June 3, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

The Law Of Life: Live In Accordance With Nature (Discourses I.26)


  1. Live in accordance with nature.
  2. Become aware of this governing principle.
  3. Start with ideas that are easy to understand and then go on to more difficult ones.
We must do what follows from nature

Epictetus saw someone reading out hypothetical arguments. He said “True, there is a law governing hypothesis – we must admit what follows from the hypothesis.” Then he continued, “Far more important is the law of life – we must do what follows from nature. If we desire to obey nature in every area and on every occasion, then we should neither miss noticing what nature expects of us nor accept anything that conflicts with it.”

Start with what is easy to understand

So, philosophers start with theory that is easier to understand, leaving more difficult subjects for later. When we study theory, there is nothing to challenge what we are being taught; but in real life many things clamor for our attention. It is silly to argue otherwise because it is not easy begin with what is more difficult.

This is the right defence to use with parents who are displeased with their children studying philosophy. “I am sure you are right, Dad. My judgment is poor and I don’t know how I should go about it. But if it can neither be taught nor be learned, then why blame me? But if it can be taught, please teach it to me yourself. Or, let me learn from someone who claims to understand it. Besides, do you believe I would voluntarily choose evil and miss the good? I hope not! Why then do I go wrong if not for my ignorance? Do you not then want me to get rid of my ignorance? When did anger ever teach anyone how to play music or how to pilot a ship? Do you expect your anger to teach me the art of living?”

You can use these arguments only if your motives have those intentions. But if a person goes to philosophers and studies these things to impress others with his knowledge at a dinner party, he’d be satisfied to gain the respect of a senator seated next to him.

We can find great resources in Rome. The wealth we find here in Nicolpolis, by comparison, is mere child’s play. It is easy to follow your principles here because there aren’t many temptations. It is more difficult to be a master of impressions in Rome because several temptations compete for your attention there. I once saw a man who wept and embraced the knees of Epaphroditus (my former master in Rome) saying that he was down to his last million. What did Epaphroditus do? Laugh at him, as you are doing now? No! He said in an astonished tone: “Poor fellow. How did you manage to keep silent all these days? How did you endure it?”

Once Epictetus corrected someone reading the hypothetical arguments. The person who set him reading began ridiculing him to which Epictetus replied: “You are ridiculing yourself. You did not prepare the student so he could understand these arguments and you did not care to find out if he was capable of understanding these arguments. You simply used him as a reader. If a mind isn’t capable of following the conclusion of a complex argument, how can you assume such a mind is capable of assigning praise or blame and forming judgments about things being good or bad? If such a person talks ill of someone, will the other person care? If he praises someone, will that someone jump for joy, when the person in question cannot even follow logic in simple matters?”

Know your mental state with regard to the governing principle

So, if one wants to be a philosopher, one should first become aware of one’s governing principle. When a person knows it is in a weak state, he will refrain from tackling difficult matters. The way it is now though, some people who cannot work though a leaflet will try to devour a whole treatise. The result? They get sick or suffer indigestion. Worse things follow. They should first find out what they are capable of. In matters of theory, it is easy to refute someone who is ignorant. But, in the affairs of life, no one offers himself to be examined. We resent being examined as well. Yet Socrates used to say that the unexamined life is not worth living.


We must do what nature demands. Discourses 1.26.2. Epictetus (WO)