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Things Within Our Power

The Nature of Things

What can be Influenced

Judgment of Events

A Governing Principle


Sources of Opinion

Results of Principles




Epictetus (about 50-130 CE), one of the most influential teachers of Stoicism, is believed to have been born a slave in Phyrigia, Asia Minor, and was given his freedom at perhaps the age of 18. His master, Nero’s administrative secretary, sent him to be educated by a leading Stoic teacher. When he was about 40, Epictetus was exiled from Rome along with other Stoic philosophers by the Emperor Domitian. He settled in Epirus, in northwestern Greece, where he formed a major Stoic school that attracted students from many parts of the Roman empire. Epictetus lived a frugal life and was said to be lame and in ill health.

Because Epictetus did not publish his philosophy, the exposition of his thought comes from class notes made by his pupil Flavius Arrianus. In them, we see a system characterized by morality and humanity that emphasized freedom of thought within the limits of what an individual could influence. This philosophy received some of its impetus from the experience of life within the Roman empire, where an individual might get caught up in many events over which he had no control—sudden exile being but one example.  The following paragraphs are extracts from these notes.



Things Within Our Power

1    Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.  In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing.  Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.  Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammeled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others.  Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.

2    Aiming then at these high matters, you must remember that to attain them requires more than ordinary effort; you will have to give up some things entirely, and put off others for the moment.  And, if you would also have office and wealth, it may be that you will fail to get them, just because your desire is set on higher matters, and you will certainly fail to attain those things which alone bring freedom and happiness.

  3     Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, “You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.” Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this—the chief test of all—“Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?” And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.

  4     Remember that the will-to-get promises attainment of what you will, and the will-to-avoid promises escape from what you avoid; and he who fails to get what he wills is unfortunate, and he who does not escape what he wills to avoid is miserable.  If then you try to avoid only what is unnatural in the region within your control, you will escape from all that you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease or death or poverty you will be miserable.

       Therefore let your will-to-avoid have no concern with what is not in man’s power; direct it only to things in man’s power that are contrary to nature.  But for the moment you must utterly remove the will-to-get; for if you will to get something not in man’s power you  are bound to be unfortunate; while none of the things in man’s power that you could honorably will to get is yet within your reach.  Impulse to act and not to act, these are your concern; yet exercise them gently and without strain, and provisionally.


The Nature of Things

    5    When anything, from the meanest thing upwards, is attractive or serviceable or an object of affection, remember always to say to yourself, “What is its nature?” If you are fond of a jug, say you are fond of a jug; then you will not be disturbed if it be broken.  If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being, for then if death strikes it you will not be disturbed.

  6    What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgments on events.  For instance, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates would have thought it so. No, the only dreadful thing about it is men’s judgment that it is dreadful. And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgments.  To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse one­self shows that one’s education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.

  7    Be not elated at an excellence which is not your own.  If the horse in his pride were to say, “I am handsome,” we could bear with it.  But when you say with pride, “I have a handsome horse,” know that the good horse is the ground of your pride.  You ask then what you can call your own. The answer is—the way you deal with your impressions. Therefore when you deal with your impressions in accord with nature, then you may be proud indeed, for your pride will be in a good which is your own.

  8    Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.


What Can be Influenced

  9    Never say of anything, “I lost it,” but say, “I gave it back.” Has your child died?  It was given back.  Has your wife died?  She was given back.  Has your estate been taken from you?  Was not this also given back?  But you say, “He who took it from me is wicked.” What does it matter to you through whom the giver asked it back?  As long as he gives it you, take care of it, but not as your own; treat it as passers-by treat an inn.

  10  If you wish to make progress, you must be content in external matters to seem a fool and a simpleton; do not wish men to think you know anything, and if any should think you to be somebody, distrust yourself. For know that it is not easy to keep your will in accord with nature and at the same time keep outward things; if you attend to one you must needs neglect the other.

  11  It is silly to want your children and your wife and your friends to live for ever, for that means that you want what is not in your control to be in your control, and what is not your own to be yours.  

