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1 - Concerning what is in our power and what is not

[1] In general, you will find no art or faculty that can analyse itself, therefore none that can approve or disapprove of itself. [2] The art of grammar is restricted to analysing and commenting on literature. Music is confined to the analysis of harmony. [3] Consequently neither of them analyses itself. Now, if you are writing to a friend, the art of grammar will help you decide what words to use; but it will not tell you whether it is a good idea to write to your friend in the first place. Music is no different; whether this is a good time to sing and play, or a bad one, the art of music by itself cannot decide.

[4] So what can? The faculty that analyses itself as well as the others, namely, the faculty of reason. Reason is unique among the faculties assigned to us in being able to evaluate itself – what it is, what it is capable of, how valuable it is – in addition to passing judgement on others.

[5] What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. [6] Reason, in addition, takes the measure of music, grammar and the other arts, judging their benefit and deciding when it’s best to use them.

[7] So it’s only appropriate that the gods have given us the best and most efficacious gift: the ability to make good use of impressions. Other capacities they did not put in our power. [8] Was it because they did not want to? Personally, I believe that they would have endowed us with those others too, had they been able. But they were not. [9] Since we are on earth, you see, bound to a material body and material things, we can hardly avoid being limited by these extraneous factors.

[10] Well, what does Zeus say? ‘Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. [11] As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay. [12] And since I could not make the body yours, I have given you a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion – the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone. [13] Is that enough to satisfy you?’
‘It’s more than enough. Thank you.’

[14] And yet, while there is only the one thing we can care for and devote ourselves to, we choose instead to care about and attach ourselves to a score of others: to our bodies, to our property, to our family, friends and slaves. [15] And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them. [16] If the weather keeps us from travelling, we sit down, fret, and keep asking, ‘Which way is the wind blowing?’ ‘From the north.’ ‘That’s no good. When will it blow from the west?’ ‘When it wants to, or rather when Aeolus wants it to; because God put Aeolus in charge of the winds, not you.’ [17] What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.

[18] ‘Must I be beheaded now, and alone?’ Well, do you want everyone to be beheaded just because misery loves company? [19] Why not hold out your neck the way Lateranus did at Rome, when condemned by Nero to be beheaded? He held out his neck willingly to take the blow – but the blow was deficient, so he recoiled a bit, but then had enough self-command to offer his neck a second time. [20] And prior to that, when Epaphroditus, Nero’s freedman, approached a certain man and asked him about the grounds of his offence, he replied, ‘If I want anything, I will tell it to your master.’

[21] What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do. [22] I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?

‘Tell us your secrets.’
[23] ‘I refuse, as this is up to me.’
‘I will put you in chains.’
‘What’s that you say, friend? It’s only my leg you will chain, not even God can conquer my will.’
[24] ‘I will throw you into prison.’
‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’
‘I will behead you.’
‘Well, when did I ever claim that mine was the only neck that couldn’t be severed?’
[25] That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate if you would be a philosopher, the sort of sentiments you should write down every day and put in practice.

[26] Thrasea used to say, ‘I would sooner be killed today than banished tomorrow.’ [27] And what did Musonius say to him? ‘If you choose death because it is the greater evil, what sense is there in that? Or if you choose it as the lesser evil, remember who gave you the choice. Why not try coming to terms with what you have been given?’
[28] Agrippinus used to say, ‘I don’t add to my troubles.’ To illustrate, someone once said to him, ‘You are being tried in the Senate – [29] good luck.’ But it was eleven in the morning, and at that hour he was in the habit of taking his bath and exercise. ‘Let us be off to exercise.’ [30] When he was done, word came that he had been condemned. ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or death?’ ‘Exile.’ ‘And my estate, what about that?’ ‘It has not been confiscated.’ ‘Well then, let us go to my villa in Aricia and have lunch there.’ [31] This shows what is possible when we practise what is necessary, and make our desire and aversion safe against any setback or adversity. [32] ‘I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.’ How? As someone who knows that you have to return what belongs to somebody else.

2 -How a person can preserve their proper character in any situation

[1] Man, the rational animal, can put up with anything except what seems to him irrational; whatever is rational is tolerable. [2] Physical hardships are not intolerable by nature. The Spartans, for instance, gladly submit to being whipped because they are taught that it is done for good reason. [3] But what about being hanged – isn’t that intolerable? Well, people frequently go and hang themselves, whenever they judge that it is a reasonable course of action.

[4] In short, reflection will show that people are put off by nothing so much as what they think is unreasonable, and attracted to nothing more than what to them seems reasonable.
[5] But standards of reasonableness and unreasonableness vary from one person to the next – just as we consider different things good or bad, harmful or beneficial. [6] Which is why education has no goal more important than bringing our preconception of what is reasonable and unreasonable in alignment with nature.

