Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher, Discourses Blog 2

The Stoic Philosopher who was a former slave of a former slave.

Do we find it hard to follow the exhortations of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where we are bade to walk two miles rather than one, to also give up our cloak when our coat is demanded of us, to love our enemies and those who spitefully use us, to forgive not seven times by seventy time seven times?


If we find these sayings hard, and if we deny their difficulty we may only be admitting we do not comprehend what they ask of us, perhaps the observations by Epictetus will put our mind on the right track:

“Ought not the robber and adulterer be destroyed?  By no means say so, but speak rather in this way: This man who has been mistaken and deceived about the most important things, and blinded, not in the ability to distinguish black from white, but blind to the difference between right and wrong, should we not destroy him?  If you speak thus you will see how inhumane this is, it is like saying, Ought not we destroy this blind and deaf man?”  But if the greatest harm comes in keeping from men their most valuable possession, and man’s greatest possession is his free will, and if a man is deprived by his addictions of his free will, why would you be angry with him?  Rather, “pity him, drop this readiness to be offended and to hate, and those words which many utter, ‘Those good for nothing scoundrels.’  How have you become so wise at once?  Why are you so peevish?  Why are you so angry?”[1]

YouTube video:

Epictetus Blog 1 http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/epictetus-discourses-blog-1/

What about the robber, the thief, the rogue who maliciously violates our possessions?  My local paper ran a story about how Walmart called the police on a shoplifter.  The policewoman discovered this ignorant single mom stole twenty dollars of food for her children, so the policewoman paid the restitution out of her own pocket and helped guide her through the welfare system so she could get help to get back on her feet again.  This is rare, usually this thief would be thrown in jail.

What does Epictetus say about the robber, the thief?  “Why are we angry at the thief?  Is it because we value so much those things the robbers steal from us?  Do not admire your clothes, and then you will not be angry with the thief.  (In the ancient world, clothes were a hundred times more expensive than today, because in ancient times men had to hand-spin thread from wool, then hand-weave threads into rough cloth, and then beat the cloth smooth before sewing it into clothes.  Only the wealthy owed a dozen changes of clothes.)  Consider this, you have fine clothes, your neighbor does not; you have a window, you wish to air your clothes.  The thief does not know, he thinks a man’s worth is determined by the clothes he wears, as do you.”[2]

Epictetus tells us of someone who stole his lamp one night, he got the better end of the exchange.  For Epictetus only lost his lamp, but he kept his faith.  The man who stole his lamp, in exchange for the lamp he consented to become a thief, becoming faithless.[3]

Epictetus tells us, “Forgiveness is better than revenge.  Forgiveness shows gentleness, revenge shows savagery.”[4]

“Is my neighbor bad?  Bad to himself, but good to me, for he brings my good temper, my gentleness into play.  Is my father bad?  Bad to himself, but good to me.  This is the rod of Hermes, touch what you will with it, and it will turn into gold.  Bring what you will, I will transmute it into good.  Bring sickness, bring death, bring poverty and reproach, bring poverty for life, all these things through the rod of Hermes shall be turned to profit.”[5]

Do we own our possessions, or do our possessions own us?  Epictetus asks, “What is the divine law?”  To keep that which is yours, not to envy or claim that which belongs to your neighbor, “to use what has been given to you, and when it has not been given to you, not to desire it; when something is taken away from you, to give it up readily and immediately, and to the thankful for the time you have made us of what you owned.”[6]


The Church Fathers teach that living a godly life is leading a life of constant improvement through spiritual discipline through good habits, right thoughts, kind words, and generous deeds.  The modern analogy is the frugal diet and proper exercise, not binge dieting or running about in plastic bag sweatsuit, not starving yourself, but rather changing your way of life to that of a constant diet, where you lose a pound a week until you reach a healthy weight, and maintaining it, and exercising the same amount every day, not killing yourself, giving yourself some slack time.  As Epictetus says, “if you would make anything a habit, do it; if you would not make it a habit, do not do it.”[7]

Epictetus talks about the habits of living a godly life, “so it is with respect to the affections of the soul, when you have been angry, you must know that not only has this evil befallen you, but that you have also increased the habit, and in a manner thrown fuel upon fire.”  “If you do not wish to have an angry temper, do not feed the fire, throw nothing on it that will increase it.  At first keep quiet, and count the days you have avoided anger. . . When you have not been angry for thirty days, praise God!  For the habit first begins to be weakened, and then is completely destroyed.”

The Church Fathers have their list of vices we should avoid, and Epictetus has a similar list, he bids us to “purge away from your mind not robbers and monsters, but Fear, Desire, Envy, Malignity, Avarice, Effeminacy, Intemperance.  And these may not be cast out, except by looking to God alone, by fixing thy affections on Him only, and by consecrating thyself to His commands.”[8]

“At feasts, remember you are entertaining two guests, body and soul.  What you give to the body, you presently lose; what you give to the soul, you keep forever.”[9]

“There are two faults far greater and fouler than any others, inability to bear, and inability to forbear, when we neither patiently bear the blows that must be borne, nor abstain from the things and pleasures we ought to abstain from.  If a man remembers these two faults, and heeds this advice carefully by ruling and watching over himself, he will for the most part avoid sin, and his life will be tranquil and serene.”[10]

Like St Paul saying how the good Christian runs the strong race, Epictetus compares the philosopher to the “true athlete, the man who exercises himself against appearances.  Stay, wretch, and do not be carried away.  Great is the combat, divine is the work; it is for kingship, for freedom, for happiness, for freedom from perturbation.  Remember God, call on Him as helper and protector. . . For what is a greater storm than that which comes from appearances which are violent and drive away your reason?  What is the storm, other than an appearance?  Take away the fear of death, take away the thunder and lightning, and you will know true calm and serenity.”


What does Epictetus say about friendship and love?  “He who knows good knows how to love, but he who cannot tell good from bad, nor tell what is neither good nor bad from both, how can he love?  Only the wise know how to love.”  How does Epictetus describe the true friend?  “He will bear with the main who is unlike himself, he will be kind to him, gentle, ready to pardon on account of his ignorance, not being harsh to any man, being convinced of Plato’s doctrine that every mind is deprived of truth unwillingly.”[11]

Book Reviews: Greco-Roman Stoic and Cynic Philosophers, and Epicurus

[1] The Discourses of Epictetus, p. 143.

[2] The Discourses of Epictetus, p. 143.

[3] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying XII, p. 83.

[4] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying XCVI, p. 108.

[5] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying CVI, p. 110.

[6] The Discourses of Epictetus, p. 170.

[7] The Discourses of Epictetus, p. 172.

[8] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying LXXI, p. 100.

[9] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying CLXXVIII, p. 127.

[10] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, Saying CLXXXIII, p. 128.

[11] The Discourses of Epictetus, pp. 174-176.

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.