Epictetus: Discourses 1.2

We just finished covering Discourses 1.1 – Things that are in your power, and things that are not within your power. Epictetus clearly laid out that the mind is distinguished from the body (among other things):

Body Mind
Not completely in your power Completely in your power
Clay, earth Portion of the divine
Subject to setbacks, hindrances Invincible
Small, “poor little body” Capable of expanding as large as the cosmos

He also alluded to a sort of human superpower, called reason, that helps us unlock these properties of the mind and deal with obstacles.

He talked about perceptions, and the concept that humans assign value to objects and events. (Remember, quotes like “What else tells us that gold is beautiful? Gold itself doesn’t tell us that,” and “I must go into exile; can anyone prevent me from going into exile with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?”

Today, Epictetus addresses the fact that “rational” and “irrational” can mean different things to different people, depending on what you value and what you consider your ultimate aim. He also talks about what it means to stay true to your character, and just how much weight that can have once you decide to adhere to it. Let’s get started.

A quick bit of background information (historical and cultural bits), in order for the next selection to make sense:

  • Senators don’t do musicals. — The infamous emperor Nero liked to perform in musical and dramatic festivals. Roman Senators were basically appalled. They saw this type of activity as going against the type of proper conduct they were expected to exemplify as senators.
  • Purple. — The togas of Roman senators were distinguished by a single purple stripe, which set it apart from the normal adult toga of the populace. It was a bit like wearing a badge.
  • Genitals. — Yes, there’s a reason this note is here. You’ll need to know this. All Greek athletes trained and competed naked. An athlete’s testicles were considered to make him a “man,” and were seen as vital in order to perform as a true athlete.
  • Beards. — Philosophers grow beards. They are inseparable. At least that’s how Epictetus saw it. Just as an athlete could not imagine being an athlete without his testicles, philosophers could not imagine being philosophers without beards. That seems pretty logical, right?

1.2 How to keep your “proper character” in every situation

For a rational person, only the things that are irrational cannot be endured, but anything that is rational can be endured. If you think about it, being punched is not naturally intolerable.—“How so?”—Look at it this way: Spartans will put up with a beating when they know  that it is a rational punishment.—“But to be hanged as a death penalty, isn’t that unbearable?”—But think-622166_640remember that when someone thinks it’s reasonable, he’ll go and hang himself. In a nutshell, if we consider these situations carefully, we realize that nothing distresses a rational person more than things that go against reason, and that, conversely, there is nothing more attractive to a rational person than that which is reasonable.

The issue is, these concepts of “rational” and “irrational” mean different things to different people, just as people have different ideas of what is good and what is bad, and what is profitable and what is unprofitable. This is precisely why we must be educated, so that we can apply our assumptions of what is rational and irrational to specific cases in a manner that is in accordance with nature. Now, in order to distinguish between what is rational and what is irrational, not only do we have to form a judgment about the value of things that are outside of our power, but we must also judge what is appropriate to each person in his own specific character.


One person might hold the chamber pot to avoid a beating; the other might refuse to hold it because he believes he’s too good to do that. Different people sell themselves at different prices.

For example, for one person, it may be reasonable to hold out a chamber pot for another, simply because he considers that if he does not do this, he’ll be beaten and have his food taken away. But if he does hold the chamber pot, he won’t suffer any rough or painful treatment at all. Whereas, for another person he might believe it to be completely intolerable to hold out a pot himself, and even to allow someone else to do the task for him. So if you were to ask me, “Should I hold out the chamber pot or not?,” I’ll reply that it’s better to get food than to not get food, and it’s better to not be beaten than to be beaten, and so if you measure your interests and goals by these standards, you should go and hold the pot. “Yes, but that would be beneath me. I could never stoop so low.” That is for you to take into your own consideration, not me, since you know yourself best, and you know the value you set on yourself, and at what price you will sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices.

