Epictetus (pronounced Epic-TEE-tus) was a Greek philosopher (55 – ca. 135 CE), born in Phrygia, associated with the Stoics. First he was a slave in Rome, and later became a freedman, lame and in ill health.
Epictetus spent his whole career teaching philosophy and promoting a daily regime of rigorous self-examination. In AD 89 or 90 he was expelled from Rome and Italy with other philosophers by the emperor Domitian. The rest of his life Epictetus spent at Nicopolis, Greece, where he had his own school. It got a good reputation and attracted many upper-class Romans.
Epictetus wrote nothing. His teachings were most likely written down by a pupil who collected the lecture notes he had taken, in two works: Discourses, and the Handbook (or Manual) Encheiridion, which is a condensed aphoristic version of the main doctrines. The two works, written somewhere around AD 104–7, deal almost wholly with ethics. Whoever wrote the text as we have it today - Epitectus or his upper-class Roman pupil - its words were intended to present Stoic moral philosophy.
In his teachings Epictetus followed the early Stoics, reverting to Socrates and to Diogenes as historical models of the sage. True education, he believed, consisted in recognizing that there is only one thing that belongs to an individual fully, and that is his will. Though flowing maxims Epictetus also wanted students to stay focused on "obedience to conscience".
Epictetus also saw man as a member of a great system - the aim of the philosopher should be to see the world as a whole, to grow into the mind of God, and so on.
A Stoic approach is also found in writings of the Roman statesman Seneca. Also, the Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius illustrate that emperor's Stoic approach. [They are online]
Origen (Contra Celsum 6.2) also reports that Epictetus had been more popular in his day than had Plato in his. Aulus Gellius (c.125–c.165) reports that one of Marcus Aurelius' teachers, Herodes Atticus (c.101–177), considered Epictetus to be "the greatest of Stoics" (Attic Nights 1.2.6).
Help to Consider
The sayings that follow, are extracted from The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. They are more wordy than the following statements indicate. Numbers in brackets at the end of sayings, refer to the sections in the work.
One good reason for focusing on key statements above all so as to get many entrances into the larger material is that you may get acquainted with thoughts that stand out there. The approach is a part of a general study approach as well.
❋ Good selections of key statements help us to consider.
❋ Key statements form a handle to plumb someone's thinking.
Great is God, for He has given us these instruments to till the ground with: Great is God, for that He has given us hands, and the power of swallowing and digesting; of unconsciously growing and breathing while we sleep! (1)
Great is God for giving us a mind to apprehend these things, and duly to use them! (1)
I am a reasonable being, I must sing to God: that is my work (1).
I have one whom I must please . . . God (4).
Don't flatter anyone (6).*
You know yourself what you are worth in your own eyes; and at what price you will sell yourself (8).
The man who has once stooped to consider such questions as own, external worth and selling oneself, and to reckon up the value of external things, is not far from forgetting what manner of man he is (8).*
We are all in a special manner sprung from God. God is the Father of men as well as of gods (9).*
Thought we share with the gods (9).*
Few rise to the blessed kinship with the Divine (9).
A man can only lose what he has (11).
God has introduced Man to be not a spectator only, but also an interpreter (13).*
It is a shame for man to begin and to leave off where the brutes do. Rather he should begin there, and leave off at contemplation, and understanding, and a manner of life that is in harmony (13).*
Contemplate and study (14).
Those endowed with reason are by their nature fitted to hold communion with God. Why should not such an one call himself a son of God? (cf. 16).
Wait for God. When He gives the signal, and releases you from this service, then depart (18).
When you have had enough to eat today, you sit down and weep about tomorrow's food. Slave! (19).
There is petrifaction of the understanding; and also of the sense of shame. This happens when a man obstinately refuses to acknowledge plain truths, and persists in maintaining what is self-contradictory (23).
Of mortification of the soul we are utterly heedless (23).
If we were as intent upon our own business as the old fellows at Rome are upon what interests them, we too might perhaps accomplish something. (24)
Do I say man is not made for an active life? Far from it! (24).
There is a great difference between other men's occupations and ours. A glance at theirs will make it clear to you (cf. 24).
Learn what the administration of the world is, and what place a being endowed with reason holds in it (24, also 16).
The good and true man submits his judgement to Him that administers the world. (29).
How may I rest satisfied with the divine administration? (29).
He is free enough for whom all things come to pass according to his will, and whom none can hinder (cf. 29).
Is great freedom madness? God forbid (cf. 29).
