The Enchiridion Part Forty One

Our strength should be applied mainly to our reason.

I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, “The Enchiridion” by Epictetus. Part Forty-One…


It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body; to be immoderate in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally, and our strength be applied mainly to our reason.

That is what Epictetus said. Here is what I say. To the Stoics, the trait that distinguishes men from all other animals was the ability to reason. No other living thing contemplates itself. Trees do not figure out how to be trees, they are trees. Lions do not make sculptures of lions, they are lions. The gift of contemplation was given to men by the Gods, and to fail to make reason the center of a man’s life is to go against what it means to be a man. Reason is the only trait that is entirely in our own power. We exercise, we eat, we drink and we do the rest whether we want to or not, but each opportunity we strengthen our will, we become more as the Gods intended us to be.

In “The Discourses,” Epictetus has this to say about rational animals.

To the rational animal, only is the irrational intolerable. That which is rational is tolerable. Blows are not naturally intolerable. “How is that?” See how the Lacedaemonians endure whipping when they have learned that whipping is consistent with reason. You may say “to hang yourself is not intolerable.” I say when you have the opinion that it is rational, you go and hang yourself. Look and see, that the rational animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational; and, on the contrary, attracted to nothing so much as to that which is rational.

What things are done only by men and not by other animals? Many things are done only by men, but many are common to other animals. Ask yourself: do they understand what they are doing? By no means. Use is one thing, and understanding is another. Zeus made irrational animals to use appearances, but Zeus made us to understand the use of appearances. It is enough for other animals to eat and to drink, and to sleep and to copulate, and to do all the other things which they do. But for us, to whom He has given also the faculty of reason, these things are not sufficient. Unless we act in a proper and orderly manner, and conformably to the nature and constitution of each thing, we never attain our true end. Where the constitutions of living beings are different, there also the actions and the ends are different. In other animals, whose constitution is adapted only to use, use alone is enough. In an animal which has also the power of understanding the use, unless there be the due exercise of the understanding, he will never attain his proper end. Well then, Zeus assigns a constitution to every animal. One to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use. For these purposes there is no need to understand appearances or to be able to distinguish them. But Zeus has made man to be a spectator of Zeus and of His works. Not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter. For this reason it is shameful for man to begin and to end where irrational animals do. Rather, man ought to begin where they begin, and to end where our constitution ends in us. Our constitution ends in contemplation and understanding, in a way of life conformable to nature. Take care then, not to die without having been spectators of these things.

If you cared about nothing else except the proper use of appearances, as soon as you rise in the morning you would ask yourself: “What do I want in order to be free from passion, and free from perturbation? What am I? Am I a poor body, a piece of property, a thing of which something is said? I am none of these. What am I? I am a rational animal. What then is required of me? To reflect on my acts. To find out where have I omitted the things which are conductive to happiness, to find out what I have done which is either unfriendly or unsocial, to find out what I have not done which I ought to have done.”

Animals are constituted to do all things for themselves. Even the sun does all things for itself. Even Zeus does all things for Himself. But when Zeus chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of Gods and men, you see that He cannot obtain these functions and these names, if He is not useful to man. Universally, Zeus has made the nature of the rational animal such that we cannot obtain any one of own proper interests, if we do not contribute something to the common interest. In this manner and sense it is not unsociable for a man to do everything for the sake of himself. For what do you expect? Should a man neglect himself and his own interest?

Of all the faculties, you will find not one which is capable of contemplating itself. You will find not one which is capable either of approving or disapproving based on contemplating itself. Grammar can judge what is written and spoken. Music can judge melody. But do either of them contemplate itself? By no means. When you must write something to your friend, grammar will tell you what words you must write But whether you should write or not, grammar will not tell you. So it is with music as to sounds. But whether you should sing at the present time and play on the lute, or do neither, music will not tell you. What faculty then will tell you? That which contemplates both itself and all other things. And what is this faculty? The rational faculty. This is the only faculty that we have received which examines itself, what it is, and what power it has, and what is the value of this gift, and examines all the other faculties. [It alone] is the faculty which is capable of judging appearances. […]

It is good that the faculty which is best of all and supreme over all is the only thing which the gods have placed in our power. This is the right use of appearances. No other thing have they placed in our power. I do think that if the Gods had been able they would have put these other things also in our power. But they did not, and so they could not.

Here again is Part Forty-One of The Enchiridion

It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body; to be immoderate in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally, and our strength be applied mainly to our reason.

Thank you for listening. For more information about the words I have read and the music to follow, please visit A Man of Letters.

Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.

Cliff Edwards – I Just Couldn’t Take it Baby (British Brunswick 01752 1934)
Cliff Edwards – For Me and My Gal (1942)

Episode 1641