The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
When one of his acquaintance, who seemed inclined to the Cynic School, asked him what should be the character of the Cynic, and what was the primary conception of the school, he said, We will consider it at leisure: but this much I can tell you, that he who undertakes so great an enterprise without God's help is under God's wrath, and has no other wish but to disgrace himself in the public eye, for in a well-managed house a man does not come forward and say to himself, 'I ought to be
steward': for, if he does, the master of the house takes notice, and when he sees him swaggering and ordering people about, he drags him away and gives him the lash. So it happens also in this great City of the Universe. Here, too, there is a Master of the House who assigns each thing its place.
'You are the sun: your faculty is to revolve and make the year and the seasons, to give growth and increase to the fruits, to rouse the winds and bring them to rest and to give temperate warmth to men's bodies; go, travel on your course and so move all things from the greatest to the least.'
'You are a calf: when a lion appears, do your part, or you will suffer for it.' 'You are a bull, come near and fight: for this is your proper portion and lies within your powers.' 'You can lead the army against Ilion: be Agamemnon.' 'You can fight Hector in single combat: be Achilles.' But if Thersites came forward and claimed the command he would not get it, or if he got it he would be shamed before a multitude of witnesses.
You, like the rest, must give the matter careful thought: it is not what you think. 'I wear a coarse cloak now and shall do so then, I sleep hard now and shall still do so, I shall take to myself a wallet and a staff and begin to go about begging and reviling those I meet, and if I see any one using pitch-plasters, 3-15 or with his hair finely dressed, or walking in scarlet, I shall rebuke him.' If that is your impression of the Cynic's calling, give it a wide berth: do not come near it, for you have no concern with it; but if you have a true impression of it and still deem yourself not unworthy, then consider what a great enterprise you are taking in hand.
First, you must show a complete change in your conduct, and must cease to accuse God or man: you must utterly put away the will to get, and must will to avoid only what lies within the sphere of your will: you must harbour no anger, wrath, envy, pity: a fair maid, a fair name, favourites, or sweet cakes, must mean nothing to you. For you must know that other men, when they indulge in such things, have the protection of their walls and houses and darkness. There are many things to hide them: one, may be, has closed the door, or has set some one to guard his chamber: 'If any one comes, say, "He is out" or "He is busy."' But the Cynic, instead of all these, should have self-respect for his shelter: if he has not that, he will be naked and exposed and put to shame. This is his house, his door, this his chamber-guards, this his darkness: for he must not wish to conceal anything that is his: if he does, he disappears; he loses the true Cynic, the free open-air spirit, he has begun to fear outward things, he has begun to have need of concealment, and when he would hide himself he cannot; for he has no
place or means to hide himself. But if by chance the public teacher, the 'pedagogue' is caught erring what must be his feelings! Is it possible with these fears before one to be confident with one's whole mind, and command other men? It is impracticable, impossible.
First then you must make your Governing Principle pure, and hold fast this rule of life, 'Henceforth my mind is the material I have to work on, as the carpenter has his timber and the shoemaker his leather: my business is to deal with my impressions aright. My wretched body is nothing to me, its parts are nothing to me. Death? Let it come when it will, whether to my whole body or to a part of it. Exile? Can one be sent into exile beyond the Universe? One cannot. Wherever I go, there is the sun, there is the moon, there are the stars, dreams, auguries, conversation with the gods.'
The true Cynic when he has ordered himself thus cannot be satisfied with this: he must know that he is sent as a messenger from God to men concerning things good and evil, to show them that they have gone astray and are seeking the true nature of good and evil where it is not to be found, and take no thought where it really is: he must realize, in the words of Diogenes when brought before Philip after the battle of Chaeronea, that he is sent 'to reconnoitre'. For indeed the Cynic has to discover what things are friendly to men and what are hostile: and when he has accurately made his observations he must return and report the truth, not driven by fear to point out enemies where there are none, nor in any other way disturbed or confounded by his impressions.