Freedom is a glorious thing and of great worth (29).
You must know that it is no easy thing for a principle to become a man's own, unless he maintains it as well and works it out in life (with - 30).
When in the company of the many, refrain from calling it a wearisome crowd and tumult, instead look on it as an assembly and a tribunal (31).
What is the chastisement of those who do not accept it? To be as they are (cf. 32).
As to reason, you are not inferior to the gods, nor less than they (33).
The greatness of reason is not measured by length or height, but by the resolves of the mind (33).
Place your happiness in that wherein you are equal to the gods (33).
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't he thus eat acceptably to the gods?" (34).
Remember who you are (34).
Asked how a man might convince himself that every single act of his was under the eye of God, Epictetus answered: "Don't you hold that all things are bound together in one?"
"Well, and don't you hold that things on earth and things in heaven are continuous and in unison with each other?"
"I do," was the reply.
"All things that grow, nay, our own bodies, are bound up with the whole, is not this still truer of our souls? Our souls are bound up and in contact with God, as being very parts and fragments plucked."
"But," you say, "I cannot comprehend all this at once."
"Why, who told you that your powers were equal to God's?"
You are not alone, God is within, and your Guardian Spirit too (36-37, abbr).*
* To the Stoics the Guardian Spirit was each man's reason.
Keep your oath when you have sworn it (cf. 37).
Hold your true self dearer than all else beside (cf. 37).
Many good things are slow of growth; this is true also of a grape or of a fig. (cf. 39)
If you say to me now, I desire a fig, I shall answer, It needs time: wait till it first flowers, then casts its blossom, then ripens.
Likewise with the mind (from 39, condensed).
What you shun enduring yourself, don't attempt to impose on others. You shun slavery – beware of enslaving others. (41).
Remember that the door may stand open. Be as children when they, weary of the game, cry, "I will play no more," and depart. But if you stay, make no lamentation.
Is there smoke in the room? If it is slight, I remain; if grievous, I quit it. The door then was open. (44, modified.).
The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one's own mind (46).
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 . . . Whereas they should have stopped to consider their capacity (46).
Men hate the man who has convinced them. (47).
Socrates, when reminded that he should prepare for his trial, answered: "Don't you think I have been preparing for it all my life? – I have never, secretly or openly, done a wrong unto any." (48).
If a raven by its croaking bears you any sign, it is not the raven but God that sends the sign (53).
As for us, we behave like a herd of deer. . . . they rush upon the nets! And thus they perish by confounding what they should fear with that wherein no danger lies (55).
Diogenes replied 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." (57).
The real nature of what is good is also is beneficent. What then is the real nature of God?-Intelligence, Knowledge, Right Reason. . . . You don't seek it in a plant or in an animal that doesn't reason (59).
You don't know where you come from, and don't perceive it (60).
You who are insensible of your own nature lies under the wrath of God! (60)
If you had any sense, you would strive to do no dishonour to yourself or your Maker (61).
Such will I show myself to you all . . . accepting sickness, accepting death as becomes a god! (61).
Socrates never became heated in discourse, never uttered an injurious or insulting word – on the contrary, he persistently bore insult from others and thus put an end to the fray - The practice is not very safe (64).
When a youth was giving himself airs in the theatre and saying, "I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men," Epictetus replied, "I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!" (65).
The mere desire to be wise and good is not enough. It is necessary to learn certain things (66).
In this great fair of life, some, like the cattle, trouble themselves about nothing but the fodder (68).
Pray heaven I may never have a wise fool for my friend! (69)
Ever seeking Tranquillity without, you seek her where she is not to be found; and where she is, there you don't seek her! (71).
If a man would pursue philosophy, his first task is to throw away conceit (72).
Enter, young man, into possession of that which is your own. For your lot is to adorn philosophy (73).
By frequent repetition the mind in the long run becomes callous; and thus this mental disease produces confirmed Avarice (75).
Behind certain diseases of the mind there is a legacy of traces and of blisters: and unless these are effectually erased, subsequent blows on the same spot will produce no longer mere blisters, but sores (cf. 75).
Who comes to the school with a sincere wish to learn: to submit his principles to correction and himself to treatment? Who, to gain a sense of his wants? Why then be surprised if you carry home from the school exactly what you bring into it? (80)
To make a statue needs skill: to view a statue aright needs skill too (81).
It is natural that we are moved to speak when we find a listener that stirs the spirit in us (81 abbr).
