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Epictetus-The Beginning Of Philosophy


Imaginary portrait of Epictetus. Engraved frontispiece of Edward Ivie’s Latin translation (or versification) of Epictetus’ Enchiridon, printed in Oxford in 1715. Original title of the book: “Epicteti Enchiridion Latinis versibus adumbratum. Per Eduardum Ivie A. M. Ædis Christi Alumn. […] Oxoniæ, Theatro Sheldoniano, MDCCXV. […]” The subscription is an epigram from the Anthologia Palatina (VII 676) and reads: Δοῦλος Ἐπίκτητος γενόμην, καὶ σῶμ’ ἀνάπηρος, καὶ πενίην Ἶρος, καὶ φίλος ἀθανάτοις. “I was Epictetus the slave, and not sound in all my limbs, and poor as Irus, and beloved by the gods.” (Irus is the beggar in the Odyssey.)


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Book II, chapter 11 of Epictetus’ ‘Discourses’. English translation taken from the Internet Classics Archive.


‘The beginning of philosophy to him at least who enters on it in the right way and by the door, is a consciousness of his own weakness and inability about necessary things. For we come into the world with no natural notion of a right-angled triangle, or of a diesis, or of a half tone; but we learn each of these things by a certain transmission according to art; and for this reason those who do not know them, do not think that they know them. But as to good and evil, and beautiful and ugly, and becoming and unbecoming, and happiness and misfortune, and proper and improper, and what we ought to do and what we ought not to do, whoever came into the world without having an innate idea of them? Wherefore we all use these names, and we endeavor to fit the preconceptions to the several cases thus: “He has done well, he has not done well; he has done as he ought, not as he ought; he has been unfortunate, he has been fortunate; he is unjust, he is just”: who does not use these names? who among us defers the use of them till he has learned them, as he defers the use of the words about lines or sounds? And the cause of this is that we come into the world already taught as it were by nature some things on this matter, and proceeding from these we have added to them self-conceit. “For why,” a man says, “do I not know the beautiful and the ugly? Have I not the notion of it?” You have. “Do I not adapt it to particulars?” You do. “Do I not then adapt it properly?” In that lies the whole question; and conceit is added here. For, beginning from these things which are admitted, men proceed to that which is matter of dispute by means of unsuitable adaptation; for if they possessed this power of adaptation in addition to those things, what would hinder them from being perfect? But now since you think that you properly adapt the preconceptions to the particulars, tell me whence you derive this. Because I think so. But it does not seem so to another, and he thinks that he also makes a proper adaptation; or does he not think so? He does think so. Is it possible then that both of you can properly apply the preconceptions to things about which you have contrary opinions? It is not possible. Can you then show us anything better toward adapting the preconceptions beyond your thinking that you do? Does the madman do any other things than the things as in which seem to him right? Is then this criterion for him also? It is not sufficient. Come then to something which is superior to seeming. What is this?


Observe, this is the beginning of philosophy, a perception of the disagreement of men with one another, and an inquiry into the cause of the disagreement, and a condemnation and distrust of that which only “seems,” and a certain investigation of that which “seems” whether it “seems” rightly, and a discovery of some rule, as we have discovered a balance in the determination of weights, and a carpenter’s rule in the case of straight and crooked things. This is the beginning of philosophy. “Must we say that all thins are right which seem so to all?” And how is it possible that contradictions can be right? “Not all then, but all which seem to us to be right.” How more to you than those which seem right to the Syrians? why more than what seem right to the Egyptians? why more than what seems right to me or to any other man? “Not at all more.” What then “seems” to every man is not sufficient for determining what “is”; for neither in the case of weights or measures are we satisfied with the bare appearance, but in each case we have discovered a certain rule. In this matter then is there no rule certain to what “seems?” And how is it possible that the most necessary things among men should have no sign, and be incapable of being discovered? There is then some rule. And why then do we not seek the rule and discover it, and afterward use it without varying from it, not even stretching out the finger without it? For this, I think, is that which when it is discovered cures of their madness those who use mere “seeming” as a measure, and misuse it; so that for the future proceeding from certain things known and made clear we may use in the case of particular things the preconceptions which are distinctly fixed.


What is the matter presented to us about which we are inquiring? “Pleasure.” Subject it to the rule, throw it into the balance. Ought the good to be such a thing that it is fit that we have confidence in it? “Yes.” And in which we ought to confide? “It ought to be.” Is it fit to trust to anything which is insecure? “No.” Is then pleasure anything secure? “No.” Take it then and throw it out of the scale, and drive it far away from the place of good things. But if you are not sharp-sighted, and one balance is not enough for you, bring another. Is it fit to be elated over what is good? “Yes.” Is it proper then to be elated over present pleasure? See that you do not say that it is proper; but if you do, I shall then not think you are worthy even of the balance. Thus things are tested and weighed when the rules are ready. And to philosophize is this, to examine and confirm the rules; and then to use them when they are known is the act of a wise and good man.’


An here is an Epictetus quote gleaned in one of Maurice Nicoll’s books: ‘Informal Work Talks and Teachings’ Lewis Creed and Quack Books. 1995. We will try to find the exact reference in Epictetus’ corpus of teachings.

The Characteristics of a Philosopher

‘The characteristic of a Philosopher is that he looks to himself for all help or harm. The marks of a proficient are that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing himself as being anybody, or knowing anything.

When he is in any instances hindered or restrained he accepts this as his own responsibility; if he is praised, he smiles to himself at the person who praises him; if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of a convalescent, wary of anything that may suggest he is well.

He restrains desire; he transfer his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of his own will; he employs his energy moderately in all directions; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care; in a word, he keeps watch over himself as over an enemy and one in ambush.’

Frontispiece to La vie d’Epictète et l’enchiridion: ou l’abbregè de sa Philosophie. Avec le Tableu de Cebes. Traduis de Grec en Francois. Published 1655.

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Epictetus-The Beginning Of Philosophy

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