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Lecture 4: Epictetus on Philosophy and Virtue
Instructor: Scott Dixon

I. “Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a
thing, desire, aversion—turning from a thing, and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in the power
are the body, property, reputation, offices, and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things
in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance: but the things not in our power are
weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others….”(11)

1. "Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses,
desires, aversions--in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, no are our
possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The
things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to
us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved
are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will
blame both gods and men."

XXIX. “…You must be one man, either good or bad. You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty,
or (cultivate) external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external things;
that is, you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common person.”

29. "…You must be one person, either good or bad. You must either work on your ruling principle, or work
on externals, practice the art of what is inside or of what is outside, that is, play the role either of a
philosopher or of a non-philosopher."

XIII. “If you would improve, submit to be considered without sense and foolish with respect to externals.
Wish to be considered to know nothing: and if you shall seem to some to be a person of importance,
distrust yourself. For you should know that it is not easy both to keep your will in a condition
conformable to nature and (to secure) external things: but if a man is careful about the one, it is an
absolute necessity that he will neglect the other.”

13. "If you want to make progress, let people think you are a mindless fool about externals, and do
not desire a reputation for knowing about them. If people think you amount to something, distrust
yourself. Certainly it is not easy to be on guard for one's choices to be in accord with nature and
also for externals, and a person who concerns himself with the one will be bound to neglect the other."

Thus, we know from I and XIV that a philosopher focuses upon things that are in his/her power, or
the internals. The common man lets externals effect his life to his/her detriment. Notice the moral
judgment in XIV, Epictetus is saying that you are either good or bad, good if you’re one who focuses
on the internals, but bad if you focus on the externals. More so, in XIII a philosopher is one who keeps
his/her will conformed to nature and is good, and conversely, a common man is one who does no
conform his/her will with nature and is bad.

A few questions:

1.  Why would Epictetus say “Wish to be considered to know nothing: and if you shall seem to
    some to be a person of importance, distrust yourself”? What is this an example of?

2. What do you think of the distinction between the philosopher and the common man?
    Do you think it is fair?

The Character of a Philosopher

XLVIII. “The condition and characteristic of an uninstructed person is this: he never expects from himself
profit (advantage) nor harm, but {he expects it} from externals. The condition and character of a
philosopher is this: he expects all advantage and all harm from himself. The signs of one who is making
progress are these: he censures no man, he praises no man, he blames no man, he accuses no man…
and in a word he watches himself as if he were an enemy and lying in ambush.”

48. "The position and character of a non-philosopher: he never looks for the benefit or harm to come
from himself but from things outside. The position and character of a philosopher: he looks for all benefit
and harm to come from himself. Signs of someone making progress: he censures no one; he praises no
one; he blames no one, he never talks about himself as a person who amounts to something or knows
something…In a single phrase, he is on guard against himself as an enemy lying in wait."

Consider the following to help you understand 48.

XX. “Remember that it is not he who reviles you, strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about
these things as being insulting. When, then, a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion
which has irritated you. Therefore especially try not to be carried away by the appearance. For if you gain
time and delay, you will more easily master yourself.”

20. "Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgement about
them that they are insulting. So, when someone irritates you be aware that what irritates you is your own
belief. Most importantly, therefore, try not to be carried away by appearance, since if you once gain time
and delay you will control yourself more easily."

From XLVIII/48 we know that the character of a philosopher is one who takes him/herself to be the sole
source of his/her gains or losses. Notice all of the marks of improvement, they all deal with affirmations
of something external. For example, if you were to censure a man, you would be letting what he originally
said affect you.

A question: What does Epictetus mean by, “…in a word he watches himself as if he were an enemy and
lying in ambush.” Think about this in relation to his example of being irritated.

Appearances are things which may or may not comport with reason and or nature. In the example of XX,
Epictetus implores us not to let the appearance carry us away. The appearance in this case is that it looks
as if the man is the source of our irritation, but reason shows us that it is our conceptions that are the
source of our irritations.

VI. “Be not elated at any advantage, which belongs to another. If a horse when he is elated should say,
I am beautiful, one might endure it. But when you are elated and say, I have a beautiful horse, you must
know that you are elated at having a good horse. What then is your own? The use of appearances.
Consequently, when in the use of appearances, you are conformable to nature, then be elated, for then
you will be elated at something good which is your own.”

6. "Do not be joyful about any superiority that is not your own. If the horse were to say joyfully, "I
am beautiful," one could put up with it. But certainly you, when you say joyfully, "I have a beautiful
horse," are joyful about the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Your way of dealing with
appearances. So whenever you are in accord with nature in your way of dealing with appearances
then be joyful, since then you are joyful about a good of your own."

Notice, when appearances conform with nature, like a beautiful horse, it is good. When appearances
do not conform with nature, like the man being irritated, it is bad. I take it that Epictetus’ point here is
that reason would tell us that the horse being beautiful couldn’t be any other thing than beautiful—even
if we try to change it into a ‘bad’ appearance. In the case of the man being irritated, reason tells us that
his external appearance is what is effecting us, and in a way contrary to nature. In the latter case, you
can change your perception of the appearance, in the former it is more or less self-evident. Remembering
back to Irwin, the sage could make these judgments, and in the process instruct us about which one is
good or bad.

23. "If it ever happens that you turn outward to want to please another person, certainly you have lost
your plan of life. Be content therefore in everything to be a philosopher, and if you want to seem to be one,
make yourself appear so to yourself, and you will be capable of it."

Epictetus' point here is simple. Focus on the internals and make sure you appear to yourself as one
who does. The rational part of the soul will appear to you to be separate from the appetitive part. Once
you recognize that portion of the soul, you can concentrate on those internals at the exclusion of
what appears to be internals likes desires, etc..If you do these two things, you will be capable of being
a philosopher. Thus a philosopher is a role that anyone in principle can participate in.

What is important to note is the practical nature of philosophy to Epictetus and the Stoics. Philosophy
was a way of life, not simply an academic pursuit. Curing false beliefs was something that anyone in
principle could be trained to do by reorienting their focus on the internals.

Question to think about: Is the focus on internals something you think you can do and will it help
you live a better life? Have you been carried away by appearances?