The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, , at sacred-texts.com
All men's difficulties and perplexities are concerned with external things. 'What am I to do?' 'How is it to be done?' 'How is it to turn out?' 'I fear this or that may befall me.' All these phrases are used by persons occupied with matters outside their will. For who says, 'How am I to refuse assent to the false?' 'How am I to refuse to swerve from the true?' If a man is so gifted by nature as to be anxious about these things, I will remind him: 'Why are you anxious? It rests with you: be not troubled. Be not over-hasty in assent, before you have applied the rule of nature.'
Again, if he is anxious about his will to get, lest it should fail of its object and miss the mark, and about his will to avoid, lest it should fall into what it avoids, first of all I will salute him, because he has got rid of the excitements and fears of other men, and has turned his thoughts to his own business where his true self lies. Then I shall say to him: 'If you would not fail to get what you will, nor fall into what you will to avoid, do not will to get what is not your own, nor to avoid what is not in your control: otherwise you are bound to fail and to fall into disaster. Where is the difficulty if you do as I say? What room is there for phrases like, "How am I to get it?" "How is it to turn out?" "I fear this or that may befall me."'
Is not the issue of the future outside our will?
And the essence of good and evil is in the region of the will?
Is it in your power then to make a natural use of every event that happens? Can any one hinder you from that?
Say no more then, 'What is to happen?' For whatever happens, you will turn it to good purpose, and the issue will be your good fortune. What would Heracles have been if he had said, 'How am I to prevent a big lion from appearing, or a big boar, or brutal men?' What care you, I say? If a big boar appears, you will have a greater struggle to engage in; if evil men appear, you will free the world from evil men.
'But if I die thus?'
You will die a good man, fulfilling a noble action. For since you must die in any case, you must be found doing something—whatever it be—
farming or digging or trading or holding the counsulship or suffering indigestion or diarrhoea. What then would you have death find you doing? For my part I would be found busy with some humane task, whatever it be—something noble, beneficent, advancing the common weal. And if I cannot be found doing great things like these, I would do what none can hinder, what is given me to do, setting myself right, bringing to perfection the faculty that deals with impressions, working to achieve freedom from passion, rendering what is due to each relation in life; nay, if I am so fortunate, attaining to the third sphere of activity, 4-6 that concerned with certainty of judgements.
If death finds me thus occupied, I am content if I can lift up my hands to God and say, 'I have not neglected the faculties which I received from Thee, to enable me to understand Thy governance and follow it, I have not dishonoured Thee so far as in me lay. See how I have dealt with my senses, see how I have dealt with my primary notions. Did I ever complain of Thee, did I ever show discontent with anything that happened to any one, or wish it to happen otherwise, did I offend in my relations towards others? In that Thou didst beget me I am grateful for Thy gifts: in so far as I have used what Thou gayest me I am satisfied. Take Thy gifts back again and place them where Thou wilt: for they were all Thine, Thou hast given them to me.' Are you not content to leave the world in this state of mind? Nay, what life is better or more seemly than his who is so minded, and what end can be more happy?
But to achieve this, you must put up with great troubles and great losses. You cannot have this and wish to get a consulship, you cannot have this and set your heart on owning lands, you cannot take thought for yourself and for wretched slaves at the same time. No, if you wish for what is not your own, you lose what is yours. This is in the nature of things: nothing is done but at a price. And what need for wonder? If you wish to become consul, you must keep late hours, run to and fro, kiss people's hands, lie perishing at other men's doors, say and do many things unfit for a free man, send gifts to many, and presents every day to some. And what do you get for it? Twelve bundles of rods, 4-7 the privilege of sitting three or four times on the tribunal and of giving games in the Circus, and doles in baskets. If it be not so, let any one show me what there is besides. Will you then spend nothing, and use no effort to secure release from passion and perturbation, that sleeping you may sleep and waking you may wake, that you may fear nothing and be anxious for nothing? But if while you are thus engaged you have losses or spend money amiss, or if another gets what you ought to have got, are you going to be vexed all at once at what happens? Will you not weigh what the exchange is and how precious your gain, instead
of wishing to obtain this great prize for nothing? Nay, how can you? 'One business interferes with another.'
You cannot combine attention to outward possessions with attention to your own Governing Principle. If you want outward things, let your reason go, or you will have neither the one nor the other, being pulled both ways. If you wish for reason, you must let outward things go. The oil will be spilt, my poor furniture will perish, but I shall be free from passion. Say a fire shall arise when I am away and my books perish, yet I shall deal with my impressions in accord with nature.
'But I shall have nothing to eat.'
If I am so miserable, death is my harbour. Death: this is the harbour, this the refuge from all things, therefore nothing in life is difficult. When you wish, you leave, and no smoke annoys you. Why then are you anxious, why keep late hours? Why do you not reckon up at once where your good and your evil lie, and say, 'Both are in my power: no one can deprive me of my good, and no one can plunge me in evil against my will. Why then do I not snore at my ease? I am secure in what is mine: what is not mine will be the concern of any one who gets it as a gift from Him who has authority to give it. Who am I to will that what is not mine should be thus or thus? Is it given to me to choose? Has any one set me to administer it? I am content with the things over which I have authority. These I must make as beautiful as possible; the rest must be as their master wills.'
If a man has this before his eyes he is no longer wakeful, 'hither and thither tossed'. [Homer, Iliad, XXIV. 5] What would he have, or what does he long for? Does he long for Patroclus or Antilochus or Menelaus? When did he think any of his friends was immortal? When had he not before his eyes the fact that to-morrow or the day after he or his friend must die?
'Yes,' he says, 'but I thought he would outlive me and enrich my son.'
Yes, for you were a fool, and set your thoughts on uncertainties. Why not then accuse yourself, instead of sitting crying like young girls? 'Nay, but he set food for me to eat.'
Yes, fool, for he was alive: now he cannot. But Automedon will set meat for you, and if he dies you will find another. If the pot in which your meat was boiling is broken, must you needs die of hunger, because you have lost the pot you are used to? Do not you send and buy another?
'Nay,' he says,
What! Is this what you call ill? And yet you forbear to remove it and blame your mother for not warning you, that you might spend your days lamenting ever since. What think you? Did not Homer compose these lines on purpose that we might see that there is nothing to prevent the noblest, the strongest, the richest, the most handsome, from being most wretched and most miserable when they have not the judgements they should have? 4-8