  12  Exercise yourself then in what lies in your power. Each man’s master is the man who has authority over what he wishes or does not wish, to secure the one or to take away the other. Let him then who wishes to be free not wish for anything or avoid anything that depends on others; or else he is bound to be a slave.

  13  When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable.  Keep this thought by you: “What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event.” Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being.


Judgment of Events

  14  You can be invincible, if you never enter on a contest where victory is not in your power.  Beware then that when you see a man raised to honor or great power or high repute you do not let your impression carry you away.  For if the reality of good lies in what is in our power, there is no room for envy or jealousy.  And you will not wish to be praetor, or prefect or consul, but to be free; and there is but one way to freedom—to despise what is not in our power.

  15  Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgment that they are so.  So when any one makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you.  Wherefore make it your first endeavor not to let your impressions carry you away. For if once you gain time and delay, you will find it easier to control yourself.

  16  Keep before your eyes from day to day death and exile and all things that seem terrible, but death most of all, and then you will never set your thoughts on what is low and will never desire anything beyond measure.

  17  Let not reflections such as these afflict you: “I shall live without honor, and never be of any account”; for if lack of honor is an evil, no one but yourself can involve you in evil any more than in shame.  Is it your business to get office or to be invited to an entertainment? Certainly not. Where then is the dishonor you talk of?  How can you be “of no account anywhere”, when you ought to count for something in those matters only which are in your power, where you may achieve the highest worth?

  18  You were not invited to some one’s entertainment?  Because you did not give the host the price for which he sells his dinner. He sells it for compliments, he sells it for attentions. Pay him the price then, if it is to your profit. But if you wish to get the one and yet not give up the other, nothing can satisfy you in your folly.
What! you say, you have nothing instead of the dinner?
Not at all, you have this: you have not praised the man you did not want to praise, you have not had to bear with the insults of his doorstep.

  19  As a mark is not set up for men to miss it, so there is nothing intrinsically evil in the world.


A Governing Principle

  20  If any one trusted your body to the first man he met, you would be indignant, but yet you trust your mind to the chance comer, and allow it to be disturbed and confounded if he revile you; are you not ashamed to do so?

  21  If you act without thought you will be behaving like children, who one day play at wrestlers, another day at gladiators, now sound the trumpet, and next strut the stage.  Like them you will be now an athlete, now a gladiator, then orator, then philosopher, but nothing with all your soul. . . You must be one man, good or bad; you must develop either your governing principle, or your outward endowments; you must study either your inner man, or outward things—in a word, you must choose between the position of a philosopher and that of a mere outsider.

  22  Appropriate acts are in general measured by the relations they are concerned with.  “He is your father.” This means you are called on to take care of him, give way to him in all things, bear with him if he reviles or strikes you.
“But he is a bad father.”
Well, have you any natural claim to a good father?  No, only to a father.
“My brother wrongs me.”
Be careful then to maintain the relation you hold to him, and do not consider what he does, but what you must do if your purpose is to keep in accord with nature.  For no one shall harm you, without your consent; you will only be harmed, when you think you are harmed. You will only discover what is proper to expect from neighbor, citizen, or magistrate, if you get into the habit of looking at the relations implied by each.

  23    Lay down for yourself from the first a definite stamp and style of conduct, which you will maintain when you are alone and also in the society of men.  Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words.  Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks—these are topics that arise everywhere—but above all do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison.  If you can, turn the conversation of your company by your talk to some fitting subject; but if you should chance to be isolated among strangers, be silent.  Do not laugh much, nor at many things, nor without restraint.



  24  Refuse to take oaths, altogether if that be possible, but if not, as far as circumstances allow.

  25  Refuse the entertainments of strangers and the vulgar. But if occasion arise to accept them, then strain every nerve to avoid lapsing into the state of the vulgar.  For know that, if your comrade have a stain on him, he that associates with him must needs share the stain, even though he be clean in himself.

  26    For your body take just so much as your bare need requires, such as food, drink, clothing, house, servants, but cut down all that tends to luxury and outward show.

