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CHAPTER XXIX.: OF COURAGE. - 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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THE essence of good and evil is a certain disposition of the will.
What are things outward then?
Materials on which the will may act, in attaining its own good or evil.
How, then, will it attain good?
If it be not dazzled by its own materials; for right principles concerning these materials keep the will in a good state; but perverse and distorted principles, in a bad one. This law hath God ordained, who says, “If you wish for good, receive it from yourself.” You say, No; but from another. “Nay; but from yourself.”
Accordingly, when a tyrant threatens, and sends for me, I say, Against what is your threatening pointed? If he says, “I will chain you”; I answer, It is my hands and feet that you threaten. If he says, “I will cut off your head”; I answer, It is my head that you threaten. If he says, “I will throw you into prison”; I answer, It is the whole of this paltry body that you threaten; and, if he threatens banishment, just the same.
“Does not he threaten you, then?”
If I am persuaded, that these things are nothing to me, he does not; but, if I fear any of them, it is me that he threatens. Who is it, after all, that I fear? The master of what? Of things in my own power? Of these no one is the master. Of things not in my power? And what are these to me?
“What, then! do you philosophers teach us a contempt of kings?”
By no means. Which of us teaches any one to contend with them, about things of which they have the command? Take my body; take my possessions; take my reputation; take away even my friends. If I persuade any one to claim these things as his own, you may justly accuse me. “Ay; but I would command your principles too.” And who hath given you that power? How can you conquer the principle of another? “By applying terror, I will conquer it.” Do not you see, that what conquers itself, is not conquered by another? And nothing but itself can conquer the will. Hence, too, the most excellent and equitable law of God; that the better should always prevail over the worse. Ten are better than one.
“For what purpose?”
For chaining, killing, dragging where they please; for taking away an estate. Thus ten conquer one, in the cases wherein they are better.
“In what, then, are they worse?”
When the one has right principles, and the others have not. For can they conquer in this case? How should they? If we were weighed in a scale, must not the heavier outweigh?
“How then came Socrates to suffer such things from the Athenians?”
O foolish man! what mean you by Socrates? Express the fact as it is. Are you surprised that the mere body of Socrates should be carried away, and dragged to prison, by such as were stronger; that it should be poisoned by hemlock and die? Do these things appear wonderful to you? These things unjust? Is it for such things as these that you accuse God? Had Socrates, then, no compensation for them? In what, then, to him, did the essence of good consist? Whom shall we regard; you, or him? And what says he? “Anytus and Melitus may indeed kill; but hurt me they cannot.” And again: “If it so pleases God, so let it be.”
But show me, that he who has the worse principles can get the advantage over him who has the better. You never will show it, nor anything like it; for the Law of Nature and of God is this, — let the better always prevail over the worse.
In that wherein it is better. One body may be stronger than another; many, than one; and a thief, than one who is not a thief. Thus I, for instance, lost my lamp; because the thief was better at keeping awake than I. But for that lamp he paid the price of becoming a thief; for that lamp he lost his virtue and became like a wild beast. This seemed to him a good bargain; and so let it be!
But some one takes me by the collar, and drags me to the forum; and then all the rest cry out, “Philosopher, what good do your principles do you? See, you are being dragged to prison; see, you are going to lose your head!” And, pray, what rule of philosophy could I contrive, that, when a stronger than myself lays hold on my collar, I should not be dragged? Or that, when ten men pull me at once, and throw me into prison, I should not be thrown there? But have I learned nothing, then? I have learned to know, whatever happens, that, if it concerns not my will, it is nothing to me. Have my principles, then, done me no good? What, then! do I seek for anything else to do me good, but what I have learned? Afterwards, as I sit in prison, I say, He who has made all this disturbance neither recognizes any guidance, nor heeds any teaching, nor is it any concern to him, to know what philosophers say, or do. Let him alone.
“Come forth again from prison.” If you have no further need for me in prison, I will come out; if you want me again, I will return. “For how long?” Just so long as reason requires I should continue in this body; when that is over, take it, and fare ye well. Only let us not act inconsiderately, nor from cowardice, nor on slight grounds, since that would be contrary to the will of God; for he hath need of such a world, and such beings to live on earth. But, if he sounds a retreat, as he did to Socrates, we are to obey him when he sounds it, as our General.
“Well; but can these things be explained to the multitude?”
To what purpose? Is it not sufficient to be convinced one’s self? When children come to us clapping their hands, and saying, “To-morrow is the good feast of Saturn”; do we tell them that good doth not consist in such things? By no means; but we clap our hands also. Thus, when you are unable to convince any one, consider him as a child, and clap your hands with him; or, if you will not do that, at least hold your tongue. These things we ought to remember; and, when we are called to any trial, to know, that an opportunity is come of showing whether we have been well taught. For he who goes from a philosophical lecture to a difficult point of practice, is like a young man who has been studying to solve syllogisms. If you propose an easy one, he says, “Give me rather a fine intricate one, that I may try my strength.” Thus athletic champions are displeased with a slight antagonist. “He cannot lift me,” says one. Is this a youth of spirit? No; for when the occasion calls upon him, he may begin crying, and say, “I wanted to learn a little longer first.” Learn what? If you did not learn these things to show them in practice, why did you learn them?
