March 21, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Move Your Audience to Examine Their Lives

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. First decide what you want to be and then act accordingly.
  2. We use standards for our behaviour. There are two such standards: A general standard that tells us how to behave like human beings and a specific standard that applies to your chosen occupation and choices.
  3. To teach philosophy, you must practice it first.
  4. A true philosopher is not a show-off. He does not seek praise from the audience.
  5. A philosopher’s job is to move their audience to examine their lives.

The following is an excerpt from the book Stoic Training, Book 3 of Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English. The complete book is available in online and print editions from Amazon and other online bookstores.

First decide what you want to be and then act accordingly

First, tell yourself what you want to be and go ahead and act accordingly in all that you do. We find this to be the practice in almost every field. Athletes decide first what kind of athlete they want to be and train accordingly.  If they decide to be a long-distance runner, it means one particular diet, walking, massaging, and certain specific workouts. If they decide to be a sprinter, these are all somewhat different. If it is pentathlete you want to be, it is even more different. You will find the same in arts. If you are a carpenter, you’ll undergo one kind of training; if a blacksmith, a different kind of training. If you do not follow a standard in each one of your actions, you will be acting at random. If we follow an improper standard, we will fail completely.

There are two action standards: one general and one specific

There are two standards of action: one general and one particular. First of all, we must act like human beings. What does it include? Don’t act like sheep, however gentle you are, or like a violent wild beast. Next, there’s the particular standard that relates to your chosen occupation and choice. A musician must act like a musician, a carpenter like a carpenter, a philosopher like a philosopher, the orator like an orator. Therefore, when you say, “Come and hear me lecture,” first see that you are not acting without fixed purpose. Then, when you find your standard, make sure it is the right one. Do you want to educate or be praised? Right away you get the answer, “What do I care for praise from the crowd?” An excellent answer. The same is true of musicians as musicians and mathematicians as mathematician – they do not care about praise.

You cannot teach what you don’t practice

You want to benefit others, don’t you? In what? Tell us, so we’ll go running to the lecture theatre as well. Now, can someone benefit others if he has not received benefits himself? No, not any more than a person who is not a carpenter can give lessons in carpentry or a person who is not a cobbler can give lessons on making footwear. Do you want to know if you received any benefit? Show me your judgments, philosopher.

“What is the goal of desire?” Never to fail in getting what it wants.

“And of aversion?” Not falling into what it doesn’t want.

Now, are you achieving these goals? Tell me the truth. Because, if you lie, I’ll tell you that the other day, when your audience was somewhat cold and did not applaud, you went away dejected. On another day, when the audience did applaud, you went asking everybody:

“How did you think I did?”

“It was marvellous, I swear by my life.”

“How did I render that particular part?”


“Where I described Pan and the Nymphs.”

“It was superb!”

Instead, we seek praise from others

After all this, are you trying to tell me that regarding desire and aversion, you act in line with nature? Go away and trying telling it to someone else who might believe you! Didn’t you, just the other day, praise so-and-so contrary to your honest opinion? Weren’t you flattering a senator? Would you want your children to behave like him?

“God forbid!”

“Then why did you praise him and sweet-talk him?”

“He’s a gifted young man who enjoys listening to discourses.”

“How do you know?”

“He admires me.”

“Ah that’s proof enough!”

What do you suppose is going on? Isn’t it true that these are the same people who secretly despise you? So, someone who has never done – or even considered doing – a good thing finds a philosopher who tells him, “You’re a genius, honest and unspoilt.” What does he think to himself except that, “This man wants some favour or another from me”? So, tell me, what sign of great talent has he shown? After all, he has been with you for some time, he has listened to your discussions and heard your lectures. Has he gained more self-control? Has he paid regard to himself? Has he realized his faults? Has he given up his conceit? Has he begun to look for a teacher?

“He has.”

“One who would teach him how to live? No, fool. Only for someone who would teach him how he should talk. It is for this he admires you.”

Listen to him now and hear what he says. “This man is much more artistic in his writing. Much better than Dio.” This is very different. He does not say, “This man is self-respecting, trustworthy, and calm.” And, even if he did say that, I would ask, “Since this man is trustworthy, tell me, what does it mean exactly?” And, if he could not say, I would have added, “Understand what words mean before you speak.” While you are in this sorry state, eager for admirers and counting the number of your audience, do you wish to benefit others?

“Today I had a much greater audience.”

“Yes, huge.”

“Five hundred, I guess.”

“Nonsense. Make it a thousand.”

“Dio never had so large an audience.”

“How could he?”

“Yes, it was a sophisticated audience. They are clever in catching rhetorical points.”

“Beauty, sir, can move a mountain.”