[7] But this not only involves weighing the value of externals, it also means considering what agrees with our own, individual nature. [8] For one person it is reasonable to be a bathroom attendant, because he only thinks about what punishment and privation lie in wait for him otherwise, and knows that if he accepts the assignment he will be spared that pain and hardship. [9] Someone else not only finds such a job intolerable for him personally, but finds it intolerable that anyone should have to perform it. [10] But ask me, ‘Shall I be a bathroom attendant or not?’ and I will tell you that earning a living is better than starving to death; so that if you measure your interests by these criteria, go ahead and do it. [11] ‘But it would be beneath my dignity.’ Well, that is an additional factor that you bring to the question, not me. You are the one who knows yourself – which is to say, you know how much you are worth in your own estimation, and therefore at what price you will sell yourself; because people sell themselves at different rates.

[15] So if you want to know if life or death is better, the answer I give is, ‘Life.’ [16] If you ask about pain versus pleasure, I say, ‘Pleasure is preferable.’
‘But if I refuse to participate in Nero’s festival, he will kill me.’
[17] Go ahead and participate, then – but I still refuse.
Because you think of yourself as no more than a single thread in the robe, whose duty it is to conform to the mass of people – just as a single white thread seemingly has no wish to clash with the remainder of the garment. [18] But I aspire to be the purple stripe, that is, the garment’s brilliant hem. However small a part it may be, it can still manage to make the garment as a whole attractive. Don’t tell me, then, ‘Be like the rest,’ because in that case I cannot be the purple stripe.

[19] In his actions Helvidius Priscus showed his awareness of this principle. When Emperor Vespasian sent him word barring him from the Senate, his response was, ‘You can disqualify me as a senator. But as long as I do remain a member I must join the assembly.’ [20] ‘Well join, then, but don’t say anything.’ ‘Don’t call on me for my vote and I won’t say anything.’ ‘But I must call on you for your vote.’ ‘And I have to give whatever answer I think is right.’ [21] ‘Answer, and I will kill you.’ ‘Did I ever say I was immortal? You do your part, and I will do mine. It is your part to kill me, mine to die without flinching; your part to exile me, mine to leave without protest.’

[22] And what did Priscus accomplish, who was but a single man? Well, what good does the purple stripe do the robe? Its lustre is a good example to the rest. [23] If it had been someone else in the same situation whom the emperor barred from entering the Senate, he would have probably said, ‘I’m so grateful you can spare me.’ [24] In fact, the emperor would not have even bothered to bar him, well aware that the man would either sit there like a blockhead or, if he did speak, would only mouth words he knew that Caesar wanted to hear – and would pile additional inanities on besides.

[25] A certain athlete, at risk of dying unless his genitals were amputated, made a comparable choice. His brother, a philosopher, went and asked him, ‘Well, my brother, what’s it going to be? Will you have them amputated, and return to life in the gymnasium?’ The man refused to submit to the indignity, however, and summoned the will to die. [26] Someone asked, ‘Did he choose death as an athlete or as a philosopher?’ ‘As a man,’ Epictetus said, ‘one who had competed at the level of the Olympic Games, where he was a familiar figure, and a victor more than once – no occasional visitor to the local gym. [27] Someone else might have even allowed his head to be removed, if his life could have been saved thereby.’ [28] That’s what I mean by having consideration for one’s character. And it shows how weighty a factor it can be when it is allowed a regular role in one’s deliberations.

[29] ‘Come, Epictetus, shave off your beard.’
If I am a philosopher, I will not shave it off.
‘But I will cut off your head.’
If that will do you any good, then cut it off.
[30] Someone asked, ‘But how do we know what is in keeping with our character?’
Well, how does the bull realize its own strength, rushing out to protect the whole herd when a lion attacks? The possession of a particular talent is instinctively sensed by its owner; [31] so if any of you are so blessed you will be the first to know it. [32] It is true, however, that no bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight. We must endure a winter training, and can’t be dashing into situations for which we aren’t yet prepared.

[33] Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap. The grand gesture, the ultimate sacrifice – that, perhaps, belongs to others, to people of Socrates’ class. [34] ‘But if we are endowed by nature with the potential for greatness, why do only some of us achieve it?’ Well, do all horses become stallions? Are all dogs greyhounds? [35] Even if I lack the talent, I will not abandon the effort on that account. [36] Epictetus will not be better than Socrates. But if I am no worse, I am satisfied. [37] I mean, I will never be Milo either; nevertheless, I don’t neglect my body. Nor will I be another Croesus – and still, I don’t neglect my property. In short, we do not abandon any discipline for despair of ever being the best in it.