  27  Avoid sexual activity to the utmost of your power before marriage, and if you indulge your passion, let it be done lawfully.  But do not be offensive or censorious to those who indulge it, and do not be always bringing up your own chastity.  If some one tells you that so and so speaks ill of you, do not defend yourself against what he says, but answer, “He did not know my other faults, or he would not have mentioned these alone.”

  28  When you imagine some pleasure, beware that it does not carry you away, like other imaginations.  Wait a while, and give yourself pause.  Next remember two things: how long you will enjoy the pleasure, and also how long you will afterwards repent and revile yourself.  And set on the other side the joy and self-satisfaction you will feel if you refrain.  And if the moment seems come to realize it, take heed that you be not overcome by the winning sweetness and attraction of it; set in the other scale the thought how much better is the consciousness of having vanquished it.

  29  When you do a thing because you have determined that it ought to be done, never avoid being seen doing it, even if the opinion of the multitude is going to condemn you.  For if your action is wrong, then avoid doing it altogether, but if it is right, why do you fear those who will rebuke you wrongly?

  30  The phrases, “It is day” and “It is night,” mean a great deal if taken separately, but have no meaning if combined.  In the same way, to choose the larger portion at a banquet may be worth while for your body, but if you want to maintain social decencies it is worthless.  Therefore, when you are at meat with another, remember not only to consider the value of what is set before you for the body, but also to maintain your self-respect before your host.

  31  If you try to act a part beyond your powers, you not only disgrace yourself in it but you neglect the part which you could have filled with success.

  32  It is a sign of a dull mind to dwell upon the cares of the body, to prolong exercise, eating, drinking, and other bodily functions.  These things are to be done by the way; all your attention must be given to the mind.


Sources of Opinion

 33  When a man speaks evil or does evil to you, remember that he does or says it because he thinks it is fitting for him.  It is not possible for him to follow what seems good to you, but only what seems good to him, so that, if his opinion is wrong, he suffers, in that he is the victim of deception. In the same way, if a composite judgment which is true is thought to be false, it is not the judgment that suffers, but the man who is deluded about it.  If you act on this principle you will be gentle to him who reviles you, saying to yourself on each occasion, “He thought it right.”

34  It is illogical to reason thus, “I am richer than you, therefore I am superior to you,” or, “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you.” It is more logical to reason, “I am richer than you, therefore my property is superior to yours,” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours.” You are something more than property or speech.

35  If a man wash quickly, do not say that he washes badly, but that he washes quickly.  If a man drink much wine, do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks much.  For till you have decided what judgment prompts him, how do you know that he acts badly?  If you do as I say, you will assent to your apprehensive impressions and to none other.


Results of Principles

  36  And if a discussion arise among the multitude on some principle, keep silent for the most part; for you are in great danger of blurting out some undigested thought.  And when some one says to you, “You know nothing,” and you do not let it provoke you, then know that you are really on the right road.  For sheep do not bring grass to their shepherds and show them how much they have eaten, but they digest their fodder and then produce it in the form of wool and milk.  Do the same yourself; instead of displaying your principles to the multitude, show them the results of the principles you have digested.

  37  The signs of one who is making progress are: he blames none, praises none, complains of none, accuses none, never speaks of himself as if he were somebody, or as if he knew anything.  And if any one compliments him he laughs in himself at his compliment; and if one blames him, he makes no defense.  He goes about like a convalescent, careful not to disturb his constitution on its road to recovery, until it has got firm hold.  He has got rid of the will to get, and his will to avoid is directed no longer to what is beyond our power but only to what is in our power and contrary to nature.  In all things he exercises his will without strain.  If men regard him as foolish or ignorant he pays no heed.  In one word, he keeps watch and guard on himself as his own enemy, lying in wait for him.

38  Whatever principles you put before you, hold fast to them as laws that it will be impious to transgress. But pay no heed to what any one says of you; for this is something beyond your own control.

                      Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000


  Adapted from The Manual of Epictetus, translated by  P. E. Matheson. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1916. An electronic text version is available via FTP from Project Gutenberg.

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