The Discourses by Epictetus

“Difficulties are things that show what men are. For the future, in case of any difficulty, remember that Nature, like a gymnastic trainer, has pitted you against a rough antagonist.”

I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, selections from “The Discourses ” by Epictetus. Epictetus was born circa 55 and died circa 135. He was a philosopher. “The Discourses ” were transcribed by Arrian circa 108.

Difficulties are things that show what men are. For the future, in case of any difficulty, remember that Nature, like a gymnastic trainer, has pitted you against a rough antagonist. For what end? That you may be an Olympic conqueror; and this cannot be without toil. No man, in my opinion, has a more profitable difficulty on his hands than you have, provided you will but use it, as an athletic champion uses his antagonist.

Suppose we were to send you as a scout to Rome. But no one ever sends a timorous scout, who, when he only hears a noise, or sees a shadow, runs back frightened, and says “the enemy is at hand.” So now, if you should come and tell us, “Things are in a fearful way at Rome; death is terrible, banishment terrible, calumny terrible, poverty terrible; run, good people, the enemy is at hand”; we will answer, Get you gone, and prophesy for yourself; our only fault is that we have sent such a scout. Diogenes was sent as a scout before you, but he told us other tidings. He says that death is no evil, for it is nothing base; that calumny is only the noise of madmen. And what account did this spy give us of pain, of pleasure, of poverty? He says that to be naked is better than a purple robe; to sleep upon the bare ground, the softest bed; and gives a proof of all he says by his own courage, tranquility, and freedom, and, moreover, by a healthy and robust body. “There is no enemy near,” he says; ” all is profound peace.” How so, Diogenes? “Look upon me,” he says. “Am I hurt? Am I wounded? Have I run away from any one? ” This is a scout worth having. But you come, and tell us one tale after another. Go back and look more carefully, and without fear.

“What shall I do, then?”

What do you do when you land from a ship? Do you take away with you the rudder, or the oars? What do you take, then? Your own, your bundle and your flask. So, in the present case, if you will but remember what is your own, you will not covet what belongs to others. If some tyrant bids you put off your consular robe: “Well, I am in my equestrian robe.” Put off that too. “I have only my coat.” Put off that too. “Well, I am naked.” I am not yet satisfied. “Then even take my whole body. If I can throw off a paltry body, am I any longer afraid of a tyrant?”

“But such a one will not leave me his heir.” What, then, have I forgotten, that such possessions are never really mine? How, then, do we call them ours? It is as with a bed in an inn. If the landlord, when he dies, leaves you the bed, well and good; but if to another, it will be his, and you will seek one elsewhere; and consequently, if you do not find one, you will sleep upon the ground; only sleep fearlessly and profoundly, and remember that tragedies find their theme among the rich and kings and tyrants. No poor man fills any other place in one than as part of the chorus; whereas, kings begin indeed with prosperity: “Crown the palace”; but continue about the third and fourth act: “Alas, Citheron! why did you receive me!” Where are your crowns, wretch; where is your diadem? Cannot your guards help you?

Whenever you are brought into any such society, think then that you meet a tragic actor, or, rather, not an actor, but Oedipus himself. “But such a one is happy; he walks with a numerous train.” Well, I too walk with a numerous train.

But remember the principal thing – that the door is open. Do not be more fearful than children; but as they, when the play does not please them, say, “I will play no longer,” so do you, in the same case, say, “I will play no longer,” and go; but, if you stay, do not complain. […]

If these things are true; and if we are not stupid or insincere when we say that the good or ill of man lies within his own will, and that all beside is nothing to us, why are we still troubled? Why do we still fear? What truly concerns us is in no one’s power; what is in the power of others concerns not us. What embarrassment have we left?

“But you must direct me.”

Why should I direct you? Has not Zeus directed you? Has he not given you what is your own, incapable of restraint or hindrance; and what is not your own, liable to both? What directions, then, what orders, have you brought from him? By all means guard what is your own; what belongs to others do not covet. Honesty is your own; a sense of virtuous shame is your own. Who, then, can deprive you of these? Who can restrain you from making use of them, but yourself? And how do you do it? When you make that your concern which is not truly your own, you lose that which is. Having such precepts and directions from Zeus, what sort do you still want from me? Am I better than He, or more worthy of credit? If you observe these precepts, what others do you need? Are not these His? Apply the recognized principles; apply the demonstrations of philosophers; apply what you have often heard, and what you have said yourself; what you have read, and what you have carefully studied.

“How long is it right to devote one’s self to these things and not break up the game?”

As long as it goes on well. A King is chosen at the Saturnalian Festival, supposing it to be agreed to play at that game; He orders: “Do you drink; you mix the wine; you sing: you go; you come.” I obey, that the game may not be broken up by my fault.

Then He orders: “I bid you think yourself to be unhappy.” I do not think so; and who shall compel me to think so?

Again, suppose we agree to play Agamemnon and Achilles. He who is appointed for Agamemnon says to me, “Go to Achilles, and force away Briseis.” I go. “Come.” I come. We should deal with life as with these imaginary orders.

“Suppose it to be night.” Well, suppose it. “Is it day then?” No; for I admitted the hypothesis, that it was night. “Suppose that you think it to be night.” Well, suppose it. “But you must really think that it is night.” That by no means follows from the hypothesis. Thus it is in the case illustrated. Suppose you have ill luck? Suppose it. “Are you then unlucky?” Yes. “Are you thoroughly unfortunate?” Yes. “Well; but you must really regard yourself as miserable.” But this is no part of the assumption, and there is a power who forbids me to admit that.

“How far, then, are we to carry such analogies?” As far as is useful; that is, till we go farther than is reasonable and fit.

Moreover, some are peevish and fastidious, and say, I cannot dine with such a fellow, to be obliged to hear him all day recounting how he fought in Mysia. “I told you, my friend, how I gained the eminence.” There I begin to suffer another siege. But another says, “I had rather get a dinner, and hear him prate as much as he pleases.”

Do you decide between these opinions; but do not let it be with depression and anxiety, and the assumption that you are miserable, for no one compels you to that. Is there smoke in my house? If it be moderate, I will stay; if very great, I will go out. For you must always remember, and hold to this, that the door is open. “You are forbidden to live at Nicopolis.” Then I will not live there. “Nor at Athens.” Well, nor at Athens. “Nor at Rome.” Nor at Rome. “But you shall live at Gyaros.” I will live there. But suppose that living at Gyaros seems to me like living in a great smoke. I can then retire where no one can forbid me to live, for it is an abode open to all, and put off my last garment, this poor body of mine; beyond this, no one has any power over me.

Thus Demetrius said to Nero: “You sentence me to death; and Nature you.” If I prize my body first, I have surrendered myself as a slave; if my estate, the same; for I at once betray where I am vulnerable. Just as when a reptile pulls in his head, I bid you strike that part of him which he guards; and be you assured, that wherever you show a desire to guard yourself, there your Master will attack you. Remember but this, and whom will you any longer flatter or fear?

“But I want to sit where the senators do.”

Do not you see, that by this you inconvenience and torment yourself?

“Why, how else shall I see the show in the Amphitheater advantageously?”

Do not insist on seeing it, oh man! and you will not be incommoded. Why do you vex yourself? Or wait a little while; and when the show is over, go sit in the senators’ places and sun yourself. For remember, that this holds universally – we inconvenience and torment ourselves; that is, our own preconceived notions do it for us. What is it to be reviled, for instance? Stand by a stone and revile it, and what will you get by it? If you, therefore, would listen only as a stone, what would your reviler gain? But if the reviler has the weakness of the reviled for a vantage-ground, then he carries his point.

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Episode 1518