These are the words of a philosopher for you! Here’s the nature of a man who wants to benefit humankind! This is a man who has listened to reason, has read the Socratic discourses as coming from Socrates, not as though it came from [rhetoricians] Lysias or Isocrates.

“I often wondered by what arguments ….”

“No, ‘by what argument’ reads better.’”

We miss the main points philosophers like Socrates tried to teach us

You read them as you would music-hall songs. Because, if you had read them properly, you wouldn’t care about that, but would care more for this:

“Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.”

[Socrates, as quoted from Plato’s Apology]

“I’ve always been the kind of person who attends only to arguments that seem best upon inspection, even if I have to neglect my own affairs.”

 [Socrates, as quoted from Plato’s Crito]

That’s why no one ever heard him say,

“I know something, and I teach it.”

[Socrates denied knowing anything and did not volunteer to teach or accept money.]

Instead, he would send different people to different instructors. So, people came to him to be introduced to philosophers. But you probably think that, as he went along with them, he would say, “Come and listen to me speak at the house of Quadratus.” [It was customary during Epictetus’ time for distinguished scholars to be invited to speak in one’s house.]

“Why should I listen to you? Do you want to show me how cleverly you have put the words together? So you do. But what good does it do to you?”

“You are supposed to praise me.”

“What do you mean by praise? Shout, ‘Bravo!’ or, ‘Marvellous!” All right, I will shout it. But if praise is seen as good by philosophers, then, how can I praise you? Teach me that it is a good thing and I will praise you.”

“Are you saying that we should take no pleasure in listening to fine words?”

“Of course not. I take pleasure in listening to a harp. But is that any reason for me to get up and play the harp?”

Hear what Socrates says to his judges:

“It would not be fitting for me to appear before you at my age and formulate phrases like an immature youth.”

[Socrates, as quoted from Plato’s Apology]

“Like an immature youth,” he says. For it is indeed an exquisite thing – this art of choosing words and putting them together and then reciting them in public; and then, in the middle of the discourse saying, “By God, there are not many people who can understand this!”

A philosopher’s job is to move the audience to action, not to seek praise

But does a philosopher invite people to a lecture? Like the Sun which draws nourishment to itself, a philosopher attracts people in need of help. What doctor would ever invite patients, so he can treat them? (Although, now I hear that in Rome even doctors advertise for patients. In my time, they were called in by patients.)

“I invite you to come and hear how unwell you are:

  • You take care of everything except what you should;
  • You don’t know good from evil; and
  • You are unfortunate and unhappy.”

A charming invitation! Yet, unless a philosopher produces this effect through his speech, it is lifeless and so is the philosopher. [Epictetus’ teacher] Rufus used to say, “If you find leisure time to praise me, my speech was a failure.”  He would speak in such a way as to make everyone who heard him suppose that someone had informed on him. Such was his understanding of how people behave that he vividly placed each man’s private fault in front of him.

Do not try to show off

The school of a philosopher is a hospital. When you leave, you should leave in pain, not pleasure. You were not healthy when you came in. You had a dislocated shoulder, or an abscess, or a fistula, or a headache. So, am I supposed to sit down with you and recite with your pretty thoughts and reflections so you go away praising me, but with the same dislocated shoulder, the same abscess, the same fistula, or the same headache that you came with? And is it for this that young people should travel abroad, leaving their parents, friends, relations, and possessions behind, so they can say, “Bravo!” as you deliver your clever phrases? Is this what [philosophers like] Socrates, Zeno and Cleanthes did?

“Well, isn’t there a right style for discourses and conversations?”

“Who denies that? Just as there is a style for disproof and a style for instruction. But whoever included a fourth style – the style for showing off?”

What is the style for discourses? The one that enables you to show one or more people the conflicts they are involved in and how they are involved in everything except what they should care for: they want what would make them happy, but they are looking in the wrong place. To achieve this, do we really need to set a thousand chairs, invite people, wear a fancy robe as a speaker, walk up to the podium and describe the death of Achilles? For heaven’s sake, stop doing all such things that would discredit noble words. There’s nothing more inspiring than a speaker who shows his audience that he needs them.

But tell me, has anyone who has ever heard you reading or speaking become anxious and turned his attention upon himself as a result? Or, said as he left, “That philosopher touched a nerve there. I can’t continue to behave the way I do”? No, instead of this, if you really perform well, one person says to another, “That part about Xerxes was well put.” And the other person says, “I liked his description of [the war of] Thermopylae better.”

Is that what it means to listen to a philosopher?

Think about this

What people want is what conduces to happiness; but they look for it in the wrong place. Discourses II.23.34. Epictetus [RD]