I trust there must be some one among you, sitting here, who feels secret pangs of impatience, and says: “When will such a trial come to my share, as hath now fallen to his? Must I sit wasting my life in a corner, when I might be crowned at Olympia? When will any one bring the news of such a combat, for me?” Such should be the disposition of you all. Even among the gladiators of Cæsar, there are some who bear it very ill, that they are not brought upon the stage, and matched; and who offer vows to God, and address the officers, begging to fight. And will none among you appear such? I would willingly take a voyage on purpose to see how a champion of mine acts; how he meets his occasion.
This is not the contest I would choose, say you. Is it in your power, then, to make the selection? Such a body is given you, such parents, such brothers, such a country, and such a rank in it; and then you come to me, to change the conditions! Have you not abilities to manage that which is given you? You should say to me, “It is your business to propose; mine, to treat the subject well.” No; but you say, “Do not meet me with such a perplexity, but such a one; do not offer such an obstacle to me, but such a one.” There will be a time, I suppose, when tragedians will fancy themselves to be mere masks, and buskins, and long train. These things are your materials, man, and your stage-properties. Speak something; that we may know whether you are a tragedian, or a buffoon; for both have all the rest in common. Suppose any one should take away his buskins and his mask, and bring him upon the stage, in his common dress, is the tragedian lost, or does he remain? If he has a voice, he remains. “Here, this instant, take upon you the command.” I take it; and, taking it, I show how a skilful man performs the part. “Now lay aside your robe; put on rags, and come upon the stage in that character.” What then? Is it not in my power to express the character by a suitable voice?
“In what character do you now appear?” As a witness summoned by God. “Come you, then, and bear witness for me; for you are a fit witness to be produced by me. Is anything which is inevitable, to be classed as either good or evil? Do I hurt any one? Have I made the good of each individual to rest on any one, but himself? What evidence do you give for God?”
“I am in a miserable condition, O Lord; I am undone: no mortal cares for me; no mortal gives me anything; all blame me; all speak ill of me.”
Is this the evidence you are to give? And will you bring disgrace upon his summons, who hath conferred such an honor upon you, and thought you worthy of being produced as a witness in such a cause?
But some one in authority has given a sentence. “I judge you to be impious and profane.” What has befallen you? — I have been judged to be impious and profane. — Anything else? — Nothing. — Suppose he had passed his judgment upon any process of reasoning, and pronounced it to be a false conclusion, that, if it be day, it is light; what would have befallen the proposition? In this case, who is judged, who condemned; the proposition, or he who cannot understand it? Does he know, who claims the power of ruling in your case, what pious or impious means? Has he made it his study or learned it? Where? From whom? A musician would not regard him, if he pronounced bass to be treble; nor a mathematician, if he passed sentence, that lines drawn from the centre to the circumference, are not equal. And shall he, who is instructed in the truth, respect an ignorant man, when he pronounces upon pious and impious, just and unjust?
“O the persecutions to which the wise are exposed!” Is it here that you have learned this talk? Why do not you leave such pitiful discourse to idle, pitiful fellows; and let them sit in a corner, and receive some little mean pay; or grumble, that nobody gives them anything? But do you come, and make some use of what you have learned. It is not reasonings that are wanted now, for there are books stuffed full of stoical reasonings.
“What is wanted, then?”
The man who shall apply them; whose actions may bear testimony to his doctrines. Assume this character for me, that we may no longer make use in the schools of the examples of the ancients, but may have some examples of our own.
“To whom, then, does the contemplation of these abstractions belong?”
To any one who has leisure for them. For man is a being fond of contemplation. But it is shameful to take only such view of things as truant slaves take of a play. We ought to sit calmly, and listen, whether to the actor, or to the musician; and not do like those poor fellows, who come in and admire the actor, constantly glancing about them, and then, if any one happens to name their master, run frightened away. It is shameful for a philosopher, thus to contemplate the works of nature. What, in this parallel case, stands for the master? Man is not the master of man; but death, and life, and pleasure, and pain; for without these, bring even Cæsar to me, and you will see how intrepid I shall be. But, if he comes thundering and lightening with these, and these are the objects of my terror; what do I else, but, like the truant slave, acknowledge my master? While I have any respite from these, as the truant comes into the theatre, so I bathe, drink, sing; but all with terror and anxiety. But, if I free myself from my masters, that is, from such things as render a master terrible, what trouble, what master have I remaining?
“Shall we then insist upon these things with all men?”
No. But make allowance for the ignorant, and say, This poor man advises me to what he thinks good for himself. I excuse him; for Socrates, too, excused the jailer, who wept when he was to drink the poison; and said, “How heartily he sheds tears for us.” Was it to him that Socrates said, “For this reason we sent the women out of the way”? No; but to his friends; to such as were capable of hearing it; while he humored the other, as a child.