July 1, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

You Can Be Confident As Well As Cautious (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English II.1)

Key Ideas of this discourse

We should be confident in what does not depend on our choice and be cautious in what does. But we do the opposite.

Death and pain are not frightening; it is the fear of death and pain that scares us.

All we are afraid of is nothing more than scary masks. They have no substance.

Only the educated – who know and practise these things – are free.

Be content to be thought of as a nobody as long as you know that you never fail to get what you want and avoid what you don’t want.

Be cautious in your choices; be confident about other things

It may sound strange to some people when philosophers say that we should do everything both with confidence and caution. All the same, let’s examine if we can really combine confidence with caution in everything that we do. Confidence and caution appear contradictory. Contradictory things are not compatible with each other. How, then, can they coexist? If we are talking about confidence and caution existing in the same things, then we can rightly be accused of trying to combine the opposites.

But is it really strange as it sounds? We have often said, shown, and proved, that

  • Use of impressions represents for us the essence of good and evil; and
  • What lies outside our area of choice is not good or evil.

If these are true, what is strange about the philosopher’s statement, “In things that lie outside the area of your choice, be confident; in things that lie within it, be cautious?”

As evil is a matter of exercising our choice, we need to be cautious there; as everything that is not under our control is neither good or bad and therefore nothing to us, we can be confident with regard to these things. And so, that’s how we can be cautious and confident at the same time – we are confident because of our caution. Because we are cautious about evil things, we approach things that are not evil with confidence.

But we are confused and do the opposite.

Yet we act like deer that, frightened by feathers, seek safety in hunter’s nets. They meet their untimely death by confusing caution with confidence. It is so with us. We show fear in matters outside of our control but show confidence in the area of our choice, as though there is no danger. To be deceived, to be imprudent or hasty, to act shamelessly, or to indulgence in uncontrolled desires – none of these matters to us as long as we have success in matters outside our area of choice. With respect to death, exile, pain, and ill repute, we become agitated and show a tendency to retreat.

So, as is typical of those who get the things of greatest importance wrong, we pervert natural confidence into rashness, recklessness, and shamelessness. At the same time, we exchange our natural caution and self-respect for cowardice and timidity. We are full of fear and agitation. If you desire to transfer caution to your area of choice and things related to it, your desire alone will bring with it the power to avoid. If you, on the other hand, direct it at what is not under your control, trying to avoid what is under someone else’s control, you will surely meet with fear, upset, and confusion. Death and pain are not frightening, but the fear of death and pain are. That’s why we praise the person who said, “Death is no ill, but dying like a coward is.”

So be confident about death but be cautious of the fear of death – the opposite of what we are doing now. We are afraid of death. Yet, when we form a judgment about it we do so with carelessness, disregard, and unconcern. Socrates rightly called them “scary masks.” Masks appear scary and frighten children, because they haven’t seen them before. We react to events similarly and for the same reason. What is a child? Ignorant and uninstructed. In so far as the child has knowledge, it is equal to us. What is death? A scary mask. Take it off. See, it doesn’t bite.

Sooner or later, body and soul will separate, as they formerly were. Why be upset if it happens now? If it is not now, it will be later. Why? To be a part of the cycle of change. The universe needs some things to come into being now and some things later. It needs things whose time is now complete.

“What is pain?”
“A scary mask. Turn it around and look. Our flesh is affected by impressions – sometimes hard, sometimes smooth. If it is not worth your while, the door is always open; if it is, bear it. As the door always remains open, our problems disappear.”
“What is the result of following these principles?”
“Exactly the best and the most beautiful, as it should be for the truly educated: tranquility, fearlessness and freedom.”

Only the educated are free

It is not, as common people say, that “only the free can be educated.” Rather, it is as philosophers say, “only the educated are free.”

“How so?”
“Is freedom anything but the right to live the way we wish?”
“Do you wish to live in error?”
“Then no one who lives in error is free. Do you wish to live in fear, grief, and sorrow?”
“Of course not.”
“This means that no one who lives in fear, grief or sorrow is free. But anyone who doesn’t live fear, grief, and sorrow is free. Then how can we trust legislators who say that only the freeborn are entitled to any education? Don’t philosophers say that only the educated are free?”
“What about the master who performs a ceremony to free his slave? Hasn’t he accomplished anything?”
“He certainly has. He has performed the ceremony and has paid five percent tax to the state.”
“But hasn’t the slave won his freedom?”
“No more than he has achieved peace of mind. “

You may grant freedom to others. But who your master is, I wonder. Money? Women? Boys? A tyrant? A friend of a tyrant? It must be one of them. Otherwise you wouldn’t tremble if one of these is in question. That’s why I tell you over and over again. Practise these things and have them ready at hand – what you should treat with confidence and what with caution. You should be confident about things outside the area of your choice and be cautious towards those that are within. But you say,

“Didn’t I read out to you my exercises? Don’t you know what I am doing?”
“In what? Your trivial phrases? No. Show me how you deal with desires and aversions to get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. As far as your notes, take them away and destroy them.”

You may argue that Socrates wrote a lot too. Yes, but for what purpose? He didn’t always have someone to test his judgments or to have their judgments tested. He was always trying to examine some preconception or another. That’s what he was writing about. He left the trivial phrases to stupid people who didn’t understand the logical result of an argument, or to fortunate people who live a life of leisure because of their serenity. Now, when the occasion arises, will you go off reading from your compositions and boast how well you wrote? Don’t do it, man.

Free is a person who gets what she desires and not what doesn’t

If you want to boast, do it this way. “Look how I never fail to get what I want and avoid what I don’t want. Bring on death, pain, prison, condemnation, and disrepute to me, and you’ll know.” That’s a real test for a young person who has just left the schools. Forget the other stuff. Don’t let people ever hear you talk about them. Don’t put up with anyone who praises you for them.

Be content to look like a nobody who knows nothing. But show them just this – that you know how to get what you want and avoid what you don’t want. Let others study lawsuits, problems, and syllogisms. You should study how to face death, imprisonment, torture, and exile. Do all this with confidence in him who has called you to face them. He has judged you worthy. Show the superiority of reason over matters where we have no choice. Then the paradox – that we should be confident and cautious at the same time – will no longer be a paradox. Be confident in what does not depend on our choice and be cautious in what does.


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.

For more on the subject watch this video
An excellent video on the subject has been posted by Dr. Gregory Sadler. To access the video, follow this link: https://goo.gl/G8J1zw

Think about this

For it is not the hardship or death that is a fearful thing, but the fear of hardship or death. OF