March 8, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Training to be a philosopher

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

[In this discourse, Epictetus presents an idealized version of a philosopher, in the context of a student expressing an interest in Cynicism, which provided inspiration for Stoicism. Although the descriptions refer to a Cynic philosopher, it would apply equally to a Stoic philosopher.]

  1. Don’t imitate the actions of others without understanding why.

  2. To be an expert, you should first digest what you have learned.

  3. Until you have digested what you have learned and understood fully what is involved, act with modesty and don’t imitate people who know much better than you.

  4. A philosopher would care for others and take care of them. He knows that good and bad come out of his choices. His desires are always fulfilled, and he is never faced with anything that he is averse to. He is charming, witty, and physically healthy. But he surrenders his body to others if necessary. He may not marry and bring up children but contributes to society in other ways.

  5. A life like that needs a lot of training. If you want to become a philosopher, review your resources and make sure you are up to it.

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.

Show your mastery through results

One of his students who was attracted to Cynicism asked Epictetus,

“Who is qualified to be a Cynic?”

“Let us examine the idea at length,” said Epictetus.

But first let me tell you this much. If someone attempts to understand this great topic while not believing in God or hating him, it is nothing but disgraceful behaviour in front of the public. In a well-managed house, not anyone can declare, “I should be running this place.” If you do, the master of the house will see you giving orders and you will be dragged away and thrown out. It is so with this world, too. For here is a master of the house who orders everything. He says,

“You are the sun. Go around and make the year and seasons. Make the fruits and nourish them. Stir the winds and make them calm. Warm people’s bodies. Go, travel around, and manage things from the greatest to the least.”

“You are cow. When a lion appears, run away. If you don’t, you’ll suffer.”

“You are a bull. Step forward and fight the lion, because this is your business. It becomes you and you can do it.”

“You are capable of leading an army against Troy. Be Agamemnon.”

“You are capable of fighting against Hector in a single combat. Be Achilles.”

But if [the inferior fighter] Thersites had come forward to claim the command, he wouldn’t have got it. If he had, he would have disgraced himself in front of several witnesses.

Don’t get carried away by superficial symbols

Likewise, you should think about the matter carefully: it’s not the way it looks. You say,

“I wear a coarse cloak now and I will wear it then. I sleep on a hard bed now and I will be on one then. In addition, now and then, I will take a little bag and a staff and beg from the people I meet, and abuse them. If I see anyone dressing his hair or walking about in purple, I will rebuke them.”

If you imagine this is what it takes to be a Cynic, keep well away. Don’t come near it. It’s not at all for you. But if you imagine it as it really is and do not consider yourself unfit for it, consider what a great thing you undertake.

You need to change the way you think

First, about yourself. You must not, in any in instance, behave the way you do now. You must accuse neither God nor others. You must completely get rid of desire, and must be averse only to those things that are your choices. You should not give in to anger, resentment, envy, or pity. A girl or a boy should not look pretty or handsome to you, nor must you love reputation or be pleased by a cake. You should know that, when people do things of this nature, they are protected by walls, houses, and darkness. They have much to conceal. A man shuts the doors, stations someone outside his bedroom and says, “If someone comes calling say, ‘He’s out, he is busy.’”

Instead of all this, a Cynic uses only his honour as his protection. If he doesn’t, he will be indecent when he is naked under the open sky. Honour is his house, his door, his doorkeeper, and his darkness. He must not wish to hide anything he does. If he does, he is gone, he has lost his character of a Cynic, of a free and outdoor character. He has begun to fear some external thing and has a need to hide something. Nor does he can he hide when he wants to. Where will he hide and how? If, by any chance, this public teacher gets caught, what must this instructor suffer? Can someone who is afraid of all this still have the confidence to supervise others? No. It is not practical, and it is not possible.

So, in the first place, you must make your ruling faculty pure and develop a corresponding life style. [You must tell me that,]

“Just as the material for a carpenter is wood, and the material for a shoemaker is leather, the material I need to work on from now on is my own mind. The body or its parts are nothing to me. Death? Let death come whenever it chooses, either to the whole body or a part. ‘Fly,’ you say. And to where? Can you banish me from this universe? You cannot. But, wherever I go, there will be sun, there will be moon, there will be stars, dreams, prophesies, and conversation with gods.”