3 - On satisfaction

[1] On the subject of the gods, there are those who deny the existence of divinity outright. Others say that God exists, but is idle and indifferent and does not pay attention to anything. [2] A third group says that God exists and is attentive, but only to the workings of the heavens, never affairs on earth. A fourth group says that he does attend to earthly affairs, including the welfare of humanity, but only in a general way, without worrying about individuals. [3] And then there is a fifth group, Odysseus and Socrates among them, who say that ‘I cannot make a move without God’s notice.’

[4] Before doing anything else we need to examine these views separately to decide which are true and which are false. [5] Because if the gods do not exist, what sense can be made of the command to ‘follow the gods’? And how can it be a sensible goal if they exist, but do not have any cares? [6] Even supposing that they exist and care, if that care does not extend to people, and, in point of fact, to me personally, it is still no worthwhile goal.

[7] The intelligent person, after due consideration of the question, will decide to submit his will to the ruler of the universe, as good citizens submit to the laws of the state.

[8] Education should be approached with this goal in mind: ‘How can I personally follow the gods always, and how can I adapt to God’s government, and so be free?’ [9] Freedom, you see, is having events go in accordance with our will, never contrary to it.

[10] Well – is freedom the same as madness? Of course not. Madness and freedom are poles apart. [11] ‘But I want my wishes realized, never mind the reason behind them.’ [12] Now, that’s madness, that’s insanity. Freedom is something good and valuable; to wish arbitrarily for things to happen that arbitrarily seem to you best is not good, it’s disgraceful.

How do we approach the practice of writing? [13] Do I want to write the name ‘Dion’ whatever way I please? No, I learn to want to write it the way it is supposed to be written. The case is the same with music, [14] the same with every art and science; it would not be worth the trouble to learn them, otherwise, if they accommodated everyone’s wishes. [15] And freedom, the greatest possession of all, is the last thing you would expect to be different, where wishes are given carte blanche. Getting an education means learning to bring our will in line with the way things happen – which is to say, as the ruler of the universe arranged. [16] He arranged for there to be summer and winter, abundance and lack, virtue and vice – all such opposites meant for the harmony of the whole; and he gave us each a body and bodily parts, material belongings, family and friends.

[17] It is with this arrangement in mind that we should approach instruction, not to alter the facts – since this is neither allowed, nor is it better that it should be – but in order to learn the nature of what concerns us, and keep our will in line with events. [18] Can we avoid people? How is that possible? And if we associate with them, can we change them? Who gives us that power? [19] What is the alternative – what means can be found for dealing with them? One that ensures that we remain true to our nature, however other people see fit to behave. [20] That’s not what you do, though. No, you gripe and protest against circumstance. If you’re alone, you call it desolation, if you’re in company you describe them all as swindlers and backstabbers; you curse your own parents, your children, your siblings and neighbours. [21] When you are by yourself you should call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal. When you’re with a large group you shouldn’t say you’re in a mob or crowd, but a guest at a feast or festival – and in that spirit learn to enjoy it.

What is the downside for those who refuse to accept it? To be just as they are. [22] Is someone unhappy being alone? Leave him to his isolation. Is someone unhappy with his parents? Let him be a bad son, and grumble. Is someone unhappy with his children? Let him be a bad father. [23] ‘Throw him in jail.’ What jail? The one he is in already, since he is there against his will; and if he is there against his will then he is imprisoned. Conversely, Socrates was not in prison because he chose to be there.

[24] ‘But my leg is crippled.’
Slave, are you going to be at odds with the world because of one lame leg? Shouldn’t you rather make the world a gift of it, and gladly return it to the one who gave it to you originally? [25] Are you going to make Zeus your enemy, and set your face against the Fates, with whom Zeus spun the thread of your destiny at the moment you were born, laying out his plans for you?

[26] You ought to realize, you take up very little space in the world as a whole – your body, that is; in reason, however, you yield to no one, not even to the gods, because reason is not measured in size but sense. [27] So why not care for that side of you, where you and the gods are equals?

[28] ‘It’s my bad luck to have awful parents.’
Well, you couldn’t very well choose them beforehand, saying, ‘Let this man have intercourse with this woman, at this particular, so that I can be conceived.’ [29] Your parents had to come first, then you had to be born the way you are, of parents the way they are.
[30] Does that mean you have to be miserable? Let’s suppose you didn’t understand what you had the power of vision for; it would be your bad luck if you decided to close your eyes just at the moment a beautiful painting passed before you. You are even unluckier for being oblivious to the fact that you have the power of patience to deal with your difficulties. [31] You forget the virtues of character you have in reserve, just when problems that they can control present themselves, and you could use their help.

[32] You should thank the gods for making you strong enough to survive what you cannot control, and only responsible for what you can. [33] The gods have released you from accountability for your parents, your siblings, your body, your possessions – for death and for life itself. [34] They made you responsible only for what is in your power – the proper use of impressions. [35] So why take on the burden of matters which you cannot answer for? You are only making unnecessary problems for yourself.

4 - How we should struggle with circumstance