Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 4/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Of attention

When you relax your attention for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover it, but bear this in mind, that because of the mistake which you have made to-day, your condition must necessarily be worse as regards everything else. For, to begin with—and this is the worst of all—a habit of not paying attention is developed; and after that a habit of deferring attention; and always you grow accustomed to putting off from one time to another tranquil and appropriate living, the life in accordance with nature, and persistence in that life. Now if the postponement of such matters is profitable, it is still more profitable to abandon them altogether; but if it is not profitable, why do you not maintain your attention continuously? "To-day I want to play." What is to prevent your playing, then,—but with attention? "I want to sing." What is to prevent your singing, then,—but with attention? There is no part of the activities of your life excepted, to which attention does not extend, is there? What, will you do it worse by attention, and better by inattention? And yet what other thing, of all that go to make up our life, 5is done better by those who are inattentive? Does the inattentive carpenter do his work more accurately? The inattentive helmsman steer[† 1] more safely? And is there any other of the lesser functions of life which is done better by inattention? Do you not realize that when once you let your mind go wandering, it is no longer within your power to recall it, to bring it to bear upon either seemliness, or self-respect, or moderation? But you do anything that comes into your head, you follow your inclinations.

What are the things, then, to which I ought to pay attention?—First, these general principles, and you ought to have them at your command, and without them neither go to sleep, nor rise up, nor drink, nor eat, nor mingle with men; I mean the following: No man is master of another's moral purpose; and: In its sphere alone are to be found one's good and evil. It follows, therefore, that no one has power either to procure me good, or to involve me in evil, but I myself alone have authority over myself in these matters. Accordingly, when these things are secure for me, what excuse have I for being disturbed about things external? What kind of tyrant inspires fear, what kind of disease, or poverty, or obstacle?—But I have not pleased So-and-so.10—He is not my function, is he? He is not my judgement, is he?—No.—Why, then, do I care any longer?—But he has the reputation of being somebody.—He and those who think so highly of him will have to see to that, but I have one whom I must please, to whom I must submit, whom I must obey, that is, God, and after Him, myself. God has commended me to myself, and He has subjected to me alone my moral purpose, giving me standards for the correct use of it; and when I follow these standards, I pay heed to none of those who say anything else, I give not a thought to anyone in arguments with equivocal premisses.[1] Why, then, in the more important matters am I annoyed by those who censure me? What is the reason for this perturbation of spirit? Nothing but the fact that in this field I lack training. For, look you, every science is entitled to despise ignorance and ignorant people, and not merely the sciences, but also the arts. Take any cobbler you please, and he laughs the multitude to scorn when it comes to his own work; take any carpenter you please.

15First, therefore, we ought to have these principles at command, and to do nothing apart from them, but keep the soul intent upon this mark; we must pursue none of the things external, none of the things which are not our own, but as He that is mighty has ordained; pursuing without any hesitation the things that lie within the sphere of the moral purpose, and all other things as they have been given us. And next we must remember who we are, and what is our designation, and must endeavour to direct our actions, in the performance of our duties, to meet the possibilities of our social relations. We must remember what is the proper time for song, the proper time for play, and in whose presence; also what will be out of place; lest our companions despise us, and we despise ourselves; when to jest, and whom to laugh at, and to what end to engage in social intercourse, and with whom; and, finally, how to maintain one's proper character in such social intercourse. But whenever you deviate from any one of these principles, immediately you suffer loss, and that not from anywhere outside, but from the very nature of the activity.

What then? Is it possible to be free from fault altogether? No, that cannot be achieved, but it is possible ever to be intent upon avoiding faults. For we must be satisfied, if we succeed in escaping at least a few faults by never relaxing our attention. 20But now, when you say, "To-morrow I will pay attention," I would have you know that this is what you are saying: "To-day I will be shameless, tactless, abject; it will be in the power of other men to grieve me; I will get angry to-day, I will give way to envy." Just see all the evils that you are allowing yourself! But if it is good for you to pay attention to-morrow, how much better is it to-day! If it is to your interest to-morrow, it is much more so to-day, that you may be able to do the same to-morrow also, and not put it off again, this time to the day after to-morrow.


  1. See note on I. 7, 1.

Select critical notes

  1. These last six words are added, to fill an obvious lacuna, in Upton's "codex". Something like them is certainly needed.