He must then be able, if chance so offer, to come forward on the tragic stage, and with a loud voice utter the words of Socrates: 'O race of men, whither are ye hurrying? What are you doing, miserable creatures? You wander up and down like blind folk: you have left the true path and go away on a vain errand, you seek peace and happiness elsewhere, where it is not to be found, and believe not when another shows the way.' Why do you seek it outside? Do you seek it in the body? It is not there. If you doubt, look at Myron, look at Ophellius. In property? It is not there. If you disbelieve, look at Croesus, look at the rich men of to-day, and see how full their life is of lamentation. In office? It is not there. If it were, then those who have twice or thrice been consuls should be happy, but they are not. Whom shall we trust on this matter? Shall we trust you who look upon their fortune from outside and are dazzled by the outward show, or the men themselves? What do they say? Listen to them, when they lament and sigh, and think their condition to be more miserable and perilous just because of their consulships and glory and distinction. Shall you find it in royalty? It is not there. If it were, Nero would have been happy, and Sardanapalus. Why, even Agamemnon was not happy, though he was a finer
fellow than Sardanapalus and Nero. When the rest were snoring what did he do? 'Many hairs he plucked by the roots from his head', and what did he say himself? 'Thus do I wander and am in agony of spirit, and my heart leaps from my breast.' [Homer, Iliad, X. 15, 91, 94, 95]
Miserable man, what is wrong with your affairs? Is it your property? No. Your body? No. You have 'store of gold and copper'. What is wrong with you then? You have neglected and ruined that in you—whatever it be—wherewith we exercise the will to get and to avoid, the impulse to act and not to act. How have you neglected it? It is ignorant of the true nature of the good to which it is born and of the nature of evil, and of what concerns it and what does not. And so when something that does not concern it is in bad case, it says, 'Woe is me, the Hellenes are in peril!' Oh miserable mind of man, alone neglected and uncared for!
'They are going to perish, slain by the Trojans!'
And if the Trojans slay them not, will they not die?
'Yes, but not all at once.'
What does it matter then? If death is evil; it is equally evil, whether men die alone or together. Will anything else happen, but that body and soul will be separated?
And if the Hellenes perish, is the door closed to you? Is not death within your power?
Why do you mourn then? Bravo! a king indeed, and holding the sceptre of Zeus!
A king cannot be miserable any more than God can be. What are you then? A shepherd in very truth, for you weep just like shepherds when a wolf carries off one of their sheep: yes and these whom you rule are sheep too. And why did you come here? Was there any danger to your will to get or your will to avoid, your impulse for action and against action?
'No,' he says, 'but my brother's poor wife was carried off.'
It is a great gain to be robbed of an adulterous wife.
'Are we then to suffer the scorn of the Trojans?'
What are they? Are they wise or foolish? If they are wise, why do you make war on them? If they are foolish, what does it matter to you?
In what then does the good reside, since it is not in these things? Tell us, Sir Messenger and Spy.
It is where you think not, and will not seek for it. For if you had wished you would have found it in yourselves and would not have wandered outside and would not have sought the things of others as your
own. Turn again to yourselves, learn to understand the primary notions which you have. Of what nature do you imagine the good to be?
'Tranquil, fraught with happiness, unhindered.'
Nay, but do you not imagine it as naturally great? Do you not imagine it as precious? Do you not imagine it as free from harm? I ask you then, in what subject must we seek for that which is tranquil and unhindered? In the slavish or the free?
'In the free.'
Your poor body then, is it slavish or free?
'We know not.'
Do you not know that it is a slave to fever, gout, ophthalmia, dysentery, the tyrant, fire, sword, everything stronger than itself? 'Yes, it is a slave.'
How then can any part of the body be still free from hindrance? How can that which is naturally dead—earth and clay—be great or precious? What then? Have you no element of freedom?
Why, who can compel you to assent to what appears false? 'No one.'
And who to refuse assent to what appears true?
