Epictetus. (c.A.D. 50–c.A.D. 138). The Golden Sayings of Epictetus.
Vol. 2, pp. 128-138 of The Harvard Classics
When a man is invited to a banquet he must be satisfied with the dishes put before him. Epictetus reasoned that man should be content with what life offers, and in serenity find happiness.
Knowest thou what a speck thou art in comparison with the Universe?—That is, with respect to the body; since with respect to Reason, thou art not inferior to the Gods, nor less than they. For the greatness of Reason is not measured by length or height, but by the resolves of the mind. Place then thy happiness in that wherein thou art equal to the Gods.
Asked how a man might eat acceptably to the Gods, Epictetus replied:—If when he eats, he can be just, cheerful, equable, temperate, and orderly, can he not thus eat acceptably to the Gods? But when you call for warm water, and your slave does not answer, or when he answers brings it lukewarm, or is not even found to be in the house at all, then not to be vexed nor burst with anger, is not that acceptable to the Gods?
“But how can one endure such people?”
Slave, will you not endure your own brother, that has God to his forefather, even as a son sprung from the same stock, and of the same high descent as yourself? And if you are stationed in a high position, are you therefore forthwith to set up for a tyrant? Remember who you are, and whom you rule, that they are by nature your kinsmen, your brothers, the offspring of God.
“But I paid a price for them, not they for me.”
Do you see whither you are looking—down to the earth, to the pit, to those despicable laws of the dead? But to the laws of the Gods you do not look.
When we are invited to a banquet, we take what is set before us; and were one to call upon his host to set fish upon the table or sweet things, he would be deemed absurd. Yet in a word, we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and that, although they have given us so many things!
Asked how a man might convince himself that every single act of his was under the eye of God, Epictetus answered:—
“Do you not hold that all things are bound together in one?”
“Well, and do you not hold that things on earth and things in heaven are continuous and in unison with each other?”
“I do,” was the reply.
“Else how should the trees so regularly, as though by God’s command, at His bidding flower; at His bidding send forth shoots, bear fruit and ripen it; at His bidding let it fall and shed their leaves, and folded up upon themselves lie in quietness and rest? How else, as the Moon waxes and wanes, as the Sun approaches and recedes, can it be that such vicissitude and alternation is seen in earthly things?
“If then all things that grow, nay, our own bodies, are thus bound up with the whole, is not this still truer of our souls? And if our souls are bound up and in contact with God, as being very parts and fragments plucked from Himself, shall He not feel every movement of theirs as though it were His own, and belonging to His own nature?”
“But” you say, “I cannot comprehend all this at once.”
Why, who told you that your powers were equal to God’s?”
Yet God hath placed by the side of each a man’s own Guardian Spirit, 1 who is charged to watch over him—a Guardian who sleeps not nor is deceived. For to what better or more watchful Guardian could He have committed each of us? So when you have shut the doors and made a darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone; for you are not alone, but God is within, and your Guardian Spirit, and what light do they need to behold what you do? To this God you also should have sworn allegiance, even as soldiers unto Cæsar. They, when their service is hired, swear to hold the life of Cæsar dearer than all else: and will you not swear your oath, that are deemed worthy of so many and great gifts? And will you not keep your oath when you have sworn it? And what oath will you swear? Never to disobey, never to arraign or murmur at aught that comes to you from His hand: never unwillingly to do or suffer aught that necessity lays upon you.
“Is this oath like theirs?”
They swear to hold no other dearer than Cæsar: you, to hold our true selves dearer than all else beside.
Note 1. To the Stoics the Guardian Spirit was each man’s Reason.
“How shall my brother cease to be wroth with me?”
Bring him to me, and I will tell him. But to thee I have nothing to say about his anger.
When one took counsel of Epictetus, saying, “What I seek is this, how even though my brother be not reconciled to me, I may still remain as Nature would have me to be,” he replied: “All great things are slow of growth; nay, this is true even of a grape or of a fig. If then you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flower, then cast its blossom, then ripen. Whereas then the fruit of the fig-tree reaches not maturity suddenly nor yet in a single hour, do you nevertheless desire so quickly and easily to reap the fruit of the mind of man?—Nay, expect it not, even though I bade you!”
