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The Discourses



Epictetus (ca. AD 50-ca. 130) was one of the most important teachers of Stoicism. The son of a slave woman and himself a slave for many years, he was given his freedom sometime after the death of the Roman Emperor Nero in AD 68. He exiled by the emperor Domitian to Epirus where he established a school at which he taught logic, physics and ethics. 

The Discourses are a collection of class notes taken by Flavius Arrianus, one of his students.

Of Providence

From everything which is or happens in the world, it is easy to praise Providence, if a man possesses these two qualities, the faculty of seeing what belongs and happens to all persons and things, and a grateful disposition. If he does not possess these two qualities, one man will not see the use of things which are and which happen; another will not be thankful for them, even if he does know them. If God had made colours, but had not made the faculty of seeing them, what would have been their use? None at all. On the other hand, if He had made the faculty of vision, but had not made objects such as to fall under the faculty, what in that case also would have been the use of it? None at all. Well, suppose that He had made both, but had not made light? In that case, also, they would have been of no use. Who is it, then, who has fitted this to that and that to this? And who is it that has fitted the knife to the case and the case to the knife? Is it no one? And, indeed, from the very structure of things which have attained their completion, we are accustomed to show that the work is certainly the act of some artificer and that it has not been constructed without a purpose. Does then each of these things demonstrate the workman, and do not visible things and the faculty of seeing and light demonstrate Him? And the existence of male and female, and the desire of each for conjunction, and the power of using the parts which are constructed, do not even these declare the workman? If they do not, let us consider the constitution of our understanding according to which, when we meet with sensible objects, we simply receive impressions from them, but we also select something from them, and subtract something, and add, and compound by means of them these things or those, and, in fact, pass from some to other things which, in a manner, resemble them: is not even this sufficient to move some men, and to induce them not to forget the workman? If not so, let them explain to us what it is that makes each several thing, or how it is possible that things so wonderful and like the contrivances of art should exist by chance and from their own proper motion?

Of Providence (Continued)

Do not wonder if for other animals than man all things are provided for the body, not only food and drink, but beds also, and they have no need of shoes nor bed materials, nor clothing; but we require all these additional things. For animals, not being made for themselves, but for service, it was not fit for them to he made so as to need other things. For consider what it would be for us to take care not only of ourselves, but also about cattle and asses, how they should be clothed, and how shod, and how they should eat and drink. Now as soldiers are ready for their commander, shod, clothed and armed: but it would be a hard thing, for the chiliarch to go round and shoe or clothe his thousand men; so also nature has formed the animals which are made for service, all ready, prepared, and requiring no further care. So one little boy with only a stick drives the cattle.

But now we, instead of being thankful that we need not take the same care of animals as of ourselves, complain of God on our own account; and yet, in the name of Zeus and the gods, any one thing of those which exist would be enough to make a man perceive the providence of God, at least a man who is modest and grateful. And speak not to me now of the great things, but only of things, that milk is produced from grass, and cheese from milk, and wool from skins. Who made these things or devised them? "No one," you say. Oh, amazing shamelessness and stupidity!

Well, let us omit the works of nature and contemplate her smaller acts. Is there anything less useful than the hair on the chin? What then, has not nature used this hair also in the most suitable manner possible? Has she not by it distinguished the male and the female? does not the nature of every man forthwith proclaim from a distance, "I am a man; as such approach me, as such speak to me; look for nothing else; see the signs"? Again, in the case of women, as she has mingled something softer in the voice, so she has also deprived them of hair (on the chin). You say: "Not so; the human animal ought to have been left without marks of distinction, and each of us should have been obliged to proclaim, 'I am a man.' But how is not the sign beautiful and becoming, and venerable? how much more beautiful than the cock's comb, how much more becoming than the lion's mane? For this reason we ought to preserve the signs which God has given, we ought not to throw them away, nor to confound, as much as we can, the distinctions of the sexes.

Are these the only works of providence in us? And what words are sufficient to praise them and set them forth according to their worth? For if we had understanding, ought we to do anything else both jointly and severally than to sing hymns and bless the deity and to tell of his benefits? Ought we not, when we are digging and ploughing and eating, to sing this hymn to God? "Great is God, who has given us such implements with which we shall cultivate the earth: great is God who has given us hands, the power of swallowing, a stomach, imperceptible growth, and the power of breathing while we sleep." This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and to sing the greatest and most divine hymn for giving us the faculty of comprehending these things and using a proper way. Well then, since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be some man to fill this office, and on behalf of all to sing the hymn to God? For what else can I do, a lame old man, than sing hymns to God? If then I was a nightingale, I would do the part of a nightingale; if I were a swan, I would do like a swan. But now I am a rational creature, and I ought to praise God. This is my work; I do it, nor will I desert this post, so long as I am allowed to keep it, and I exhort you to join in this same song.