Here then you see that there is something in you which is naturally free. What man among you can have will to get or to avoid, impulse to act or not to act, or can prepare or put an object before himself, without conceiving an impression of what is profitable or fitting?
Here too then you have free and unhindered action. Miserable men, develop this, set your minds on this, seek your good here.
'Nay, but how is it possible for a man who has nothing, naked, without home or hearth, in squalor, without a slave, without a city, to live a tranquil life?'
Lo, God has sent you one who shall show indeed that it is possible. 'Look at me, I have no house or city, property or slave: I sleep on the ground, I have no wife or children, no miserable palace, but only earth and sky and one poor cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free? When has any of you ever seen me failing to get what I will to get, or falling into what I will to avoid? When did I blame God or man, when did I accuse any? Has any of you seen me with a gloomy face? How do I meet those of whom you stand in fear and awe? Do I not meet them as slaves? Who that sees me but thinks that he sees his king and master?' There you have the true Cynic's words; this is his character, and scheme of life. No, you say, what makes the Cynic is a little wallet, and a staff and a big pair of jaws; to devour
or hoard everything you give him or to revile out of season those who meet him, or to make a show of his fine shoulder!
Is this the spirit in which you mean to take in hand so great an enterprise? Take a mirror first, look at your shoulders, take note of your loins and your thighs. Man, it is an Olympic contest you are about to enter your name for, not a miserable, make-believe match. At Olympia you cannot simply be beaten and leave the grounds; in the first place you must be disgraced in the sight of all the world, not before men of Athens only or of Lacedaemon or of Nicopolis; in the next place the man who lightly enters the lists must be flogged, but before he is flogged he must suffer thirst and scorching heat and swallow plenty of dust. Think it over more carefully, know yourself, inquire of heaven, attempt not the task without God. If He advise you, know that He wishes you to become great or to receive many stripes. For this too is a very fine strand woven into the Cynic's lot: he must suffer strokes like an ass and love the very men that strike him as though he were the father or brother of all.
No, no; if a man flogs you, you must stand in the midst and cry aloud, 'Caesar, what pains I suffer under your rule of peace! Let us go to the proconsul.'
What has the Cynic to do with Caesar or proconsul or any one else but Zeus, Who has sent him upon earth, and Whom he serves? Does he call upon any one but Him? Is he not convinced that whatever pains he suffers are God's training of him? Why, Heracles, when he was being trained by Eurystheus, did not count himself wretched, but fulfilled all his commands without shrinking, and shall this man, who is under the training and discipline of Zeus, cry aloud in indignation, if he be worthy to carry the staff of Diogenes? Listen to what Diogenes said when the fever was on him to those who passed by: 'Base creatures,' he said, 'will you not stay? You go all that way to Olympia to see athletes killed or matched in battle, and yet have you no wish to see a battle between fever and a man?' I suppose you think a man like that would have been very likely to accuse God, Who sent him, of using him hardly? Nay, he was proud of his distresses, and was fain to be the spectacle of passers-by. On what ground is he to accuse God? That he is living a seemly life, and that he is displaying his virtue in a clearer light? But what does he say of poverty, of death, of pain? How did he compare his own happiness with that of the Great King? Nay, he did not so much as think it comparable. For where there are tumults, and distresses, and fears, where the will to get is unfulfilled, and the will to avoid is foiled, a world of envies and jealousies, how can happiness find a way there? But wherever there are unsound judgements, there all these passions must be.
And when the young man asked Epictetus, whether, if he fell sick and a friend asked him to come to his house to be tended in his sickness, he was to consent, he said, Where will you find me a Cynic's friend? For he must be another like himself, that he may be worthy to be counted as his friend; he must share with him the sceptre and the kingdom and be a worthy minister, if he is to be deemed worthy of his friendship, as Diogenes was worthy of Antisthenes, and Crates of Diogenes. Or do you think that if he salutes him as he comes near that makes him his friend, and the Cynic will count him worthy to receive him in his house? Wherefore, if this is your opinion and such your thoughts, look round rather for a fine dunghill to have your fever on, one that shelters you from the north wind, to save you from a chill. But you seem to me to want to get away into some one's house for a time and eat your fill. How comes it then that you should take in hand so great a matter?
