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Of contentment.

WITH respect to gods, there are some who say that a divine being does not exist: others say that it exists, but is inactive and careless, and takes no forethought about any thing; a third class say that such a being exists and exercises forethought, but only about great things and heavenly things, and about nothing on the earth; a fourth class say that a divine being exercises forethought both about things on the earth and heavenly things, but in a general way only, and not about things severally. There is a fifth class to whom Ulysses and Socrates belong, who say: “I move not without thy knowledge”1Iliad, x. 278). Before all other things then it is necessary to inquire about each of these opinions, whether it is affirmed truly or not truly. For if there are no gods, how is it our proper end to follow them?2 And if they exist, but take no care of anything, in this case also how will it be right to follow them? But if indeed they do exist and look after things, still if there is nothing communicated from them to men, nor in fact to myself, how even so is it right (to follow them)? The wise and good man then after considering all these things, submits his own mind to him who administers the whole, as good citizens do to the law of the state. He who is receiving instruction ought to come to be instructed with this intention, How shall I follow the gods in all things, how shall I be contented with the divine administration, and how can I become free? For he is free to whom every thing happens according to his will, and whom no man can hinder. What then is freedom madness? Certainly not: for madness; in freedom do not consist. But, you say, I would have every thing result just as I like, and in whatever way I like. You are mad, you are beside yourself. Do you not know that freedom is a noble and valuable thing? But for me inconsiderately to wish for things to happen as I inconsiderately like, this appears to be not only not noble, but even most base. For how do we proceed in the matter of writing? Do I wish to write the name of Dion as I choose? No, but I am taught to choose to write it as it ought to be written. And how with respect to music? In the same manner. And what universally in every art or science? Just the same. If it were not so, it would be of no value to know anything, if knowledge were adapted to every man's whim. Is it then in this alone, in this which is the greatest and the chief thing, I mean freedom, that I am permitted to will inconside- rately? By no means; but to be instructed is this, to learn to wish that every thing may happen as it does.3 And how do things happen? As the disposer has disposed them? And he has appointed summer and winter, and abundance and scarcity, and virtue and vice, and all such opposites for the harmony of the whole;4 and to each of us he has given a body, and parts of the body, and possessions, and companions.

Remembering then this disposition of things, we ought to go to be instructed, not that we may change the constitution5 of things,—for we have not the power to do it, nor is it better that we should have the power,—but in order that, as the things around us are what they are and by nature exist, we may maintain our minds in harmony with the things which happen. For can we escape from men? and how is it possible? And if we associate with them, can we change them? Who gives us the power? What then remains, or what method is discovered of holding commerce with them? Is there such a method by which they shall do what seems fit to them, and we not the less shall be in a mood which is conformable to nature? But you are unwilling to endure and are discontented: and if you are alone, you call it solitude; and if you are with men, you call them knaves and robbers; and you find fault with your own parents and children, and brothers and neighbours. But you ought when you are alone to call this condition by the name of tranquillity and freedom, and to think yourself like to the gods; and when you are with many, you ought not to call it crowd, nor trouble, nor uneasiness, but festival and assembly, and so accept all contentedly.

What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly- Must my leg then be lamed? Wretch, do you then on account of one poor leg find fault with the world? Will you not willingly surrender it for the whole? Will you not withdraw from it? Will you not gladly part with it to him who gave it? And will you be vexed and discontented with the things established by Zeus, which he with the Moirae (fates) who were present and spinning the thread of your generation, defined and put in order? Know you not how small apart you are compared with the whole.6 I mean with respect to the body, for as to intelligence you are not inferior to the gods nor less; for the magnitude of intelligence is not measured by length nor yet by height, but by thoughts.7

Will you not then choose to place your good in that in which you are equal to the gods?—Wretch that I am to have such a father and mother.—What then, was it permitted to you to come forth and to select and to say: Let such a man at this moment unite with such a woman that I may be produced? It was not permitted, but it was a necessity for your parents to exist first, and then for you to be begotten. Of what kind of parents? Of such as they were. Well then, since they are such as they are, is there no remedy given to you? Now if you did not know for what purpose you possess the faculty of vision, you would be unfortunate and wretched if you closed your eyes when colours were brought before them; but in that you possess greatness of soul and nobility of spirit for every event that may happen, and you know not that you possess them, are you not more unfortunate and wretched? Things are brought close to you which are proportionate to the power which you possess, but you turn away this power most particularly at the very time when you ought to maintain it open and discerning. Do you not rather thank the gods that they have allowed you to be above these things which they have not placed in your power, and have made you accountable only for those which are in your power? As to your parents, the gods have left you free from responsibility; and so with respect to your brothers, and your body, and possessions, and death and life. For what then have they made you responsible? For that which alone is in your power, the proper use of appearances. Why then do you draw on yourself the things for which you are not responsible? It is, indeed, a giving of trouble to yourself.


1 The line is from the prayer of Ulysses to Athena: “Hear me child of Zeus, thou who standest by me always in all dangers, nor do I even move without thy knowledge.” Socrates said that the gods know everything, what is said and done and thought (Xenophon, Mem. i. 1, 19). Compare Cicero, De Nat. Deorum, i. 1, 2; and Dr. Price's Dissertation on Providence, sect. i. Epictetus enumerates the various opinions about the gods in antient times. The reader may consult the notes in Schweighaeuser's edition. The opinions about God among modern nations, who are called civilized, and are so more or less, do not seem to be so varied as in antient times: but the con- trasts in modern opinions are striking. These modern opinions vary between denial of a God, though the number of those who deny is perhaps not large, and the superstitious notions about God and his administration of the world, which are taught by teachers, learned and ignorant, and exercise a great power over the minds of those who are unable or do not dare to exercise the faculty of reason.

2 “To follow God,” is a Stoical expression. Antoninus, x. 11.

3 This means that we ought to learn to be satisfied with everything that happens, in fact with the will of God. This is a part of education, according to Epictetus. But it does not appear in our systems of education so plainly as it does here. Antoninus (iv. 23): “Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, 0 universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late. which is in due time for thee?”

4 Upton has collected the passages in which this doctrine was mentioned. One passage is in Gellius (vi. 1), from the fourth book of Chrysippus on Providence, who says: “nothing is more foolish than the opinions of those who think that good could have existed without evil.” Schweighaeuser wishes that Epictetus had discussed more fully the question on the nature and origin of Evil. He refers to the commentary of Simplicius on the Encheiridion of Epictetus, c. 13 (8), and 34 (27), for his treatment of this subject. Epictetus (Encheiridion, c. 27) says that “as a mark is not set up for the purpose of missing it, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the universe.” Simplicius observes (p. 278, ed. Schweig.): “The Good is that which is according to each thing's nature, wherein each thing has its perfection: but the Bad is the disposition contrary to its nature of the thing which contains the bad, by which disposition it is deprived of that which is according to nature, namely, the good. For if the Bad as well as the Good were a disposition and perfection of the form (εἴδους) in which it is, the bad itself would also be good and would not then be called Bad.”

5 The word is ὑποθέσεις. It is explained by what follows.

6 “Et quota pars homo sit terrai totius unus.” Lucret. vi. 652, and Antoninus, ii. 4.

7 The original is δόγμασι, which the Latin translators render “decretis,” and Mrs. Carter “principles.” I don't understand either. I have rendered the word by “thoughts,” which is vague, but I can do no better. It was the Stoic doctrine that the human intelligence is a particle of the divine. Mrs. Carter names this “one of the Stoic extravagancies, arising from the notion that human souls were literally parts of the Deity.” But this is hardly a correct representation of the Stoic doctrine.

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  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 1.1.19
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 6.1
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