So, I've started reading "Discourses" of Epictetus. I'm stuck at Chapter IV. I can't understand the part that I'm going to post below. I've highlighted the most difficult piece, if you don't want to read everything. Gives the general idea of what he's speaking though:

He who is making progress, having learned from philosophers that desire means the desire of good things, and aversion means aversion from bad things; having learned too that happiness and tranquillity are not attainable by man otherwise than by not failing to obtain what he desires, and not falling into that which he would avoid; such a man takes from himself desire altogether and defers it, and he employs his aversion and defers it, and he employs his aversion only on things which are dependent on his will. For if he attempts to avoid anything independent of his will, he knows that sometimes he will fall in with something he wishes to avoid, and he will be unhappy. Now if a virtue is progress towards each of these things. For it is always true that to whatever point the perfecting of anything leads us, progress is an approach towards this point.

How then do we admit that virtue is such as I have said, and yet seek progress in other things and make a display of it? What is the product of virtue? Tranquillity. Who then makes improvement? Is it he who ha read many books of Chrysippus? But does virtue consist in having understood Chrysippus? If this is so, progress is clearly nothing else than knowing a great deal of Chrysippus. But now we admit that virtue produces one thing, and we declare that approaching near to it is another thing, namely, progress or improvement. Such a person says one, is already able to read Chrysippus by himself. Indeed sir, you are making great progress.

Will you not show him the effect of virtue that he may learn where to look for improvement?

Seek it there, wretch, where your work lies. And where is your work? In desire and in aversion, that you may not be disappointed in your desire, and that you may not fall into that which you would avoid; in your pursuit and avoiding, that you commit no error; in assent and suspension of assent, that you be not deceived. The first things, and the most necessary, are those which I have named. But if with trembling and lamentation you seek not to fall into that which you avoid, tell me how you are improving.

The way I understand it's that you improve yourself by chasing your dreams and trying to avoid that, which can upset you, that which can make you fail. But if you'll try to avoid things because of your fear that you can fail, you won't improve.

My gut tells me there's more to it, and I've read it over and over again, but that's the most I've squeezed out of the text.

  • