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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From the Discourses

By Epictetus (c. 50–c. 138)

From Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s ‘Discourses of Epictetus,’ Revised Edition, Boston, 1891

The Divine Supervision

WHEN a person asked him how any one might be convinced that his every act is under the supervision of God: “Do you not think,” said Epictetus, “that all things are mutually connected and united?”

“I do.”

“Well, and do not you think that things on earth feel the influence of the Heavenly powers?”


“Else how is it that in their season, as if by express command, God bids the plants to blossom and they blossom, to bud and they bud, to bear fruit and they bear it, to ripen it and they ripen; and when again he bids them drop their leaves, and withdrawing into themselves to rest and wait, they rest and wait? Whence again are there seen, on the increase and decrease of the moon, and the approach and departure of the sun, so great changes and transformations in earthly things? Have then the very leaves, and our own bodies, this connection and sympathy with the whole; and have not our souls much more? But our souls are thus connected and intimately joined to God, as being indeed members and distinct portions of his essence; and must he not be sensible of every movement of them, as belonging and connatural to himself? Can even you think of the Divine administration, and every other Divine subject, and together with these of human affairs also; can you at once receive impressions on your senses and your understanding from a thousand objects; at once assent to some things, deny or suspend your judgment concerning others, and preserve in your mind impressions from so many and various objects, by whose aid you can revert to ideas similar to those which first impressed you? Can you retain a variety of arts and the memorials of ten thousand things? And is not God capable of surveying all things, and being present with all, and in communication with all? Is the sun capable of illuminating so great a portion of the universe, and of leaving only that small part of it unilluminated which is covered by the shadow of the earth; and cannot He who made and moves the sun, a small part of himself if compared with the whole,—cannot he perceive all things?

“‘But I cannot,’ say you, ‘attend to all things at once.’ Who asserts that you have equal power with Zeus? Nevertheless, he has assigned to each man a director, his own good genius, and committed him to that guardianship,—a director sleepless and not to be deceived. To what better and more careful guardian could he have committed each one of us? So that when you have shut your doors and darkened your room, remember never to say that you are alone; for you are not alone, but God is within, and your genius is within; and what need have they of light to see what you are doing? To this God you likewise ought to swear such an oath as the soldiers do to Cæsar. For they, in order to receive their pay, swear to prefer before all things the safety of Cæsar: and will you not swear, who have received so many and so great favors; or if you have sworn, will you not fulfill the oath? And what must you swear? Never to distrust, nor accuse, nor murmur at any of the things appointed by him; nor to shrink from doing or enduring that which is inevitable. Is this oath like the former? In the first oath persons swear never to dishonor Cæsar; by the last, never to dishonor themselves.”

Concerning Providence

“ARE these the only works of Providence with regard to us? And what speech can fitly celebrate their praise? For if we had any understanding, ought we not, both in public and in private, incessantly to sing and praise the Deity, and rehearse his benefits? Ought we not, whether we dig or plow or eat, to sing this hymn to God:—Great is God, who has supplied us with these instruments to till the ground; great is God, who has given us hands and organs of digestion; who has given us to grow insensibly, to breathe in sleep? These things we ought forever to celebrate; and to make it the theme of the greatest and divinest hymn, that he has given us the power to appreciate these gifts, and to use them well. But because the most of you are blind and insensible, there must be some one to fill this station, and lead, in behalf of all men, the hymn to God; for what else can I do, a lame old man, but sing hymns to God? Were I a nightingale, I would act the part of a nightingale; were I a swan, the part of a swan; but since I am a reasonable creature, it is my duty to praise God. This is my business; I do it; nor will I ever desert this post, so long as it is permitted me: and I call on you to join in the same song.”

Concerning Parentage

WHY do you, Epicurus, dissuade a wise man from bringing up children? Why are you afraid that upon their account he may fall into anxieties? Does he fall into any for a mouse that feeds within his house? What is it to him if a little mouse bewails itself there? But Epicurus knew that if once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love and be solicitous for it. On the same grounds he says that a wise man will not engage himself in public business, knowing very well what must follow. If men are only so many flies, why should he not engage in it?

And does he, who knows all this, dare to forbid us to bring up children? Not even a sheep or a wolf deserts its offspring; and shall man? What would you have,—that we should be as silly as sheep? Yet even these do not desert their offspring. Or as savage as wolves? Neither do these desert them. Pray, who would mind you, if he saw his child fallen upon the ground and crying? For my part, I am of opinion that your father and mother, even if they could have foreseen that you would have been the author of such doctrines, would not have thrown you away.

Concerning Difficulties

DIFFICULTIES are things that show what men are. For the future, in case of any difficulty, remember that God, 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, tranquillity, 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.

Words and Deeds

“PRAY, see how I compose dialogues.”

Talk not of that, man, but rather be able to say:—See how I accomplish my purposes; see how I avert what I wish to shun. Set death before me; set pain, a prison, disgrace, doom, and you will know me. This should be the pride of a young man come out from the schools. Leave the rest to others. Let no one ever hear you waste a word upon them, nor suffer it, if any one commends you for them; but admit that you are nobody, and that you know nothing. Appear to know only this, never to fail nor fall. Let others study cases, problems, and syllogisms. Do you rather contemplate death, change, torture, exile; and all these with courage, and reliance upon Him who hath called you to them, and judged you worthy a post in which you may show what reason can do when it encounters the inevitable.

Of Tranquillity

CONSIDER, you who are about to undergo trial, what you wish to preserve, and in what to succeed. For if you wish to preserve a mind in harmony with nature, you are entirely safe; everything goes well; you have no trouble on your hands. While you wish to preserve that freedom which belongs to you, and are contented with that, for what have you longer to be anxious? For who is the master of things like these? Who can take them away? If you wish to be a man of modesty and fidelity, who shall prevent you? If you wish not to be restrained or compelled, who shall compel you to desires contrary to your principles; to aversions contrary to your opinion? The judge, perhaps, will pass a sentence against you which he thinks formidable; but can he likewise make you receive it with shrinking? Since, then, desire and aversion are in your own power, for what have you to be anxious? Let this be your introduction; this your narration; this your proof; this your conclusion; this your victory; and this your applause. Thus said Socrates to one who put him in mind to prepare himself for his trial:—“Do you not think that I have been preparing myself for this very thing my whole life long?” By what kind of preparation? “I have attended to my own work.” What mean you? “I have done nothing unjust, either in public or in private life.”

But if you wish to retain possession of outward things too,—your body, your estate, your dignity,—I advise you immediately to prepare yourself by every possible preparation; and besides, to consider the disposition of your judge and of your adversary. In that case, if it be necessary to embrace his knees, do so; if to weep, weep; if to groan, groan. For when you have once made yourself a slave to externals, be a slave wholly; do not struggle, and be alternately willing and unwilling, but be simply and thoroughly the one or the other,—free or a slave; instructed or ignorant; a game-cock or a craven; either bear to be beaten till you die, or give out at once; and do not be soundly beaten first, and then give out at last.