That’s exactly why, when Florus was considering whether he should attend Nero’s dramatic festival to perform some part in it himself, Agrippinus, the same conspiring senator who cheerfully went into exile, said to Florus, “You should perform in the festival.” When Florus asked him, “Then why aren’t you yourself going?,” Agrippinus replied, “Because I never even considered going.” For as soon as you begin to consider such questions, assessing and comparing the values of external things, you come one step closer to joining the rest of those who have forgotten their own character.


“Why did you tell me to go ahead with this demeaning activity, but you yourself aren’t going?”—Because I would never even consider it, but you have. That’s the difference between you and me.

Why do you ask me questions then? “Which one is more preferable: death or life?” I answer: Life. “Pain or pleasure, then?” I answer: Pleasure. “But if I don’t agree to act in Nero’s tragedy, he’ll have my head cut off.” Go and play the role then, but I will not take part. “Why not?” Because you consider yourself as being just one thread among the rest in the tunic. “What does that mean?” You should think about how you can be like other people, just as one thread doesn’t want to stand out from all the other threads. But for myself, I want to be the purple stripe on the tunic of senators—the small gleaming band that makes the rest of the tunic appear splendid and beautiful. Why do you tell me to be like everyone else? And if I were like everyone else,  how should I still be the purple stripe?

Helvidius Priscus, the magistrate who challenged the authority of Emperor Vespasian, saw this too, and he acted accordingly.


It’s in your power to take away my title, but as long as I have my title, I must fulfill my role and duties. It’s the right thing to do.

When Vespasian sent word to tell him not to attend the meeting at the Senate, Priscus replied, “It’s true it lies within your power to take away my position as a senator, but as long as I remain a senator, I must attend the meetings.”—“Fine, but if you attend the meeting, you must keep quiet and hold your tongue.”—“If you don’t ask for my opinion, I will hold my tongue.”—“But I’ll have to ask for your opinion.”—“And I must fulfill my role and reply as I think fit.”—“But if you do, I’ll have you executed.”—“When did I ever claim to be immortal? You do your job, and I’ll do mine. Your job is to have me killed, and my job is to die bravely without a tremble; your job is to send me into exile, and my job is to go into exile without complaint.”

So you ask, “What good did Priscus achieve being just one person? What good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else would it need to achieve, other than standing out as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest? Imagine if another man had been told by Caesar to stay away from the Senate in a situation like this. He would have simply said, “Thank you for excusing me.” But Caesar would not have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place.


“Caesar would not have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place.” Obstacles can be a sign that you are putting up a substantial force against someone else’s attempt at injustice, or vice.

Caesar would know that the man would either sit there like a jug, or else, if he did speak, would say exactly what he knew Caesar would want him to say, adding even more to his words just to appease him.

There is an athlete who took a similar approach to Priscus, when he was faced with the option of having his genitals cut off, or dying. His brother came to him and said, “Well brother, what are you planning to do? Are you to have this part of your body cut off and then go to the gymnasium as usual?” But the athlete would not agree to that, and so he set his mind against this option and he died. When someone asked Epictetus, “How did he die? Was it as an athlete, or as a philosopher?,”


Both the athlete and Epictetus had something integral to their roles and identities.

Epictetus replied: He died as a man. He died as a man who had been proclaimed as a victor at Olympia, and had helped up a fight there, and had passed his life in such places, rather than merely having oil smeared over him at Baton’s training school.


Maybe modern thought views testicles and beards differently, but the principle remains the same: We must hold onto our integrity.

But there is also the type of person who would be willing to have even his head cut off, if it were possible for him to live without a head.
This is what it means to act according to your character, and as you can see, the consideration carries a great weight for those who deliberate about these things. “Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard.” If I am a philosopher, I’ll reply: I won’t shave it off. “Then I’ll have you beheaded.” If it pleases you to do so, have me beheaded.

