March 10, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Train to Spot an Advantage in Every Circumstance

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Good and bad come from us, not from external events.
  2. You can derive benefit from any external event – even sickness and death.
  3. If someone is “bad”, he is bad for himself, not to you. Your good and bad come from the choices you make.

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.

Good and bad come from ourselves, not from external events

Regarding intellectual impressions, almost everyone agrees that the good and bad come from ourselves, not from things external to us. No one says that the statement, “It’s day,” is good or the statement, “It’s night,” is bad. Nor does anyone say, “Three is equal to four,” the greatest evil.

“What do they say, then?”

” Knowledge is good and error is bad. Even in what is false, good can arise, namely, the knowledge is indeed false. The same should be true in life as well. Is health a good and illness an evil?”


“What then? Health is good when put to good use and bad when put to bad use.”

“So, it is possible to benefit even from sickness?”

“For heaven’s sake, is it not possible to benefit even from death? And from lameness? Isn’t it so? Was it only a small benefit that Menoeceus [who gave up his life to save the city of Thebes] gained when he died?”

“May the person who talks like that gain the same sort of benefit as he did!

There is benefit even in sickness and death

Listen, didn’t he preserve his character as a patriot, and as one who was magnanimous, faithful, and noble-spirited? Had he survived, wouldn’t he have lost all those qualities and acquired the opposite qualities? Wouldn’t his character be that of someone who is cowardly, mean-spirited, a hater of his country, and lover his own life? Well now, do you think he gained only a small benefit from his death? No?

Well, how about the father of Admetus [who refused to die in spite of being very old himself in order to save the life of his son]? Did he gain any advantage by refusing to die, in a wretched and miserable fashion? And later, did he not die anyway?”

You must stop, I command you by the gods, admiring material things, stop making yourself a slave, first of things and then, on account of these things, to people who are able to get them for you or take them away from you.

“Is it possible, then, to benefit from these things?”

“Yes, from everything.”

“Even from someone who insults me?”

“What advantage does a wrestler get from his sparring partner? The greatest. Well, the person who insults you is your sparring partner. He trains you in patience, in being free of anger, and in gentleness.”

You disagree.  Yet the man who grips your neck and gets your hips and shoulders in shape brings you benefit. The wrestling coach does well in telling you, “Raise the weight with both hands.” And the heavier the weight, the more good it does you. Yet you say that one who trains you in being free of anger brings you no benefit. It is simply you don’t know how to draw benefit from other people.

If someone is “bad,” he is bad for himself, not to you

Your neighbour is bad? Bad to himself, but good to you.

This is the magic wand of Hermes [son of Zeus]: As the saying goes, “Touch what you like, it will turn into gold.” For me, bring me anything and I’ll turn it into something good. Bring sickness, death, poverty, abuse, or even a trial for your own life. All these, under the touch of the wand of Hermes, will become a source of benefit.

“What about death?”

“What else but make it to your glory or an opportunity for you to show in action what kind of a person it is who follows the will of nature.”

“What about disease?”

“I’ll show its nature, I will get the better of it and remain steadfast and serene. I will neither flatter my doctor nor pray for my death. What more do you want? Whatever you give me, I will turn it into something blessed and a source of happiness; something imposing and admirable.”

But not you. You say, “Watch out. Don’t get sick. It’s bad.” It’s like saying “Watch out. Don’t get the impression that three equals four. It’s bad. In what way is it bad, my friend? If I get the right idea about it, how can it harm me anymore? Will it not even be beneficial to me? If I form the right idea about poverty, or disease, or not holding office, isn’t that enough for me? Will it not help me? How then do you expect me to seek for good any longer in external things?”

But what is the reality? You accept these ideas as far as the door but no one takes them home with them. All at once you are at war with your servants, your neighbours and those who laugh at you. Thank you [Epictetus’ critic] Lesbius, for proving every day that I know nothing!

Think about this

Even in regard to what is false, there arises a good. Discourses III.20.3. Epictetus [WO]