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This sentence is taken from Epictetus' Enchiridion (The Manual). I have read and reread this sentence over again but can't understand what he means by it.

Full context where this sentence takes place:

"Chapter 12 If you intend to improve, throw away such thoughts as these: if I neglect my affairs, I shall not have the means of living: unless I chastise my slave, he will be bad. For it is better to die of hunger and so be released from grief and fear than to live in abundance with perturbation; and it is better for your slave to be bad than for you to be unhappy. Begin then from little things. Is the oil spilled? Is a little wine stolen? Say on the occasion, at such price is sold freedom from perturbation; at such price is sold tranquillity, but nothing is got for nothing. And when you call your slave, consider that it is possible that he does not hear; and if he does hear, that he will do nothing which you wish. But matters are not so well with him, but altogether well with you, that it should be in his power for you to be not disturbed."

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Epictetus, a Greek and a slave to a secretary to Nero is applying Stoic ethics to the problem and ethics of slavery. He says, essentially treat them kindly; and you will benefit too. I find this extract fascinating as the slight knowledge I have of Greek Philosophy suggests that the relations between master & servant weren't subject to ethics. Later in life, he was crippled, with one tradition stating this was done by his master, and another saying he was lame from childhood. To run through this in detail:

If you intend to improve, throw away such thoughts as these:

He intends to offer advice

if I neglect my affairs, I shall not have the means of living

The world is a large place, the ways of making a living are varied; one need not press on continually with ambition; rest is possible - indeed recommended; but also the world offers more to the sensability than that of affairs - politics or trade.

unless I chastise my slave, he will be bad.

The slave is a some-one; who also has his ethical being; one need not assume from the outset that he must be bad; this does not mean that one should assume that he is wholly good; most men are imperfect; one should use observation & judgement.

For it is better to die of hunger and so be released from grief and fear than to live in abundance with perturbation;

Rhetorical statement. He doesn't literally mean this. He is high-lighting the disabling nature of constant anxiety (perturbation). In Buddhism this is another form of dukkho - suffering.

and it is better for your slave to be bad than for you to be unhappy.

One cannot watch him all of the time. If he is bad, then a little badness is liveable with. It is hard to make paragons of men. By releasing yourself from the task of turning your slaves into paragons of servitude - you yourself can attain a more equable frame of mind.

Begin then from little things. Is the oil spilled? Is a little wine stolen?

He's setting a scene - a little drama. Has the slave been careless whilst waiting on you at the table? Has wine gone missing from storage? It seems obvious we should blame those who are foreign to us - our slaves. We may allow ourselves to feel a degree of righteous anger.

Say on the occasion, at such price is sold freedom from perturbation; at such price is sold tranquillity,

But if a little oil is spilled, or a little wine is stolen - do not start raging. Perhaps laugh: this slave is always a little clumsy. But she sings well. Or he plays with the children well. Through this your estate and yourself are tranquil.

but nothing is got for nothing. And when you call your slave, consider that it is possible that he does not hear; and if he does hear, that he will do nothing which you wish. But matters are not so well with him, but altogether well with you, that it should be in his power for you to be not disturbed."

Recall the asymmetry of power here: you are the master & he is the slave. You have power over him; be mindful of him - if not charitable; the equivalent in Kantian terms is when you treat a man as an end (slave, servant or other hired help) then do not treat them as a mere end; but recall that they too, are men, with souls (psyche) as your own.

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Some additional context supporting the above interpretation follows the quoted text; for Epictetus goes on to write:

'How then shall a man endure such a person as this slave?'

Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus as his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself as a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule?

That they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus.

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  • I don't think that the pounds and pennies proverb has the same meaning as Epictetus's advice. The Engish adage is a exhortation to pay careful mind to all of the small details. – Dave Jun 10 '14 at 16:19
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    @Dave: yes, you're right. I was looking too closely at the first sentence. Quickly fixed, though. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 10 '14 at 16:51
  • Can you give some support for your belief the paragraph's primary focus is improving slaves and providing an ethics for them? That's not how I read the paragraph in context. – virmaior Jun 11 '14 at 14:08
  • @virmaior: I've written a sentence by sentence commentary. I've also noted that Epictetus was a slave and he was a Stoic - what more evidence can I provide? What specifically do you object to in the commentary? – Mozibur Ullah Jun 11 '14 at 23:34
  • The topic seems to be self-improvement, "if you intend to improve" and an expression of the Stoic doctrine of ataraxia in the face of life's circumstances rather than "applying Stoic ethics to the problem and ethics of slavery" – virmaior Jun 11 '14 at 23:36
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First, I want to throw in a giant caveat: I'm a contemporary ethicist not an expert on Hellenistic Philosophy. I did take one course on the subject in graduate school though from an Epictetus scholar, but that doesn't at all inform my guess here.

The wording is slightly different here: http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html but I take it in context to mean that you have an incompetent slave rather than a highly competent one. I think here a slave is understood as a kind of good reflecting on the quality of your life. Substitute, crappy car that works or old computer that can still access the internet vs. awesome new car or brand new macbook air to get the effect.

Of course, the choice of a human example is not by accident -- considering the previous paragraph is about learning contentment in the loss of your friends and family -- understanding it as "return" rather than "loss"

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I think if we try to take this statement in the modern context, we could interpret Epictetus as saying that it is better for you to let the little things slide than to become perturbed about them. People today do not own slaves. So we can analogize our children. It is better that we allow our children to misbehave a little bit rather than to be constantly berating them and upbraiding them. Because the constant braiding of our children not only reflects poorly on us, it causes our children to resent us and, finally, it causes us much personal distress. So it is better to let the small things go than to disturb our own tranquility.

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