Someone asked, “How will each of us recognize what is appropriate to our own individual characters?” Epictetus replied, “When the lion attacks, how does the bull know its own strength, and hurls itself forward to fight the lion back on behalf of the entire herd?


How does a bull know it is capable of fighting back? Strength comes with an awareness. But the bull has spent many years working on being a bull, and you will need to spend some time developing into the rational being you were meant to be.

Clearly the possession of such power is accompanied by an awareness of that power. It’s the same in our case: if someone possesses such power, he will certainly be aware of it. And yet a bull doesn’t become a bull suddenly and unexpectedly, any more than a person acquires nobility of mind all at once. No, a person must undergo hard winter training to make himself ready, rather than hurl himself without properly considering what is inappropriate for him.

Consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure that you don’t sell it cheap. But what is great and exceptional is perhaps the territory of others, of Socrates and people of that caliber.

“But if we are fitted by nature to act in such a way, why is it that most of us don’t behave like that?”

Do all horses become fast runners, or do all dogs follow scents well? On that note, since I’m not “naturally gifted,” should I abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. biggalyogaEpictetus won’t be better than Socrates, but even if I don’t turn out better than Socrates, that’s still good enough for me. I will never be an athlete like Milo, either, yet I don’t give up on my body and neglect it. I will never be as wealthy as Croesus, and yet I don’t neglect my property. I don’t stop trying just because I’m afraid that I won’t reach perfection.

(Epictetus, Discourses 1.2)

  • “Rational” and “irrational” mean different things to different people, depending on what your desired outcome is.
    • (I think this hints at the idea that we need to decide on a desired outcome. For Stoic philosophy, that’s the Virtues.)
  • We must decide on a value to give things that are not in our power.
  • You need to decide what type of person you want to be, and you need to stick to it. Being wishy-washy will never make you the purple stripe in the toga.
  • Look to the conversation between Helvidius Priscus and Vespasian:
    • “It’s true it lies within your power to take away my position as a senator, but as long as I remain a senator, I must attend the meetings.”—“Fine, but if you attend the meeting, you must keep quiet and hold your tongue.”—“If you don’t ask for my opinion, I will hold my tongue.”—“But I’ll have to ask for your opinion.”—“And I must fulfill my role and reply as I think fit.”—“But if you do, I’ll have you executed.”—“When did I ever claim to be immortal? You do your job, and I’ll do mine. Your job is to have me killed, and my job is to die bravely without a tremble; your job is to send me into exile, and my job is to go into exile without complaint.”

    • They argue back and forth until Vespasian threatens to execute him. That’s where the logic ends, and that’s where Priscus  calls him out on it and ends the argument. He goes back to the main point: that they’ve both decided what type of person they want to be, and they must both go back to their duties and work on becoming the people they have in mind.
  • “Caesar would not have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place.” Golden.
  • The athlete and Epictetus were both willing to die to hold onto something they saw as an integral part of their character. The principle remains the same: we must hold onto our integrity. Should we be willing to die for it? Yes. We aren’t playing games here. Integrity is not integrity without commitment.
  • The bull has spent years developing into a bull—developing into the bull it was meant to be. So that when the time comes, it is aware of its strength and it uses it effectively. We must also spend time developing into the rational humans we are meant to be. And we can measure our progress in the same way: when obstacles appear, we will naturally address them with the skills and strength we have been working on building up. You can’t be a terrible, evil person and then one day wake up and decide you’re going to be a virtuous hero.
  • But I don’t know if I’m willing to die for integrity. I can never become a sage. Maybe I don’t have it in me. Epictetus squashes the false logic of perfectionism. If we gave up on everything we won’t be perfect at, there’s no point to life. I won’t be Bill Gates, but I still go to work everyday to earn an income. I won’t be an Olympic athlete, but I still try to keep my body healthy with good food and exercise. I won’t be Mother Theresa, but I still try to help others. I won’t be Socrates, but I can still be a philosopher. I can still strive to live a good life.

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