Discourses and Selected Writings - Robert Dobbin

How much do I want to read more? 9/10

So lovely and magical to read to simplet, yet pure way of living.


Epictetus: ‘The gods have given us the best and most efficacious gift,’ he writes, ‘the ability to make good use of impressions.
‘Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test”’
These functions of mind define the sphere of ‘choice’. how we act, for determining the character and content of our lives.

no one does wrong willingly;
harming another hurts the offender rather than the injured party;
material ‘goods’ can do as much harm as good;

our thoughts and actions have immediate and inescapable consequences: ‘You have only to doze for a moment, and all is lost. For ruin and salvation both have their source inside you’.
‘Very little is needed for everything to be upset and ruined, only a slight lapse in reason’.


Marcus Aurelius, in the acknowledgements at the head of his Meditations, mentions the discovery of a copy of the Discourses as a crucial event in his own intellectual development.

the Enchiridion was adapted to monastic use and in its Christian habit served the monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church for centuries as an ascetic rulebook.

we must not become attached to material things (represented by the island and its foodstuffs), because they will invariably be taken away from us when the ship relaunches.

The first printed edition of the Discourses appeared in Venice in 1535;

Two of the greatest minds of the seventeenth century witness to the fact that Epictetus survived the transition to the modern era with no loss in reputation. Pascal, in his ‘Discussion with Monsieur de Sacy’, praises Epictetus for his delineation of human duties and his recommendation that we submit to the will of a providential God. He objects, however, to the assumption, common among ancient philosophers, that human nature was perfectible without the need of God’s grace.
"[Epictetus] believes that God gave man the means to fulfill all his obligations; that these means are within his power, that happiness is attained through what we are capable of, this being the reason God gave them to us. Our mind cannot be forced to believe what is false, nor our will compelled to love something that makes it unhappy. These two powers are therefore free, and it is through them that we can become perfect."

Pascal’s contemporary Descartes was deeply affected by his reading of Epictetus, and he seized on one of the philosopher’s most original moves.
In Descartes too we find a close fit between the method of doubt he adopts regarding the truth of our impressions and opinions and his philosophy of life.
"The aim of our studies should be to direct the mind with a view to forming true and sound judgments about whatever comes before it… [A person should consider] how to increase the natural light of his reason… in order that his intellect should show his will what decision it ought to make in each of life’s contingencies."

"I undertook to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world, and to accustom myself to believe that nothing is entirely in our power except our own thoughts… Here, I think, is the secret of those ancient philosophers who were able to free themselves from the tyranny of fortune, or, despite suffering and poverty, to rival the gods in happiness."

Psychologist Albert Ellis has acknowledged Epictetus as one of the chief inspirations behind the development of Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), arguably the foremost modality in counselling today.
‘It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them’
our emotional responses to upsetting actions – not the actions themselves – are what create anxiety and depression;
our emotional responses are products of our judgements;
‘Much of what we call emotion is nothing more nor less than a certain kind – a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind – of thought. What we call feelings almost always have a pronounced evaluating or appraisal element.’

"Someone says, I don’t like leisure, it’s boring; I don’t like crowds, they’re a nuisance. But if events ordain that you spend time either alone or with just a few other people, look upon it as tranquillity and play along with it for the duration. Talk to yourself, train your thoughts and shape your preconceptions."

Michel Foucault singled out Epictetus for his contribution to what he called ‘technologies of the self’: refined procedures whereby a person learns to control his feelings, thoughts and desires.


I have not ‘composed’ them at all. whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could, as a record for later use of his thought and frank expression.
I little care whether I shall be judged incompetent in the art of composition; and for his part Epictetus does not care at all if anyone should despise his Discourses, since in uttering them he was clearly aiming at nothing except moving the minds of his audience towards what is best.

So if these Discourses achieve that much, they will have exactly the effect that a philosopher’s words, in my opinion, ought to have.
But if not, the reader should realize that, when Epictetus spoke them, his audience could not help but experience just what he intended them to feel. If the Discourses on their own do not achieve this, then perhaps I am to blame or it simply cannot be helped.


I 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]

[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.