Even this preparation is not sufficient for a true Cynic. He must know that he has been sent by God to be a messenger to people about good and bad things. To show them that they have wandered and are looking for the nature of good and bad in the wrong places, rather than where it really is.

Understand where good and bad lie

After the battle of Chaeroneia, Diogenes was brought to Philip. A Cynic is indeed a spy – a spy of what is good and what is bad. It is his duty to examine carefully and report accurately thus: not to be struck with terror because there are no enemies, not to be confused in any other way by impressions. If necessary, it is his duty then to climb on to the tragic stage and, like Socrates, say,

“Tell me, where are you going in such a hurry? What are you doing, miserable ones? You are wandering up and down like blind people. You have left the true road and are going into a cul-de-sac. You look for peace and happiness where they are not. If someone shows where they are, you don’t believe them. Why are you seeking it outside?”

In the body? It’s not there. If you doubt it, look at [the contemporary gladiators and athletes] Myro and Ophelius [who presumably came to a bad end.]

In possessions? It’s not there. If you do not believe me, look at Croesus [who was presumably murdered]. Look at those who are now rich and see how much they complain.

In power? It’s not there. If it is, people who hold high offices must be happy; they are not.”

Whom shall we believe in these matters? You who view this from outside and are dazzled by appearances, or the men themselves? What do they say? Hear them when they groan, when they grieve, when they think that they are worse off and at greater risk just because they hold high offices.

In royal power? It’s not there. Otherwise Nero and [the last king of Assyria] Sardanapalus would have been happy. Not even Agamemnon, who was a better man than them, was happy. When the rest were snoring, what did he do?

“He pulled a hair from his head, roots and all.”

 What did he say?

“I pace up and down. My spirit is troubled, and my heart is pounding right out of my chest.” [Iliad, x.15, 91, 94-95. RD]

Poor man, what is going badly for you? Your possessions? No. Your body? No. But you are rich in “God and bronze.” What is wrong with you then? Your problem is that you have neglected and ruined that faculty with which you feel desire and aversion, impulse to act or not to act.

“Neglected how?”

“By not learning the true nature of good to which it is born and of the nature of evil, or learning what belongs to it and what doesn’t.  When something that is not its own goes badly, it thinks, ‘Poor me, the Greeks under attack.’”

“Too bad for your mind, the one thing you have neglected by not taking care of it.

“Trojans will kill us.”

“And, if they don’t kill you, won’t you die anyway?”

“Yes, but not all at once.”

“What difference does it make? If death is wrong, it is wrong whether it is singly or together. After all, death means nothing more than the separation of body and soul. If the Greeks die, do they close the door behind them? Isn’t it in your power to die?”

“It is.”

“Why complain then while you are a king and hold the sceptre of Zeus? A king cannot become unfortunate any more than a god can. So, what does that make you? A shepherd, and rightly so. You whine, like shepherds do, when a wolf snatches one of their sheep. And the people you rule over too – they are mere sheep. Anyway, why did you come? Was your desire in any danger? Or your choice, impulse to act, or aversion?”

“No, my sister-in-law was abducted.”

“Isn’t it a blessing to be rid of an adulterous wife?”

“Should we let the Trojans insult us, then?”

“What are the Trojans? Are they wise or foolish? If wise, why fight with them? If foolish, what does it matter what they think?

“If these things are not important, where does our good lie? Tell us, oh our Great Messenger and spy!”

“It’s not where you think it is, or where you look for it. Otherwise, you would have found that it is within you. You would not be wandering looking for it outside of yourself. You would not seek after what is not your own as though it is. Direct your thoughts towards yourself. Examine your preconceived ideas. What do you think good is?”

“Good is serenity, happiness, and freedom.”

“Excellent. Don’t you think that it is naturally great, priceless, and cannot be harmed? Where are you going to find them then? In something free or in something enslaved?”

“In the free.”

“Is your body free or enslaved?

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you think that your body is a slave to fever, gout, eye-disease and dysentery, not to mention tyrants, fire, and steel? In fact, everything stronger than itself?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then, how can the body, or any of its parts, be free? Or be great or priceless? In essence, it is lifeless, mere mud and dust. Do you have anything that is free?”

“I don’t think I do.”

“Well, can anyone force you to agree to what appears to you to be wrong?”


