Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: IN WHAT MANNER, UPON EVERY OCCASION, TO PRESERVE OUR CHARACTER. - The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments
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CHAPTER II.: IN WHAT MANNER, UPON EVERY OCCASION, TO PRESERVE OUR CHARACTER. - Epictetus, The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments [100 AD]
The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. A Translation from the Greek based on that of Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1865).
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IN WHAT MANNER, UPON EVERY OCCASION, TO PRESERVE OUR CHARACTER.
TO a reasonable creature, that alone is insupportable which is unreasonable; but everything reasonable may be supported. Stripes are not naturally insupportable. — “How so?” — See how the Spartans† bear whipping, after they have learned that it is a reasonable thing. Hanging is not insupportable; for, as soon as a man has taken it into his head that it is reasonable, he goes and hangs himself. In short we shall find by observation, that no creature is oppressed so much by anything, as by what is unreasonable; nor, on the other hand, attracted to anything so strongly, as to what is reasonable.
But it happens that different things are reasonable and unreasonable, as well as good and bad, advantageous and disadvantageous, to different persons. On this account, chiefly, we stand in need of a liberal education, to teach us to adapt the preconceptions of reasonable and unreasonable to particular cases, conformably to nature. But to judge of reasonable and unreasonable, we make use not only of a due estimation of things without us, but of what relates to each person’s particular character. Thus, it is reasonable for one man to submit to a menial office, who considers this only, that if he does not submit to it, he shall be whipt, and lose his dinner, but that if he does, he has nothing hard or disagreeable to suffer; whereas to another it appears insupportable, not only to submit to such an office himself, but to respect any one else who does. If you ask me, then, whether you shall do this menial office or not, I will tell you, it is a more valuable thing to get a dinner, than not; and a greater disgrace to be whipt, than not to be whipt; — so that, if you measure yourself by these things, go and do your office.
“Ay, but this is not suitable to my character.”
It is you who are to consider that, not I; for it is you who know yourself, what value you set upon yourself, and at what rate you sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices.
Hence Agrippinus* when Florus was considering whether he should go to Nero’s shows, and perform some part in them himself, bid him go. — “But why do not you go then?” says Florus. “Because,” replied Agrippinus, “I do not deliberate about it.” For he who once sets himself about such considerations, and goes to calculating the worth of external things, approaches very near to those who forget their own character. For, why do you ask me whether death or life be the more eligible? I answer, life. Pain or pleasure? I answer, pleasure. — “But if I do not act a part, I shall lose my head.” — Go and act it then, but I will not.— “Why?” — Because you esteem yourself only as one thread of many that make up the piece. — “What then?” — You have nothing to care for, but how to be like the rest of mankind, as one thread desires not to be distinguished from the others. But I would be the purple,† that small and brilliant part, which gives a lustre and beauty to the rest. Why do you bid me resemble the multitude then? At that rate, how shall I be the purple?
This Priscus Helvidius‡ too saw, and acted accordingly; for when Vespasian had sent to forbid his going to the Senate, he answered, “It is in your power to prevent my continuing a senator; but while I am one, I must go.” — “Well then, at least be silent there.” — “Do not ask my opinion and I will be silent.” — “But I must ask it.” — “And I must speak what appears to me to be right.” — “But if you do, I will put you to death.” — “When did I ever tell you that I was immortal? You will do your part, and I mine: it is yours to kill and mine to die intrepid; yours to banish, mine to depart untroubled.”
What good, then, did Priscus do, who was but a single person? Why, what good does the purple do to the garment? What, but to be beautiful in itself, and to set a good example to the rest? Another, perhaps, if in such circumstances Cæsar had forbidden his going to the Senate, would have answered, “I am obliged to you for excusing me.” But such a one he would not have forbidden to go; well knowing, that he would either sit like a statue, or, if he spoke, would say what he knew to be agreeable to Cæsar, and would overdo it, by adding still more.
Thus acted even a wrestler, who was in danger of death, unless he consented to an ignominious amputation. His brother, who was a philosopher, coming to him, and saying “Well, brother, what do you design to do? Let us cut away this part, and return again to the field.” He refused, and courageously died.
When it was asked, whether he acted thus as a wrestler, or a philosopher? I answer, as a man, said Epictetus; but as a man who had been proclaimed a champion at the Olympic games; who had been used to such places, and not exercised merely in the school of Bato.* Another would have had his very head cut off, if he could have lived without it. This is that regard to character, so powerful with those who are accustomed to introduce it, from their own breasts, into their deliberations.
“Come now, Epictetus, take off your beard.”† — If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not take it off. — “Then I will take off your head.” — If that will do you any good, take it off.
It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident, that with the qualifications, occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being indued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications, will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull, nor a gallant-spirited man, formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us.
Only consider at what price you sell your own free will, O man! if only that you may not sell it for a trifle. The highest greatness and excellence perhaps seem to belong to others, to such as Socrates. Why then, as we are born with a like nature, do not all, or the greater number, become such as he? Why, are all horses swift? Are all dogs sagacious? What then, because my gifts are humble, shall I neglect all care of myself? Heaven forbid! Epictetus may not surpass Socrates; granted: but could I overtake him, it might be enough for me. I shall never be Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor Crœsus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor should we omit any effort, from a despair of arriving at the highest.
[† ]The Spartans, to make a trial of the fortitude of their children, used to have them publicly whipped at the altar of Diana; and often with so much severity, that they expired. The boys supported this exercise with so much constancy as never to cry out, nor even groan. — C.
[* ]Nero was remarkably fond of theatrical entertainments; and used to introduce upon the stage the descendants of noble families, whom want had rendered venal. Tacitus, Ann. xiv. c. 14. — C.
[† ]An allusion to the purple border, which distinguished the dress of the Roman nobility. — C.
[‡ ]Helvidius Priscus was no less remarkable for his learning and philosophy, than for the sanctity of his manners and the love of his country. He behaved however with too much haughtiness on several occasions, to Vespasian, who sentenced him to death with great reluctance, and even forbade the execution, when it was too late. Sueton. in Vesp. § 15. — C.
[* ]Bato was a famous master of the Olympic exercises. — C.
[† ]Domitian ordered all the philosophers to be banished. To avoid this inconvenience, those who had a mind to disguise their profession, took off their beards. — C.