When you want to hear a philosopher, do not say, "You say nothing to me"; only show yourself worthy or fit to hear, and then you will see how you will move the speaker." (81).
The heart of a bad man is faithless, unprincipled, inconstant: now overpowered by one impression, now by another (82).
The wise man deals with his own mind (cf. 87).
There are certain things which men who are not entirely perverted see by the natural principles common to all. Such a constitution of the mind is called common sense (XC).
Loss is also to have left undone what you should have done; and to have lost the faithfulness, the reverence, the modesty that is in you! Don't seek to find a greater loss than this! (cf. 91).
At what moment would you have endured another examining your principles and proving that they were unsound? (93)
The greatest thing there is, can it be grasped by a passer-by? – Grasp it, if you can! (cf. 93).
A man who really meets a man is one who learns the other's mind, and lets him see his in turn. Learn my mind – show me yours; and then go and say that you met me (cf. 93).
I am not racked with anxiety, and I flatter none on that account. This is part of what I have (cf. 94).
However my brother may treat me, I must deal rightly by him. This is what lies with me, I hope (cf. 96).
A man should be prepared to be enough to himself – to dwell with himself alone and consider how his own administration is (98).
We should be able to converse with ourselves (98).
If a man has frequent intercourse with others, either in the way of conversation, entertainment, or simple familiarity, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. Such is the risk (cf. 99).
It is well to remember that one cannot rub shoulders with a soot-stained man without sharing the soot oneself (99).
The skilled lute-player knows at the first touch which strings are out of tune and sets the instrument right. Socrates had a similar skill in intercourse with men (cf. 99).
The vulgar speak from the fullness of the heart: Their low, corrupt views are their real convictions: while on the other hand many fine-sounding sentiments are but from the lips, outwards. It turns one's stomach to listen to that sort prated of up and down. Thus it is that the vulgar prove too strong for refined persons (cf. 100).*
*Unless they are able ones.
If you are bent on a little private discipline, wait till you are choking with heat some day – then take a mouthful of cold water and spit it out again, and tell no man! (Citing Apollonius, 100).
Cease from foolish trifling (102).
Some bad actors cannot sing alone, but only in chorus: likewise some persons cannot walk alone (103).
Bestir yourself that you may know who you are! (103).
Weigh the conditions, weigh the consequences; then and then only, lay to your hand – if it be for your profit (104).
Count the cost – and then, if your desire still holds, try the wrestler's life (104).
Like an ape you mimic what you see – because you never undertook anything with due consideration, nor after strictly testing and viewing it from every side (104).
First consider what it is that you would do, and then what your own nature is able to bear (104).
Weigh things fully. Learn to consider (cf. 104).
Profit may be derived from all (cf. 106).
Know how to gain advantage from men! Is my neighbour bad? Bad to himself, but good to me: This is the rod of Hermes; touch what you will with it, they say, and it becomes gold. Nay, but bring what you will and I will transmute it into good (cf 106).
Through the rod of Hermes things shall be turned to profit (cf. 106).
Be cautious in associating with the uninstructed. Otherwise whatever impressions you receive on the tablets of your mind in the school could day by day melt and disappear, like wax in the sun (cf. 107).
Great and mystical wisdom is no common thing given to every man (108).
On finding himself in a well-ordered house does a man step forward and say to himself, "I must be master here!"? In this world also there is a "Lord of the house" who orders all things (110).
Others may fence themselves with walls and houses . . . they have many a device to hide themselves. Another may shut his door and station someone outside his chamber. But the true cynic will have none of these things; instead he must wrap himself in good modesty (111).
The Cynic must remember that he is a spy (113). *
* A witness through the senses, that is.
Grant me a republic of wise men (116).
Life is a warfare, and long for most part (cf. 125).
A good man usually does nothing for appearance' sake, but for the sake of having done right (cf. 126).
Should you seek any greater reward for being good than doing what is right and just? Does it seem to you that to be a good, happy man is small and worthless in itself? (cf. 126).
I am by nature made for my own good, hopefully (cf. 129).
An ordered economy, a fixed administration (130).
At His good pleasure I came; and I depart when it pleases Him (134).
Thus the more cautious of travellers act:
The road is said to be beset by robbers. The traveller will not venture alone, but awaits the companionship on the road of an ambassador, a quaestor or a proconsul. To him he attaches himself and thus passes by in safety. So does the wise man in the world.