“Can anyone force you to deny to what is plainly true?”


“So, you do have something in you that, by nature, is free. Now, can you desire or avoid, choose or refuse, plan or anticipate, until you have first formed an impression of what is proper or improper?”


“So, here too, you have something free and independent. Why not try focussing on that and look after that, you poor devil? This is where you should look for your good.”

“But if someone has nothing – no clothes, no home or fireplace, no clean place, no one who would assist, no city – how is it possible for a person like that to be happy?”

“God has sent us someone like that to show that it is indeed possible. ‘Look at me. I have no country, no home, no possessions, and no servants. I sleep on the ground. I don’t have a wife or children or fine residence, just earth and sky and one sorry cloak. And what do I lack? Am I not without sorrow, without fear? Am I not free? Have you even seen me fail to get what I want or get what I try to avoid? Have I ever blamed God or another human being? Have I ever yelled at anyone? Have you ever seen me with a sad face? How do I treat people whom you fear and stand in awe of? Do I not treat them as if they were slaves? As a matter of fact, whenever they see me, they treat me as their lord and master.’ This is the language of a Cynic, this is his character and this is his personality.”

Instead you think you can tell a Cynic by his satchel, his stick, and his jaws; by the way he wolfs down or stores away the food given to him, by the way he shouts abuses at passers-by or by his bare, broad shoulders. Do you see the way in which you propose to take this great endeavour on? Look in the mirror. Look at your shoulders, check out your back and thighs. You are about to enrol yourself in the Olympics, not in some poor, second-rate competition. If you lose at the Olympics, you can’t just leave. You are first disgraced in front of the whole world, not just people from your city or country. A casual contestant who thinks he can leave whenever he likes will be crushed, but not before he suffers thirst and heat and swallows a handful of sand.

Being a Cynic is not easy

So, think more carefully, know your limits, don’t go forward without the help of God. If he advises you, you will be a great man, but you will also suffer a great many blows. This is a part of a Cynic’s destiny: he must be beaten like a donkey and, when he is beaten, must love those who beat him as though they were his father or brother.

No, that’s not how you would react. If someone beats you, you’d cry publicly: “O Caesar, why do I suffer like this when you have brought peace to the world? Take me to the proconsul [governor and judge] at once.”

What is Caesar to a Cynic? What is the proconsul? What is anyone else except God who sent him here and whose mission he serves? He doesn’t call upon anyone else. He is confident that, if he faces hardship, it is God who put him through it to train him. Heracles, when he was trained by Eurystheus, did not consider himself miserable but performed all labours required of him. Should we expect a Cynic, who argues that he takes orders from God who is his trainer, to hesitate or complain?

Listen what Diogenes said, when he had a fever, to those passing by. “Fools, where are you going in a hurry? You are going a long way to watch the battles or to watch the downfall of athletes in the Olympics. Don’t you want to see the battle between a man and his illness?” He positively prides himself in facing difficult situations and thinks of himself as a worthy spectacle to those who pass by him. Such a man will not accuse the god who chose him and sent him here of treating him unfairly. What would he accuse God of? That he is so dignified? What would his charge be? That his virtue shines brightly?

What does Diogenes say about poverty, death, and pain? How does he compare his happiness with that of a Persian King? Or, rather, he thinks that there’s no comparison. After all, where you find restlessness, grief, fear, disappointed desires, failed aversions, jealousy and envy, there happiness cannot enter. When your judgments are false, these passions will naturally follow.

You must be a Cynic to be worthy of a Cynic’s friendship

The same young man asked:

“If a Cynic got sick, should he agree to be taken care of by a friend, if invited?”

“Where will you find a friend of a Cynic? He would have to be another Cynic, just like you. He would have to ‘share the sceptre and kingdom,’ [The Cynic is presented here as the true king] and be a worthy minister [of God], if he is to be honoured with the friendship.”

Thus, Diogenes was worthy of Antisthenes and Crates of Diogenes. Or, do you imagine that anyone who salutes a Cynic will be accepted as a friend worthy of being invited into his home? If that’s what you think, you better start looking for a rubbish heap to shelter you from the North Wind when you get a fever, so you may not catch a chill. But it looks to me as though all you want to do is to get into someone’s house and be well-fed for a while. You have no business trying to undertake so great a subject as Cynicism.  The student asked:

“But, can a Cynic choose to marry and have children?”

