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Epictetus: The Manual

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Epictetus

(55-135 CE)



Life and Works



"Born in the 50s C.E. in Hierapolis, a Greek city of Asia Minor, Epictetus spent a portion of his life as the slave of Epaphroditus, an important administrator in the court of Nero. The date at which he came to Rome is unknown.


The circumstances of Epictetus’s education are likewise unknown, except that he studied for a time under Musonius Rufus, a Roman senator and Stoic philosopher who taught intermittently at Rome. Eventually receiving his freedom, he began lecturing on his own account but was forced to leave the city, presumably by the edict of Domitian (in 89) banning philosophers from the Italian peninsula. He then established his own school at Nicopolis, an important cultural center in Epirus, on the Adriatic coast of northwest Greece, and remained there teaching and lecturing until his death around 135.


The major compilation of Epictetus’s teaching is the four-volume work standardly referred to in English as the Discourses; it was variously titled in antiquity. According to their preface, the Discourses are not the writing of Epictetus but are ghostwritten by the essayist and historiographer Arrian of Nicomedia in an effort to convey the personal impact of his instruction. Although we lack independent means of verification, we have reason to be confident that the works we have represent Epictetus’s thought rather than Arrian’s own."


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The Manual of Epictetus


(Translation by George Long, 1888)





Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever are our own acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.



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People are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things. For example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were it would have seemed so to Socrates. The opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. When, then, we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. It is the act of an ill-instructed person to blame others for one's own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on one's self ; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself.



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Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish, but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and your life will flow tranquilly.



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If you would improve, submit to being considered senseless and foolish with respect to externals. Wish to be considered as knowing nothing. If you seem to some to be a person of importance, distrust yourself. It is not easy both to keep your will in a condition conformable to nature and to secure external things. But if you are careful about the one, it is an absolute inevitability that you will neglect the other.



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Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and proffered to you. Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency. Suppose that it passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it is not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you. Do likewise with respect to children, with respect to a spouse, with respect to positions, with respect to wealth, and you will be a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods.


But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow-banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power. For by acting thus Diogenes and Heracleitus and those like them were deservedly divine, and were so called.



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Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright may choose. If your part is short, it is short; if long, it is long. If the playwright wishes you to act the part of a beggar, see that you act the part naturally; if the part of one who limps, or of a magistrate, of a private person, play it. To select the part belongs to another. But your duty is to act well the part that is given to you.



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You can be invincible if you enter into no situation in which it is not in your power to succeed. Take care then when you observe someone honored before others or possessed of great power or highly esteemed for any reason, not to suppose that person happy, and be not carried away by the appearance. For if the nature of the good is in our power, neither envy nor jealousy will have a place in us. But you yourself will not wish to be a general or senator or consul, but a free man. There is only one way to achieve this: to care not for the things which are not in our power.



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And let silence be the general rule, or let only what is necessary be said, and in few words. And rarely and when the occasion calls shall we say something. But say nothing about common subjects, nor about gladiators, nor horse-races, nor about athletes, nor about eating or drinking, which are the usual subjects; and especially not about people, wither blaming them or praising them or comparing them. If you are able, bring over by your conversation the conversation of your associates to that which is proper. But if you should happen to be confined to the company of strangers, be silent.



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Apply the things which relate to the body as far as bare use, such as food, drink, clothing, house, and subordinates. Exclude everything which is for show or luxury.



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On no occasion call yourself a philosopher, and do not speak much among the uninstructed about philosophical dictums: rather, do that which follows from them.


For example, at a banquet do not say how one ought to eat, but eat as you ought to eat. For remember that in this way Socrates also altogether avoided ostentation. Persons used to come to Socrates and ask to be recommended by him to philosophers, and he used to take them to philosophers, so easily did he submit to being humble.


Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any philosophical idea, generally be silent, for there is great danger that you will immediately throw up what you have not digested. And when someone shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work of philosophy.


Even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your philosophical theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion.



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If some one has reported to you that a certain person speaks ill of you do not reply to what has been told you other than to say : "So-and-so does not know the rest of my faults to have mentioned only these."



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In every circumstance we should hold these three maxims ready to hand:


Lead me, O Zeus, and you O Destiny, The way that I am bid by you to go. To follow I am ready. If I choose not, I make myself a wretch, and still must follow.
But whoever nobly yields to necessity, We hold wise, and skilled in things divine.

And the third also:


O Crito, if so it pleases the gods, so let it be; Anytus and Meletus [prosecutor and accuser of Socrates] are able indeed to kill me, but they cannot harm me.


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