What Is The Law Of Life

When a person was reading hypothetical arguments, Epictetus said: This also is a hypothetical law that we must accept what follows from the hypothesis. But much before this law is the law of life, that we must act conformably to nature. For if in every matter and circumstance we wish to observe what is natural, it is plain that in everything we ought to make it our aim that its consequence shall not escape us, and that we do not admit the contradictory. First, then, philosophers exercise us in theory, which is easier; and then next they lead us to the more difficult things; for in theory, there is nothing which draws us away from following what is taught; but in the matters of life, many are the things which distract us. He is ridiculous, then, who says that he wishes to begin with the matters of real life, for it is not easy to begin with the more difficult things; and we ought to employ this fact as an argument to those parents who are vexed at their children learning philosophy: "Am I doing wrong then, my father, and do I not know what is suitable to me and becoming? If indeed this can neither be learned nor taught, why do you blame me? But if it can he taught, teach me; and if you cannot, allow me to learn from those who say that they know how to teach. For what do you think? Do you suppose that I voluntarily fall into evil and miss the good? I hope that it may not be so. What is then the cause of my doing wrong? Ignorance. Do you not choose then that I should get rid of my ignorance? Who was ever taught by anger the art of a pilot or music? Do you think then that by means of your anger I shall learn the art of life?" He only is allowed to speak in this way who has shown such an intention. But if a man only intending to make a display at a banquet and to show that he is acquainted with hypothetical arguments reads them and attends the philosophers, what other object has he than that some man of senatorian rank who sits by him may admire? For there are the really great materials, and the riches here appear to be trifles there. This is the reason why it is difficult for a man to be master of the appearances, where the things which disturb the judgment are great. I know a certain person who complained, as he embraced the knees of Epaphroditus, that he had only one hundred and fifty times ten thousand denarii's remaining. What then did Epaphroditus do? Did he laugh at him, as we slaves of Epaphroditus did? No, but he cried out with amazement, "Poor man, how did you keep silence, how did you endure it?"

About Freedom

He is free who lives as he wishes to live; who is neither subject to compulsion nor to hindrance, nor to force; whose movements to action are not impeded, whose desires attain their purpose, and who does not fall into that which he would avoid. Who, then, chooses to live in error? No man. Who chooses to live deceived, liable to mistake, unjust, unrestrained, discontented, mean? No man. Not one then of the bad lives as he wishes; nor is he, then, free. And who chooses to live in sorrow, fear, envy, pity, desiring and failing in his desires, attempting to avoid something and falling into it? Not one. Do we then find any of the bad free from sorrow, free from fear, who does not fall into that which he would avoid, and does not obtain that which he wishes? Not one; nor then do we find any bad man free. What, then, is that which makes a man free from hindrance and makes him his own master? For wealth does not do it, nor consulship, nor provincial government, nor royal power; but something else must be discovered. What then is that which, when we write, makes us free from hindrance and unimpeded? "The knowledge of the art of writing." What, then, is it in playing the lute? "The science of playing the lute." Therefore in life also it is the science of life.

Whether, then, have you nothing which is in your own power, which depends on yourself only and cannot be taken from you, or have you anything of the kind? "I know not." Look at the thing, then, thus, examine it. Is any man able to make you assent to that which is false? "No man." In the matter of assent, then, you are free from hindrance and obstruction. "Granted." Well; and can a man force you to desire to move toward that to which you do not choose? "He can, for when he threatens me with death or bonds, he compels me to desire to move toward it." If, then, you despise death and bonds, do you still pay any regard to him? "No." Is, then, the despising of death an act of your own, or is it not yours? "It is my act." It is your own act, then, also to desire to move toward a thing: or is it not so? "It is my own act." But to desire to move away from a thing, whose act is that? This also is your act. "What, then, if I have attempted to walk, suppose another should hinder me." What part of you does he hinder? Does he hinder the faculty of assent? "No: but my poor body." Yes, as he would do with a stone. "Granted, but I no longer walk." And who told you that walking is your act free from hindrance? For I said that this only was free from hindrance, to desire to move, but where there is need of body and its co-operation, you have heard long ago that nothing is your own. "Granted also." And who can compel you to desire what you do not wish? "No man." And to propose, or intend, or in short to make use of the appearances which present themselves, can any man compel you? "He cannot do this, but he will hinder me when I desire from obtaining what I desire." If you desire anything which is your own, and one of the things which cannot be hindered, how will he hinder you? "He cannot in any way." Who, then, tells you that he who desires the things that belong to another is free from hindrance?

Translator unknown. From the e-text at gopher://gopher.vt.ed:10010/02/80/1


Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller timemaster@thenagain.info. All rights reserved.