Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV: OF PROGRESS. - The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments
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CHAPTER IV: OF PROGRESS. - 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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HE who is entering on a state of progress, having learnt from the philosophers, that good should be sought and evil shunned; and having learnt too, that prosperity and peace are no otherwise attainable by man, than in not missing what he seeks, nor incurring what he shuns; such a one removes totally from himself and banishes all wayward desire, and shuns only those things over which he can have control. For if he should attempt to shun those things over which he has no control, he knows that he must sometimes incur that which he shuns, and be unhappy. Now if virtue promises happiness, prosperity, and peace; then progress in virtue is certainly progress in each of these. For to whatever point the perfection of anything absolutely brings us, progress is always an approach towards it.
How happens it then, that when we confess virtue to be such, yet we seek, and make an ostentatious show of progress in other things? What is the business of virtue?
A life truly prosperous.
Who is in a state of progress then? He who has best studied Chrysippus?* Why, does virtue consist in having read Chrysippus through? If so, progress is confessedly nothing else than understanding a great deal of Chrysippus; otherwise we confess virtue to consist in one thing, and declare progress, which is an approach to it, to be quite another thing.
This person, they say, is already able to understand Chrysippus, by himself. — “Certainly, sir, you have made a vast improvement!” What improvement? Why do you delude him? Why do you withdraw him from a sense of his real needs? Why do not you show him the real function of virtue, that he may know where to seek progress? — Seek it there, O! unfortunate, where your work lies. And where doth your work lie? In learning what to seek and what to shun, that you may neither be disappointed of the one, nor incur the other; in practising how to pursue and how to avoid, that you may not be liable to fail; in practising intellectual assent and doubt, that you may not be liable to be deceived. These are the first and most necessary things. But if you merely seek, in trembling and lamentation, to keep away all possible ills, what real progress have you made?
Show me then your progress in this point. As if I should say to a wrestler, Show me your muscle; and he should answer me, “See my dumb-bells.” Your dumb-bells are your own affair: I desire to see the effect of them.
“Take the treatise on the active powers, and see how thoroughly I have perused it.”
I do not inquire into this, O! slavish man; but how you exert those powers; how you manage your desires and aversions, how your intentions and purposes; how you meet events, whether in accordance with nature’s laws, or contrary to them. If in accordance, give me evidence of that, and I will say you improve: if the contrary, go your way, and not only comment on these treatises, but write such yourself, and yet what service will it do you? Do not you know that the whole volume is sold for five denarii? Doth he who comments upon it, then, value himself at more than that sum? Never make your life to consist in one thing and yet seek progress in another.
Where is progress, then?
If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will, to train, and perfect, and render it conformable to nature; noble, free, unrestrained, unhindered, faithful, humble; if he hath learnt, too, that whoever desires or shuns things beyond his own power, can neither be faithful nor free, but must necessarily take his chance with them, must necessarily too be subject to others, to such as can procure or prevent what he desires or shuns; if, rising in the morning, he observes and keeps to these rules; bathes regularly, eats frugally; and to every subject of action, applies the same fixed principles, — if a racer to racing, if an orator to oratory; this is he, who truly makes progress; this is he, who hath not labored in vain. But if he is wholly intent on reading books, and hath labored that point only, and travelled for that; I bid him go home immediately, and do his daily duties; since that which he sought is nothing.
The only real thing is, to study how to rid life of lamentation, and complaint, and Alas! and I am undone, and misfortune, and failure; and to learn what death, what exile, what a prison, what poison is; that he may be able to say in a prison, like Socrates, “My dear Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be”; and not, “Wretched old man, have I kept my gray hairs for this!” [Do you ask] who speaks thus? Do you think I quote some mean and despicable person? Is it not Priam who says it? Is it not Œdipus? Nay, how many kings say it? For what else is tragedy, but the dramatized sufferings of men, bewildered by an admiration of externals? If one were to be taught by fictions, that things beyond our will are nothing to us, I should rejoice in such a fiction, by which I might live prosperous and serene. But what you wish for, it is your business to consider.
Of what service, then, is Chrysippus to us?
To teach you, that those things are not false, on which true prosperity and peace depend. “Take my books, and you will see, how true and conformable to nature those things are, which give me peace.” How great a happiness! And how great the benefactor, who shows the way! To Triptolemus all men have raised temples and altars, because he gave us a milder kind of food: but to him who hath discovered, and brought to light, and communicated the truth to all;* the means, not of living merely, but of living well; who among you ever raised an altar or a temple, or dedicated a statue, or who worships God in his name? We offer sacrifices in memory of those who have given us corn and the vine; and shall we not give thanks to God, for those who have nurtured such fruit in the human breast; even the truth which makes us blessed?
[* ]Chrysippus was regarded as the highest authority among the later Stoics; but not one of his seven hundred volumes has come down to posterity. — H.
[* ]Triptolemus was said to have introduced agriculture and vegetable food among men, under the guidance of Ceres. — H.