“In a city of sages, it is quite possible that no one would live the life of a Cynic. For whose sake would he do it? But, supposing there is a Cynic there, then nothing would prevent him from marrying and having children. His wife and her father would be like him, his children would be brought up to be like him. But now everything is ordered as though for a battle. Isn’t it necessary that a Cynic be free from distraction, dedicated to his sacred ministry, ready to walk around? If he is tied down to private obligations and mixed up in relationships that he cannot very well ignore, can he still maintain his character as a wise and good man? If he remains faithful to them, will it not destroy his nature as a messenger and spy carrying a divine message?”

A Cynic contributes to society by the way he lives and looks after others

Let me give you a few examples. He has some obligations to his father-in-law, some to the relatives of his wife, and some to his wife herself. From now on, whenever he has to be a provider for them or be a nurse for them when they are sick, he cannot carry out his calling [as a Cynic]. He has to have other things as well: a container for warm water for the bad; warm clothing for his wife when she has a child; plus oil, and a bed, and a cup. See how quickly they all add up! There will be so many other things that would fill his mind and distract him.

Let me ask you this. After all the above, where will the king, who devotes all his time for public good, be? Where is the king whose duty it is to watch over others who are married and have children, to supervise which one is treating their spouse well, which badly, who is fighting, which households are thriving, and which are not?  The king is like a doctor. He goes around like a doctor who takes the pulse of her patients saying, “You have fever,” “You have headache,” “You have the gout,” “You should fast,” “You should eat,” “You should not bathe,” “You need an operation,” and “You need to be cauterized.”

How is someone burdened by private duties going to find time for this? Shouldn’t he provide his children clothes and send them off to school with their notebooks and pens and make up a bed for them at night? They cannot be Cynics straight out of their mother’s womb! If he fails to do all this, he might as well have exposed them at birth and kill them off that way [than by neglect].

Do you see to what level we have reduced a Cynic? How we are depriving him of his kingdom?

“But [the Cynic philosopher] Crates was married.”
“Yes, but that was a result of a love affair. Crates’ wife herself was like another Crates. But we are talking about ordinary marriages, not affected by special considerations.  We do not find marriage, under normal circumstances, is a preferred action for a Cynic.”

“How then will he keep society going?”

For heaven’s sake, who benefits the society more? Those who produce two or three snivelling brats to replace them or those who watch over humankind, examining what people do, how they live, what they take care of, and what they neglect?  Who benefited Thebans more – those who give them children or Epaminondas, who died childless? [Epaminondas was a Theban general and statesman of the 4th Century BCE. He led the Greek city-state of Thebes to freedom, making it a prominent region in Greece.] Did Priam, who had fifty useless children, Danaus or Aeolus [kings who also had many children] contribute more to society than Homer [the author of Iliad and Odyssey who neither had a home nor a family]? Their life as poet or general was considered sufficient contribution to exempt them from marrying and bringing up children. Shouldn’t the kingship of a Cynic be considered as sufficient contribution as well?

Perhaps we don’t understand the greatness of [the Cynic philosopher] Diogenes or fully appreciate his character. We rather think of Cynics as they are now: “Dogs who beg at the table and hang about the gate” [Iliad, 22. As translated by Robert Dobbin], who have nothing in common with the founders except perhaps farting in public. Otherwise, we would not be surprised or disappointed if a Cynic does not marry, or have children. Consider him, my friend, as the father of humankind; every man is his son and every woman is his daughter. It is in his nature to approach everyone and take care of everyone. Or do you think that he is meddlesome enough to denounce everyone he meets? No, he does it as a father, as a brother, as a servant of our common parent, God.

A Cynic is always engaged in public affairs

Go on and ask me if a Cynic will engage in public affairs. Tell me, you fool, what public affair are you looking for other than the one he is engaged in right now? Or should he come forward and give speeches to his fellow citizens about revenues and taxes when his business is to talk to the entire humankind – not about debits and credits or war and peace – but about happiness and unhappiness, good fortune and bad, slavery and freedom? You are asking me if someone will engage in public affairs when he is already engaged in it in such a big way. Ask me, too, whether he will accept public office. I will tell you, “What office, you fool, is greater than the one he has now?”

