September 9, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Guard Yourself Against Inconsistencies (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 11.21)

Key ideas of this discourse

We admit to some of our faults but not to others.
When we see a fault as something beyond our control, we admit to it. When we see it as something that should be under our control, we don’t admit to it.
But we are confused about what is under our control and what is not under our control.
Many students start studying philosophy not to live it, but to impress others with their knowledge. So their life continues to be the same as before.
For these principles to work, you should approach them with a clear mind and put them into practice.

We admit only to some of our faults

We readily admit to some of our faults, but not to others. For example, we wouldn’t admit to being foolish or stupid, but say things like, “I wish I had as much luck as I have sense,” or, “Maybe I’m a bit timid, but I am no fool.” Hardly anyone would admit to a lack of self-control, to being unjust, or to being nosy or envious. Most would, however, admit that they are moved by pity.

Why is this?

The main reason is that we are confused and inconsistent about what is good and evil. We may differ from one another but, as a rule, we wouldn’t admit to anything that we consider shameful. We may consider timidity and pity as signs of being sensitive, but stupidity as a sign of being slavish. Least of all, are we willing to admit to antisocial behavior. We acknowledge those faults we consider involuntary – such as shyness and timidity. A person who lacks self-control may rebrand it as love and expect to be forgiven for this involuntary reaction. But injustice cannot be justified as involuntary. Jealousy can be seen as involuntary to a certain extent, so people will admit to it.

We should examine ourselves

We are surrounded by people who are so confused and so ignorant of what they are saying. Whatever fault they may have, wherever they may have got it from, and however they may get rid of it, we should make it a habit to ask ourselves the following questions:
Am I one of them too?
What conceit do I have?
Do I conduct myself as a sensible and moderate person?
Do I say that I am educated enough to face anything that might happen?
Am I aware that I know nothing, since I know nothing?
Do I go to my teacher and follow his instructions as if they came from an oracle?
Or, like others, do I go there like a sniveling child, only to study the history of philosophy, memorize bookish principles and explain them to others?


The first book of Discourses containing 30 of Epictetus Discourses in plain English is now available as a book (print or ebook). The book is called Stoic Foundations and it contains not only all 30 discourses in full, but a summary of the basic themes. a summary of each discourse, and contextual commentary throughout the book. Available from all major online stores including Amazon.

Quit complaining

You have been fighting with your help at home. Your household is a mess. You have disturbed your neighbours’ peace. Now you have come here looking all dignified and scholarly. And you see fit to pass judgement on how I explain a text and say whatever nonsense that comes to my head?

You have come here in a spirit of envy because you get no allowance from home. You sit through my lectures and discussions while thinking all the while about how things are between you and your father or brother. “What are they saying about me back home? I suppose I am making progress and they are saying, ‘He will come back knowing everything.’ At one point, I suppose, I had hoped I would know everything. But that is hard work and I get no help from home. The baths here are awful. Things are going badly for me both at home and here.”

Then people start saying that one is no better off for attending school. Who – I repeat who – goes to school to become a better person? Who goes to have their judgments examined, fully aware that they need to be examined? Is it any wonder you go back home with the same set of ideas that you came here with? You did not come here to have your ideas examined. Not in the least. Far from it. So at least think about this. Are you getting what you came here for? You want to chatter about philosophical principles. Well, aren’t you getting better at that? Haven’t you become more talkative than you were before? Aren’t these topics that give you enough material for you to impress others? Haven’t you learned logic and how to analyze an argument? Haven’t you learned assumptions in The Liar and other hypothetical arguments?

“Why then are you unhappy, even though you got everything you came here for?”
“Well, what good will all this do me if my child dies? Or if my brother or myself have to die or suffer torture?”
“Did you come here for that? Did you sit beside me for that? Is it for that you sometimes sacrificed sleep and studied all night? Did you ever, when you went for a walk, challenge an impression in your mind and examine it with your colleagues, rather than arguing about logic? When did you ever do that?”

And then you say the principles you learn here are useless. Useless to whom? Only to those who apply them incorrectly. Eye drops are not useless if applied to eyes the right way. Neither are bandages. Weights are not useless to everyone; they are useful to some and not to others. If you ask me, “Is logic useful?” I would say,

“Yes. I will show you how if you like.”
“What good has it done me?”
“You didn’t ask me whether it was useful to you personally but whether it was useful in general. Vinegar is useful to someone suffering from indigestion.”
“So is it useful to me now?”
“No, not to you now. You need to have the discharge stopped first and have the wounds healed.”

All of you, heal your ulcers, stop the discharges and calm your mind. Bring it to the school, free from distractions. Only then will you know how powerful reason can be.

Think about this

First, cure your ulcers, stop your discharges, be tranquil in mind, bring it free from distraction into the school; then you will know what power reason has. Discourses II.21.22. Epictetus [WO]