'Will the Cynic', said his questioner, 'accept marriage and children as matters of prime importance?'
If, he replied, you grant me a city of wise men, it may be that no one will lightly adopt the Cynic's calling. For what reason should he take upon him this manner of life? But if we assume that he does, there will be nothing to prevent him from marrying and getting children; for his wife will be like himself, and his wife's father will be like him, and his children will be brought up on these lines. But in the present constitution of the world—which is that of the battlefield—it is a question whether the Cynic should not be undistracted entirely, devoted to the service of God, able to go to and fro among men; not tied down to acts that befit private occasions, nor involved in personal relations, which if he violates he will cease to keep his character as a good man, and if he maintains them he will destroy the Messenger and Spy and Herald of the gods that is in him. For he must show services to his father-in-law, and render them to his wife's other relations and to herself; and so he is reduced to being a sick nurse or a general provider. Not to speak of other things, he must needs have a saucepan, to make water hot for the baby, to wash him in the bath; when his wife has had a child he must provide wool and oil for her, and a bed and a cup—the vessels mount up at once—not to mention other business and distraction. What becomes now of that king of ours who watches every interest of the public,
whose duty it is to watch others, those who have married and got children, to see which of them uses his wife well, which ill, who is quarrelsome,
which house is prospering and which is not, going about like a physician and feeling men's pulses? 'You have a fever, you a headache, you the gout; I prescribe fasting for you, food for you, no bath for you; you need the surgeon's knife, you the cautery.' How can the man who is involved in the acts appropriate to private life find leisure? Must he not procure clothes for the children? Must he not send them to the schoolmaster with their tablets and note-books, and provide them with beds, for they cannot be Cynics from their mother's womb? If he does not provide for them, it were better to fling them aside as soon as born rather than kill them thus. See to what a pass we bring our Cynic, how we take away his kingdom!
'Yes, but Crates married.'
The case you mention was a special one and a love-match, and you have to assume a wife who was a Crates herself. Our inquiry is concerned with ordinary marriages which are liable to distraction; and from this point of view we do not find that in these circumstances marriage has a primary claim on the Cynic.
'How then', says he, 'will he keep society going?'
By God, do you think that those who bring into the world two or three ugly little squeakers to fill their place do men greater benefit than those who exercise oversight, so far as they can, over all men, to see what they do, how they live, what they attend to, what they undutifully neglect? Do you think the Thebans reaped greater benefit from those who left them children than from Epaminondas who died childless? Did Priam who begat fifty sons, rascals all, or Danaus or Aeolus contribute more to society than Homer? What? Shall a man abstain from marrying or getting children for the sake of acting as general or writing a treatise, and be thought to have got a fair exchange for his childlessness, and shall the kingdom of the Cynic be thought no compensation?
Perhaps we do not realize his greatness nor picture at its true worth the character of Diogenes: we only look at the Cynics of to-day,
who copy those of old in nothing, except perhaps in dirty habits.
If we knew what a Cynic was we should not be moved or astonished at his not marrying or getting children. Man, he is parent to all men, he has men for his sons, women for his daughters; he approaches all and treats all in the spirit of a father. Do you think he reviles those he meets because he is a busybody? He does it as a father, as a brother, and as servant of Zeus, the Father of all.
Nay, ask me if you think well, whether he will take part in politics.
Fool, do you look for a higher form of politics' than those he handles now? Is he to come forward and address an Athenian assembly on revenues or ways and means, when he ought to be discoursing to all mankind, alike to Athenians, to Corinthians, and to Romans, not about ways and means or revenues or peace and war, but about happiness and unhappiness, good fortune and bad fortune, slavery and freedom. When a man is engaged in politics of such moment, do you ask me if he is to be a politician? Nay, ask me if he is to hold office. Fool, what office is greater than this that he holds?
