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The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, [1916], at

p. 373



In regard to intellectual impressions it is generally agreed that good and evil depend upon us and not upon external things. No one calls the proposition, 'It is day', good, or 'It is night', bad, or 'Three is four', the greatest of evils. No, they say that knowledge is good and error evil, so that good may arise even in regard to what is false; that is, the knowledge that it is false. The same ought to be true in practical life.

'Is health good, and disease evil?'

No, man.

'What then?'

To use health well is good, to use it ill is evil.

'Do you mean that benefit can be gained even from disease?'

By heaven, can it not be gained even from death, ay or from lameness? Do you think Menoeceus gained but little good by his death? 'Nay, if any one says that sort of thing, I wish him a benefit like that Menoeceus gained!'

Out upon you, man, did he not preserve the patriot, the man of great mind, trustworthy and noble? And if he had lived on, was he not bound to lose all these, and win their very opposite? Would he not in that case have assumed the character of the coward, the ignoble, the hater of his country and lover of his life? Go to, do you think he gained but little good by his death? Well, did Admetus' father gain great good by living on so ignobly and miserably? Did he not die afterwards? I adjure you by the gods, cease to admire material things, cease to make yourselves slaves, first of things, and next, for their sake, of men who can acquire them or take them away.

'Can we then get benefit from these things?'

From all.

'Even from one who reviles us?'

Why, what good does the athlete get from the man who wrestles with him? The greatest. So my reviler helps to train me for the contest: he trains me to be patient, dispassionate, gentle. You deny it? You admit that the man who grips my neck and gets my loins and shoulders into order does me good, and the trainer does well to bid me 'lift the pestle with both hands', and the more severe he is, the more good do I get: and are you going to tell me that he who trains me to be free from anger does me no good? That means that you do not know how to get any good from humankind.

p. 374

'He is a bad neighbour', you say?

Yes, for himself: but he is good for me; he trains me to be considerate and fair-minded.

'A bad father.'

Yes, for himself, but not for me. This is the magic wand of Hermes. 'Touch what you will', he says, 'and it will turn to gold.' Nay, bring what you will and I will turn it to good. Bring illness, bring death, bring poverty, bring reviling, bring the utmost peril of the law-court: the wand of Hermes will turn them all to good purpose!

'What will you make of death?'

What else but an adornment for you, what else but a means for you to show in deed what man is when he follows the will of nature? 'What will you make of sickness?'

I will show its nature, I will shine in it. I will be firm and tranquil, I will not flatter my physician nor pray for death. What more do you look for? Whatever you give me I will make it a means of blessedness and happiness, make it dignified and admirable.

That is not your way. You say, 'See you do not fall ill, it is an evil.' It is like saying, 'See you do not get an impression that three is four, it is an evil.' Man, how is it an evil? If 'I get a right notion of it, it cannot harm me any more. Will it not rather do me good? If then I have proper notions of poverty, of sickness, of life without office, is not that enough for me? Will they not serve my good? How then should I seek any more for good and evil in things external?

But we do not act on this. We carry these views to the lecture-room door, but no one takes them home: as soon as we leave here we are at war with our slave-boy, with our neighbours, with those who jeer and laugh at us. Good luck to the Lesbian, 3-13 for he convicts me every day of knowing nothing.

Next: Chapter XXI. To Those Who Undertake the Profession of Teacher With A Light Heart