Epaphroditus 1 had a shoemaker whom he sold as being good-for-nothing. This fellow, by some accident, was afterwards purchased by one of Cæsar’s men, and became shoemaker to Cæsar. You should have seen what respect Epaphroditus paid him then. “How does the good Felicion? Kindly let me know!” And if any of us inquired, “What is Epaphroditus doing?” the answer was, “He is consulting about so and so with Felicion.”—Had he not sold him as good-for-nothing? Who had in a trice converted him into a wiseacre?
This is what comes of holding of importance anything but the things that depend on the Will.
Note 1. A freedman of Nero, and at one time owner of Epictetus.
What you shun enduring yourself, attempt not to impose on others. You shun slavery—beware of enslaving others! If you can endure to do that, one would think you had been once upon a time a slave yourself. For Vice has nothing in common with virtue, nor Freedom with slavery.
Has a man been raised to the tribuneship? Every one that he meets congratulates him. One kisses him on the eyes, another on the neck, while the slaves kiss his hands. He goes home to find torches burning; he ascends to the Capitol to sacrifice.—Who ever sacrificed for having had right desires; for having conceived such inclinations as Nature would have him? In truth we thank the Gods for that wherein we place our happiness.
A man was talking to me to-day about the priesthood of Augustus. I said to him, “Let the thing go, my good Sir; you will spend a great deal to no purpose.”
“Well, but my name will be inserted in all documents and contracts.”
“Will you be standing there to tell those that read them, That is my name written there? And even though you could now be there in every case, what will you do when you are dead?”
“At all events my name will remain.”
“Inscribe it on a stone and it will remain just as well. And think, beyond Nicopolis what memory of you will there be?”
“But I shall have a golden wreath to wear.”
“If you must have a wreath, get a wreath of roses and put it on; you will look more elegant!”
Above all, remember that the door stands open. Be not more fearful than children; but as they, when they weary of the game, cry, “I will play no more,” even so, when thou art in the like case, cry, “I will play no more,” and depart. But if thou stayest, make no lamentation.
Is there smoke in the room? If it be slight, I remain; if grievous, I quit it. For you must remember this and hold it fast, that the door stands open.
“You shall not dwell at Nicopolis!”
Well and good.
“Nor at Athens.”
Then I will not dwell at Athens either.
“Nor at Rome.”
Nor at Rome either.
Well: but to dwell in Gyara seems to me like a grievous smoke; I depart to a place where none can forbid me to dwell: that habitation is open unto all! As for the last garment of all, that is the poor body; beyond that, none can do aught unto me. This is why Demetrius 2 said to Nero: “You threaten me with death; it is Nature who threatens you!”
Note 1. An island in the Ægean, used as a place of banishment.
Note 2. A well-known Cynic philosopher.
The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one’s own mind. If a man recognises that this is in a weakly state, he will not then want to apply it to questions of the greatest moment. As it is, men who are not fit to swallow even a morsel, buy whole treatises and try to devour them. Accordingly they either vomit them up again, or suffer from indigestion, whence come gripings, fluxions, and fevers. Whereas they should have stopped to consider their capacity.
In theory it is easy to convince an ignorant person: in actual life, men not only object to offer themselves to be convinced, but hate the man who has convinced them. Whereas Socrates used to say that we should never lead a life not subjected to examination.
This is the reason why Socrates, when reminded that he should prepare for his trial, answered: “Thinkest thou not that I have been preparing for it all my life?”
“In what way?”
“I have maintained that which in me lay.”
“I have never, secretly or openly, done a wrong unto any.”
In what character dost thou now come forward?
As a witness summoned by God. “Come thou,” saith God, “and testify for Me, for thou art worthy of being brought forward as a witness by Me. Is aught that is outside thy will either good or bad? Do I hurt any man? Have I placed the good of each in the power of any other than himself? What witness dost thou bear to God?”
“I am in evil state, Master, I am undone! None careth for me, none giveth me aught: all men blame, all speak evil of me.”
Is this the witness thou wilt bear, and do dishonour to the calling wherewith He hath called thee, because He hath done thee so great honour, and deemed thee worthy of being summoned to bear witness in so great a cause?