Yet such an one has need also of a body of a certain quality; for if he come forward with a consumptive figure, thin and pale, his testimony no longer carries the same force. For he must not only display mental qualities to convince the lay mind that it is possible to be good and noble without the things that they set store by, but his body must show that the plain and simple life of the open air does no harm to the body—'Look you, how my body and I bear witness to this.' As indeed Diogenes did; for he went about with the glow of health on his face, and attracted the masses by his bodily presence. But a Cynic who excites pity is like a beggar; every one turns from him and takes Offence at him; for he ought not to appear dirty, lest he should scare men away thereby; nay his very squalor should be cleanly and attractive.
Further, the Cynic ought to have great natural grace and quickness of wit (without this he is a driveller, nothing more) that he may be able to give a ready and apposite answer• to each question that arises: as Diogenes answered him who said, 'Are you the Diogenes who disbelieves in the gods?' by saying, 'How can I be when I think the gods hate you?' or again, when Alexander stood over him as he slept and said:
replied, still in his sleep,
But above all, his Governing Principle must be purer than the sun; otherwise he must needs be a gambler and a reckless person; he will be rebuking others when he is involved in evil himself. See what this means. The kings and tyrants of this world have their armed bodyguard which enables them to rebuke certain persons and to punish those who do wrong even though they are wicked themselves, but the Cynic's conscience takes the place of arms and bodyguard and furnishes him with this authority. When he sees that he has watched and toiled for men,
and that his sleep has been pure, and that when sleep leaves him he is purer still, and that all the thoughts of his heart have been those of one
who is a friend and servant of the gods, and who shares the rule of Zeus, and that everywhere he is ready to say:
and 'If thus the gods would have it, be it so'—then, I ask, why should he not have confidence to speak freely to his brothers, to his children, and in a word to his kinsfolk?
Therefore the man whose mind is thus disposed is not fussy nor impertinent, for when he is inspecting the affairs of men, he is concerned with what is not another's but his own, unless you are to call the general too a busybody, when he inspects and reviews and keeps watch over his soldiers, and punishes those who offend against discipline. But if you rebuke others when you are carrying a nice cake hid under your arm, I shall say to you, 'Would not you rather go off into a corner and eat what you have stolen?' What have you to do with other men's concerns? Who are you? Are you the bull or the queen bee? Show me the tokens of your royalty, like those which nature gives her. But if you are only a drone claiming the kingdom of the bees, do not you think that
your fellow citizens will make an end of you, as the bees do to the drones?
The Cynic must have the spirit of patience in such measure as to seem to the multitude as unfeeling as a stone. Reviling or blows or insults are nothing to him; he has given his bit of a body to any one who will, to treat it as he pleases. For he remembers that the inferior must needs be conquered by the superior, where it is inferior, and the body is inferior to the multitude, the weaker inferior to them that are stronger. He therefore never enters upon this contest, where he may be conquered, but at once resigns what does not belong to him and does not claim power over slaves. But when it comes to the will and the power of dealing with impressions then you will see what eyes he has, so that you will say, 'Argus was blind in comparison.' Is there reckless assent, is there vain impulse, will to get which fails, will to avoid which is foiled, purpose incomplete, blame, disparagement or envy? It is on these he concentrates his attention and energy; for the rest he snores and
takes his ease, and all is peace. No one robs him of his will or masters that.
Do they master his bit of a body?
And his bit of property?
And offices and honours?
What does he care for these? When any one tries to frighten him with these fears he says to him, 'Get away, look for children to frighten. They think masks fearsome, but I know that they are made of pot, and have nothing inside.'
So momentous is the profession you are thinking of. Before God I beg you to wait if you will, and look first to your equipment; for mark what Hector says to Andromache: 'Go rather to the house', he says, 'and weave':
So truly did he realize his own endowment and her incapacity.