Then, what am I to do if my fellow-traveller himself turns upon me and robs me? I will become a friend of Caesar's! Yet, if I should happen to offend him, where shall I flee? To the wilderness? May not fever await me there? What then is to be done? Cannot a fellow-traveller be found that is honest and loyal, strong and secure against surprise? (137, abstracted).
You can give up what is not yet your own - (cf. 140)
When they were present, the wretched and the fearful did not behave as at a feast, but moaned and found fault, rather insensible to the powers they had received for a very different purpose (cf 140).
I can point you out a free man: Diogenes was free because he was free. He had cast away every handle, and it was impossible for any to approach and take hold of him. All things sat loose on him (cf. 141).
For the sake of what men deem liberty, some hang themselves, others cast themselves down from the rock (142)
The laws ordained of God – His edicts; these a man should expound and interpret (144).
What reason have you for desiring to read? For if you aim at nothing beyond the mere delight of it, or gaining some scrap of knowledge, you are but a poor, spiritless knave (146).
If you have put malice and evil speaking from you, then you may celebrate a daily festival, today because you have done well in this manner, tomorrow in that. (146).
Do you debate in what place happiness awaits you? In what place you shall do God's pleasure? (147).
Man possesses faculties for the consideration of many things – Nor is this all. If he places his own good, his own best interest, only in that which is free from hindrance and in his power, he will be free, tranquil (151).
But what does Socrates say? – "One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day." (153)
There is nothing more tractable* than the human soul (156).
* Easily taught -
If you would make progress, be content to seem foolish and void of understanding as for outward things (158).
Has any dish that is being served reached you? Stretch forth your hand and help yourself suitably. In life you should order your conduct as at a banquet.
Deal thus with children, with wife; with office, thus with wealth – and one day you will be meet to share the banquets of the gods (cf. 159).
Say what is necessary, at times in few words. When occasion demands, enter into discourse sparingly, avoiding perpetual talk about great ones if you can (cf. 164).
You can avoid speaking of persons, either in the way of praise or blame, or comparison (cf. 164).
If in a conversation you should find yourself cut off without escape among strangers and aliens, you may be silent for a while (cf. 164) Refuse altogether to take an oath if you can; if not, as far as may be (166).
A fine man can only with difficulty escape defilement if his associates are impure (cf. 167).
Disdain all that makes for foolish show and luxury (cf. 168).
Avoid provoking unmeritorious laughter. To border on coarse talk is also dangerous (cf. 171).
You can show that you are displeased with a subject (cf. 171).
When you have decided that a thing ought to be done, even though the multitude should be likely to judge the matter amiss, shun being seen doing it. Fear misplaced censure (opp. 172).
Bodily exercises, eating, drinking, and the other bodily functions should take the second place in a life (cf. 173).
At a banquet, do not discuss how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought. Remember that Socrates thus entirely avoided ostentation. (175)
Among the unlearned and ill-learned you run great risk of spewing up what you have ill digested (cf. 175)
When a man tells you that you know nothing and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun the fit work (cf. 175).
At feasts, remember that you are entertaining two guests, body and soul (178, excerpt).
Diogenes, who was sent as a spy long before you, says that Death need not even bring shame with it. He says that Fame is but the empty noise of madmen. And to be clothed in sackcloth is better than any purple robe. "There is no enemy near," he cries (187).
All things are full of peace, full of tranquillity. There is really no Hades, no fabled rivers of Sighs, as all things are full of spiritual and divine beings. The right man is neither helpless nor alone! (cf. 188)
What would you be found doing when overtaken by Death? Let me hope at least for this: That I may be found raising up in myself that which had fallen (cf. 189).
Crows pick out the eyes of the dead when the dead have no longer need of them; but flatterers mar the soul of the living, and her eyes they blind (4).
Keep neither a blunt knife nor an ill-disciplined looseness of tongue (5).
Nature has given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak (6).
The anger of an ape and the threat of a flatterer deserve equal regard (13).
Choose the life that is noblest if custom can make it sweet to you (cf. 20).
As the Sun does not wait for prayers and incantations to rise but shines forth and is welcomed by all, do not wait for clapping of hands and shouts and praise to do your duty (22).
Do good of your own accord, and you will be loved like a sun (cf. 22).
Epictetus. The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. Tr. Hastings Crossley. Urbana, IL: The Gutenberg Project, 2006 (1925).
Manis, Jim, ed. The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. Hazleton, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1998.
Seddon, Keith. Epictetusí Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis / Routledge, 2006.
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