The Enchiridion Part Thirty-Seven

If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both demeaned yourself and given up a character in which you might have succeeded.

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 Thirty-Seven…


If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both demeaned yourself and given up a character in which you might have succeeded.

That is what Epictetus said. Here is what I say. At some times, Epictetus told his students “you can be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own power to conquer.” At other times, Epictetus told his students that they should “practice most in the things which are the most difficult.” This is a contradiction, but it may be resolved. In combat regarding that which is within our own power, in the application of the will, we cannot be conquered. In assuming characters above our strength regarding that which is not within our power, in the appearance of things outside the will, we will be conquered. Epictetus tells us to give up, but to give up only that which was never ours to control: the approval of others, the indefinite postponement of death, constant happiness, life without toil. Turn instead to the great struggle; to apply your will where it is naturally made to go.

In ‘The Discourses,’ Epictetus has this to say about combat.

Fighting roosters that are defeated and are unhurt fare badly, but those who gain the victory and are wounded fare well.

The man who is not under restraint is free. To him things are exactly in that state in which he wishes them to be. But he who can be restrained or compelled or hindered or thrown into any circumstances against his will, he is a slave. Who is free from restraint? He who desires nothing that belongs to others. And what are the things which belong to others? Those which are not in our power, either to have or not to have, or to have of a certain kind or in a certain manner. […] If you are attached to any of these things as your own, you will pay the penalty which it is proper for him to pay who desires what belongs to another. The only road that leads to freedom, the only way of escaping from slavery, to be able to say at last with all your soul: ‘Lead me, O Zeus, and thou O destiny, The way that I am bid by you to go.’

It is circumstances which show what men are. When a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. “For what purpose?” you may say, Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror. This is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.

Imagine you are now sending a scout to Rome. No man sends a cowardly scout, who, if he hears a noise and sees a shadow comes running back in terror and reports that the enemy is close at hand. In the same way, if you should come and tell us “Fearful is the state of affairs at Rome, terrible is death, terrible is exile, terrible is calumny, terrible is poverty, fly, my friends for the enemy is near!” then we shall answer, “Begone! Prophesy for yourself. For we have committed only one fault, that we sent you as a scout.”

Diogenes, who was sent as a scout before you, made a different kind of report to us. He says that death is no evil, for neither is it base. He says that fame is the noise of madmen. And what has this scout said about pain, about pleasure, and about poverty? He says that to be naked is better than any purple robe, and to sleep on the bare ground is the softest bed. He gives as a proof of each thing that he affirms in his own courage, in his tranquillity, in his freedom, and the healthy appearance and compactness of his body. “There is no enemy,” he says, “all is peace.” […] This is what a scout ought to be. But you come to us and tell us one thing after another. Do not come back here until you have laid aside fear. Then you will see more clearly.

Look at yourself and what you have undertaken. First, take a mirror. Look at your shoulders, observe your loins, your thighs. You are going, my man, to be enrolled as a combatant in the Olympic games, a heated and miserable contest. In the Olympic games a man is not permitted to be conquered only and to take his departure. He must first be disgraced in the sight of all the world […] next he must be whipped, if he has entered into the contests rashly. And before being whipped, he must suffer thirst and heat, and swallow much dust.

Reflect more carefully, know thyself, consult the divinity, and without God attempt nothing. If He advises you to undertake the contest, be assured that He intends you to become great or to receive many blows.

Keep in mind what is yours and what is not yours; what is and is not given to you; and what it is that God wills that you should and should not do now A little while ago He willed you to be at leisure, to talk with yourself, to write about philosophy, to read, to hear, to prepare yourself. You had sufficient time for this. Now He says to you: “Today is the contest. Show everyone what you have learned in your practice. You have long exercised alone. Now is the opportunity for you to learn whether you are an athlete worthy of victory, or one of those who go about the world defeated.” Hearing this, do not be vexed. No contest is without confusion. There are many who exercise for the contests, many who call out to those who exercise themselves, many masters, many spectators. You say, “but my wish is to live quietly.” Lament, then, and groan as you deserve to groan. There is no greater punishment than this to the untaught man and to him who disobeys the divine commands: to be grieved, to lament, to envy, and in a word to be disappointed and to be unhappy. You could release yourself from these things. How? You know.

Consider the things which you wanted when you began, which you have secured and which you have not. Consider how you are pleased when you recall the one and are pained about the other. If it is possible, recover the things wherein you failed. For we must not shrink when we are engaged in the greatest combat, but we must even take blows. For the combat before us is not in wrestling and fist fights, in which both the successful and the unsuccessful may have great or little merit, both may be fortunate or unfortunate. […]

Even if we have submitted in the fight, no man hinders us from renewing the combat again, and we are not compelled to wait for another four years that the games at Olympia may come again. As soon as you have recovered and restored yourself to the same zeal as before, renew the combat again. If again you renounce it, you may again renew it. If you gain the victory even once, you are like him who has never renounced the combat. Only do not, through repetition of habit, begin to renounce combat with pleasure. Do not be like a bad athlete who is always conquered and always runs away.

Here again is Part Thirty-Seven of The Enchiridion

If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both demeaned yourself and given up a character in which you might have succeeded.

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