June 9, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses

Freedom from Mind Wandering

Key ideas of this discourse

  • When you let your mind wander, you can’t bring it back whenever you like.
  • You should constantly keep the basic principles at hand.
  • Practice the basic principles. Don’t worry about pleasing others.
  • You don’t need to be perfect. But don’t procrastinate. Procrastination can only lead to more procrastination.
When you let your mind wander, you can’t bring it back whenever you like

When you relax your attention for a short while, don’t imagine that you can get it back whenever you like. Remember, because of your mistake today, your future conditions will necessarily be worse. The primary and the most important thing is this: First you develop the habit of not paying attention. Next you develop the habit of deferring attention. Then you get into the habit of putting off time after time the happy and appropriate way of life that is, and will be, in accordance with nature. If putting it off is advantageous, giving it up completely should be even better. But if it is not, why don’t you maintain your attention continuously?

“I want to play today.”

“What’s there to stop you from playing with attention?”

“I want to sing.”

“What’s there to stop you from singing with attention?”

Surely, there’s no area of life that’s not covered by attention. Is there anything that you will do better by not attending than by attending? Is there anything at all in life that’s not done better by those who pay attention than by those who don’t? Does an inattentive carpenter do a more accurate job? Does an inattentive helmsman steer more safely? is there any less important function that can be done better by not paying attention?

Don’t you see that when your let your mind wander, it is no longer within your power to bring it back, either to dignity, or to self-respect, or to good order? But you do everything that comes into your head and you follow your impulses.

What you should constantly attend to

“What should I attend to, then?”

“First, the general principles. You should have them at your command, and should not go to sleep, or get up, or drink, or eat, or mingle without these principles:

No one is a master of another’s choice.

In choice alone our good and evil lie.

No one has the power to secure you in any good or involve you in any evil.

You alone have the authority over yourself in these matters.

Since these things are secure for you, why do you have to trouble yourself with externals? What bully can intimidate you? What disease? What poverty? What obstacle?

“But I haven’t pleased so-and-so.”

“Is he an action of yours, then?”


“Is he your judgement?”


“Why do you bother about him any further, then?”

“But he is highly thought of.”

“Let him and those who think highly of him see to that. But you have one whom you must please, whom you must submit to, whom you must obey – that is God and, after that, yourself. He has entrusted you to yourself and made your choice subject to yourself alone, and gave you rules for the right use of it. When you follow these rules, don’t pay attention to anyone who argues from equivocal premises.”

Why then do you get you annoyed with those who are critical of you in these most important matters? Why should you be troubled in that way? For no other reason except that you lack training in this area. Every science has a right to despise ignorance and ignorant people. Not only the sciences, but arts and crafts as well. Take any shoemaker, take any smith you like, and he laughs at the rest of the world with regard to his own business. This is true of carpenters as well.

Practice these principles


  • First of all, we keep these principles at hand and do nothing without them; keep our mind directed to this purpose; go after nothing external, nothing not our own; rather – as the one with authority has ordained – pursue without reservation things that are within the area of our choice, and other things only as far as they are given to us.
  • Next, we must remember who we are, what our role is, and try to act appropriately as our social relationships require.
  • We must remember what is the proper time to sing, the proper time to play, and in front of whom; what will be out of place, so our companions won’t look down upon us, and we don’t look down upon ourselves. When we joke, whom we laugh at; to what purpose to engage in social relations and with whom; and, finally, how to preserve our own character.

Whenever you deviate from any of these rules, you immediately suffer loss. It is not from anything external, but from your own action.

You can’t be perfect, but no need to procrastinate

So, is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is unrealistic. But it is possible to strive continuously to avoid faults. We must be content, by never relaxing our attention, if we manage to escape at least a small number of faults. But now, when you say, “I will begin to pay attention tomorrow,” let me tell you what you mean: “Today, I will be shameless, tactless, and mean-spirited. Other people can cause me distress. I will get angry and I will be envious today.” See how many evils you are allowing yourself! But if it is good for you to pay attention tomorrow, how much better it would be to do so today. You may be able to achieve the same tomorrow as well, without putting it off again for the day after.

Think about this

So, is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable; but it is possible to strive continuously not to commit faults. Discourses IV.12.19. Epictetus [GC/RH]

“…how he may please someone by maligning someone else. Whenever he prays, he prays for things like these. Whenever he sacrifices, he sacrifices for things like these. He applies the saying, “Let not sleep descend on your weary eyes,” by Pythagoras for these purposes. [Then he wonders] “Where did I go wrong in my flattery? What did I do? Could it be that I acted as a free and noble-minded person?” If he does find any such action he criticizes and accuses himself: “What did you do that for? Couldn’t you have lied? Even philosophers say that nothing stops one from lying.