the family, not even fit for women. Drop these doctrines, man. You live in an imperial State; it is your duty to hold office, to judge uprightly, to keep your hands off the property of other people; no woman but your wife ought to look handsome to you, no boy handsome, no silver plate handsome, no gold plate. Look for doctrines consistent with these principles of conduct, doctrines which will enable you to refrain gladly from matters so persuasive to attract and to overpower a man. If, however, in addition to the persuasive power of the things just mentioned, we shall have gone ahead and invented also some such doctrine as this of yours, which helps to push us on into them, and gives them additional strength, what is going to happen?

In a piece of plate what is the best thing, the silver or the art? The substance of the hand is mere flesh, but the important thing is the works of the hand. 25Now duties are of three kinds; first, those that have to do with mere existence, second, those that have to do with existence of a particular sort, and third, the principal duties themselves.[6] So also in the case of man, it is not his material substance that we should honour, his bits of flesh, but the principal things. What are these? The duties of citizenship, marriage, begetting children, reverence to God, care of parents,[7] in a word, desire, avoidance, choice, refusal, the proper performance of each one of these acts, and that is, in accordance with our nature. And what is our nature? To act as free men, as noble, as self-respecting. Why, what other living being blushes, what other comprehends the impression of shame? And it is our nature to subordinate pleasure to these duties as their servant, their minister, so as to arouse our interest and keep us acting in accordance with nature.

But I am rich and need nothing.—Why, then, do you still pretend to be a philosopher? Your gold and silver plate are enough to satisfy you; what do you need doctrines for?30—Yes, but I sit too as judge over the Hellenes.—Do you know how to sit as judge? What has brought you to know that?—Caesar wrote credentials for me.—Let him write you credentials that will allow you to sit as a judge in music and literature; and what good will it do you? However this may be, there is another question, and that is, how did you come to be a judge? Whose hand did you kiss—that of Symphorus or that of Numenius?[8] In front of whose bedroom door did you sleep?[9] To whom did you send presents? After all, don't you recognize that the office of judge is worth exactly as much as Numenius is?—But I can throw whom I will into prison.—As you can a stone.—But I can have beaten to death with a club whom I will.—As you can an ass.—That is not governing men. Govern us as rational beings by pointing out to us what is profitable, and we will follow you; point out what is unprofitable, and we will turn away from it. Bring us to admire and emulate you, as Socrates brought men to admire and emulate him. He was the one person who governed people as men, in that he brought them to subject to him their desire, their aversion, their choice, their refusal. 35"Do this; do not do this; otherwise I will throw you into prison." Say that, and yours ceases to be a government as over rational beings. Nay, rather, say, "As Zeus has ordained, do this; if you do not do so, you will be punished, you will suffer injury." What kind of injury? No injury but that of not doing what you ought; you will destroy the man of fidelity in you, the man of honour, the man of decent behaviour. You need not look for greater injuries than these.


  1. Called by the Romans Corrector, an extraordinary official, of senatorial rank, appointed by the Emperor, and charged with carrying out administrative reforms in matters which lay outside the general competence of the ordinary civil authorities. See A. von Premerstein in the Real-Encylopädie,² IV. 1646-56.
  2. There were at least two distinguished men of the name at this time, but it is not clear that either one is meant.
  3. More likely the headland and harbour on the northern end of Corcyra than the almost wholly unknown town near Nicopolis, which some have thought of.
  4. "An ex se ipsa? Id est, an delectamur, quia delectamur?" Schweighäuser.
  5. See note on I. 1, 34.
  6. The classification of duties in this sentence is obscure, and the commentators have ever been in straits both to elucidate it, and to explain what bearing it has upon the context. The first two classes (which are essentially one) deal with outward existence; the last touches our higher nature. A full discussion of this matter will be found in A. Bonhöffer; Die Ethik des Stoikers Epiktet, p. 205-6. A very similar Stoic division of duties into five classes, where the third class of Epictetus is triply divided, will be found in Cicero, De Finibus, III. 16 and 20. I believe that the sentence, though probably going back to Epictetus, did not belong here originally (so also Bonhöffer, it seems), but derived from a marginal note upon τὰ προηγούμενα, just below, and the sentence immediately following.
  7. After the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, 3-4:
    τούς τε καταχθονίους σέβε δαίµονας, ἔννοµα ῥέζων·
    τούς τε γόνεις τίµα, τούς τ᾽ ἄγχιστ᾽ ἐκγεγαῶτας.
  8. Otherwise unknown, but obviously freedmen influential at court.
  9. That is, so as to be able to salute him the very first thing in the morning.