A Cynic’s body, however, should be in good shape. His philosophy will not carry much conviction if it comes from a sickly, thin, and pale body. It is not enough for him to prove to ordinary people, through constancy of his mind, that it is possible to be good and noble without the material things they value. He also has to show, by his body, that a plain and simple outdoor life is wholesome: “See, both I and my body testify.” This was so with Diogenes. He walked about with radiant health and would draw the attention of the crowd by it. But a Cynic who aroused pity seems like a beggar. People avoid him and are offended by him. He should not be dirty and thus scare away people. Even his ruggedness should be clean and engaging.

A Cynic is sharp and witty

A Cynic should also have great natural charm and sharpness of mind, so he can always respond readily and correctly to every situation. (Otherwise, he is just a windbag.) Thus, when someone asked Diogenes, “Are you the Diogenes who does not believe that gods exist?” Diogenes replied, “How can you say that when I know gods despise you?”

Again, when Alexander the Great stood over him while he was sleeping and recited [Homer’s line from Iliad],

“To sleep the whole night does not fit with the man who counsels.”

Diogenes, still half-asleep, answered him [with the next line in Iliad]

“One who has the people in his care should be watchful about many things.”

A Cynic is pure

Above all, his governing principle should be purer than the Sun; otherwise he must necessarily be a gambler, and a man of no principles because he lectures others while he himself is guilty of some vice. This is how it stands: Even corrupt kings and tyrants, because they have weapons and bodyguards, can reprimand and punish wrongdoers. A Cynic derives the same authority of weapon and bodyguards through his conscience. He knows he has watched over others and worked on their behalf. His sleep is pure, and he wakes up even purer. His thoughts were of a friend and servant of the gods and he shares in the governance of gods and is ready to say under all conditions,

“Lead me Zeus; and thou, O Destiny,”


“If this what pleases the gods, so be it.”

Why then, should such person not speak boldly to his brothers? To his children? In a word, his own relations? Therefore, such a person is neither a busybody nor meddler. He is not concerning himself with other people’s business, but his own when he looks after the common welfare. If you don’t agree, then, by your logic, a general is interfering if he inspects, reviews, watches over his soldiers, and punishes the disorderly.

If, however, you criticize others when you’re hiding a cake under your arm, let me ask you: Wouldn’t you rather go off into a corner and eat up what you have stolen? What do you have to do with other people’s affairs? Who are you anyway? The bull in the herd? The queen of the hive? Show me the proof of your authority, such as the queen bee has from nature. If you are a drone and claim to be the king of bees, don’t you think your fellow-citizens will throw you out, just as bees do the drones?

A Cynic protects what is his own, surrenders what is not to others

Besides, the Cynic must have so much patient endurance that most people would consider him unresponsive like a stone. [As far as he is concerned,] no one insults him, no one beats him, no one hurts him, because he has surrendered his body to others to abuse as they like. He knows that whatever is inferior must yield to what is superior. Physically, the body is inferior to the crowd, which is stronger in that respect. He does not enter into contests that he cannot win, and so he immediately gives up what is not his own, lays no claim to his slavish body.

But when it comes to matters of choice and proper use of impressions, you will see he has so many eyes that you would say that Argos is blind by comparison. [In Greek mythology, Argos or Argus Panoptes is a giant with many eyes.] Does he prematurely assent? Is his impulse ever thoughtless? Is his desire ever frustrated? Does he ever incur aversion? Is his purpose ever unrealized? Is he fault-finding, envious, or does he humiliate himself? It is for these things he devotes all his attention and effort. As for the rest, he lies back and yawns and is wholly at peace. No one can rob him of his choice.

But, of his body? Yes. Of his property? Yes. Of honours and offices? Yes. What does he care for these things? So, when someone tries to frighten him with the loss of these things, he says, “Go and look for children, to whom masks are frightening. But I know they are made of earthenware and there’s nothing inside them.”

Be aware of your resources and limitations

This, then, is the enterprise which you are thinking of pursuing. So, I ask you, in the name of God, put off your decision. Look first at your resources. Remember what Hector said to Andromache: “Go into the house and weave. War will be the concern of all men, mine in particular.” [Homer’s Iliad, paraphrased.] He was so aware of his own resources and her incapacity.

Think about this

Plan carefully, know your limits, be reasonable. Discourses II.22.53. Epictetus [RD]