Wouldst thou have men speak good of thee? speak good of them. And when thou hast learned to speak good of them, try to do good unto them, and thus thou wilt reap in return their speaking good of thee.
When thou goest in to any of the great, remember that Another from above sees what is passing, and that thou shouldst please Him rather than man. He therefore asks thee:—
“In the Schools, what didst thou call exile, imprisonment, bonds, death and shame?”
“I called them things indifferent.”
“What then dost thou call them now? Are they at all changed?”
“Is it then thou that art changed?”
“Say then, what are things indifferent?”
“Things that are not in our power.”
“Say then, what follows?”
“That things which are not in our power are nothing to me.”
“Say also what things you hold to be good.”
“A will such as it ought to be, and a right use of the things of sense.”
“And what is the end?”
“To follow Thee!”
“That Socrates should ever have been so treated by the Athenians!”
Slave! why say “Socrates”? Speak of the thing as it is: That ever then the poor body of Socrates should have been dragged away and haled by main force to prison! That ever hemlock should have been given to the body of Socrates; that that should have breathed its life away!—Do you marvel at this? Do you hold this unjust? Is it for this that you accuse God? Had Socrates no compensation for this? Where then for him was the ideal Good? Whom shall we hearken to, you or him? And what says he?
“If such be the will of God, so let it be.”
Note 1. The accusers of Socrates. See Plato’s Apology.
Nay, young man, for heaven’s sake; but once thou hast heard these words, go home and say to thyself:—“It is not Epictetus that has told me these things: how indeed should he? No, it is some gracious God through him. Else it would never have entered his head to tell me them—he that is not used to speak to any one thus. Well, then, let us not lie under the wrath of God, but be obedient unto Him.”—Nay, indeed; but if a raven by its croaking bears thee any sign, it is not the raven but God that sends the sign through the raven; and if He signifies anything to thee through human voice, will He not cause the man to say these words to thee, that thou mayest know the power of the Divine—how He sends a sign to some in one way and to others in another, and on the greatest and highest matters of all signifies His will through the noblest messenger?
What else does the poet mean:—
I spake unto him erst Myself, and sent
Hermes the shining One, to check and warn him,
The husband not to slay, nor woo the wife!
In the same way my friend Heraclitus, who had a trifling suit about a petty farm at Rhodes, first showed the judges that his cause was just, and then at the finish cried, “I will not entreat you; nor do I care what sentence you pass. It is you who are on your trial, not I!”—And so he ended the case. 1
Note 1. Or, “And so he lost his case” (Long).
As for us, we behave like a herd of deer. When they flee from the huntsman’s feathers 1 in affright, which way do they turn? What haven of safety do they make for? Why, they rush upon the nets! And thus they perish by confounding what they should fear with that wherein no danger lies…. Not death or pain is to be feared, but the fear of death or pain. Well said the poet therefore:—
Death has no terror; only a Death of shame!
Note 1. Colored feathers fixed to ropes partly surrounding the cover.
How is it then that certain external things are said to be natural, and others contrary to Nature?
Why, just as it might be said if we stood alone and apart from others. A foot, for instance, I will allow it is natural should be clean. But if you take it as a foot, and as a thing which does not stand by itself, it will beseem it (if need be) to walk in the mud, to tread on thorns, and sometimes even to be cut off, for the benefit of the whole body; else it is no longer a foot. In some such way we should conceive of ourselves also. What art thou?—A man.—Looked at as standing by thyself and separate, it is natural for thee in health and wealth long to live. But looked at as a Man, and only as a part of a Whole, it is for that Whole’s sake that thou shouldst at one time fall sick, at another brave the perils of the sea, again, know the meaning of want and perhaps die an early death. Why then repine? Knowest thou not that as the foot is no more a foot if detached from the body, so thou in like case art no longer a Man? For what is a Man? A part of a City:—first, of the City of Gods and Men; next, of that which ranks nearest it, a miniature of the universal City…. In such a body, in such a world enveloping us, among lives like these, such things must happen to one or another. Thy part, then, being here, is to speak of these things as is meet, and to order them as befits the matter.
That was a good reply which Diogenes made to a man who asked him for letters of recommendation.—“That you are a man, he will know when he sees you;—whether a good or bad one, he will know if he has any skill in discerning the good and the bad. But if he has none, he will never know, though I write to him a thousand times.”—It is as though a piece of silver money desired to be recommended to some one to be tested. If the man be a good judge of silver, he will know: the coin will tell its own tale.
Even as the traveller asks his way of him that he meets, inclined in no wise to bear to the right rather than to the left (for he desires only the way leading whither he would go), so should we come unto God as to a guide; even as we use our eyes without admonishing them to show us some things rather than others, but content to receive the images of such things as they present unto us. But as it is we stand anxiously watching the victim, and with the voice of supplication call upon the augur:—“Master, have mercy on me: vouchsafe unto me a way of escape!” Slave, would you then have aught else than what is best? is there anything better than what is God’s good pleasure? Why, as far as in you lies, would you corrupt your Judge, and lead your Counsellor astray?
God is beneficent. But the Good also is beneficent. It should seem then that where the real nature of God is, there too is to be found the real nature of the Good. What then is the real nature of God?—Intelligence, Knowledge, Right Reason. Here then without more ado seek the real nature of the Good. For surely thou dost not seek it in a plant or in an animal that reasoneth not.
Seek then the real nature of the Good in that without whose presence thou wilt not admit the Good to exist in aught else.—What then? Are not these other things also works of God?—They are; but not preferred to honour, nor are they portions of God. But thou art a thing preferred to honour: thou art thyself a fragment torn from God:—thou hast a portion of Him within thyself. How is it then that thou dost not know thy high descent—dost not know whence thou comest? When thou eatest, wilt thou not remember who thou art that eatest and whom thou feedest? In intercourse, in exercise, in discussion knowest thou not that it is a God whom thou feedest, a God whom thou exercisest, a God whom thou bearest about with thee, O miserable! and thou perceivest it not. Thinkest thou that I speak of a God of silver or gold, that is without thee? Nay, thou bearest Him within thee! all unconscious of polluting Him with thoughts impure and unclean deeds. Were an image of God present, thou wouldst not dare to act as thou dost, yet, when God Himself is present within thee, beholding and hearing all, thou dost not blush to think such thoughts and do such deeds, O thou that art insensible of thine own nature and liest under the wrath of God!
Why then are we afraid when we send a young man from the Schools into active life, lest he should indulge his appetites intemperately, lest he should debase himself by ragged clothing, or be puffed up by fine raiment? Knows he not the God within him; knows he not with whom he is starting on his way? Have we patience to hear him say to us, Would I had thee with me!—Hast thou not God where thou art, and having Him dost thou still seek for any other? Would He tell thee aught else than these things? Why, wert thou a statue of Phidias, an Athena or a Zeus, thou wouldst bethink thee both of thyself and thine artificer; and hadst thou any sense, thou wouldst strive to do no dishonour to thyself or him that fashioned thee, nor appear to beholders in unbefitting guise. But now, because God is thy Maker, is that why thou carest not of what sort thou shalt show thyself to be? Yet how different the artists and their workmanship! What human artist’s work, for example, has in if the faculties that are displayed in fashioning it? Is it aught but marble, bronze, gold, or ivory? Nay, when the Athena of Phidias has put forth her hand and received therein a Victory, in that attitude she stands for evermore. But God’s works move and breathe; they use and judge the things of sense. The workmanship of such an Artist, wilt thou dishonour Him? Aye, when he not only fashioned thee, but placed thee, like a ward, in the care and guardianship of thyself alone, wilt thou not only forget this, but also do dishonour to what is committed to thy care! If God had entrusted thee with an orphan, wouldst thou have thus neglected him? He hath delivered thee to thine own care, saying, I had none more faithful than myself: keep this man for me such as Nature hath made him—modest, faithful, high—minded, a stranger to fear, to passion, to perturbation….
Such will I show myself to you all.—“What, exempt from sickness also: from age, from death?”—Nay, but accepting sickness, accepting death as becomes a God!
No labour, according to Diogenes, is good but that which aims at producing courage and strength of soul rather than of body.
A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path—he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity.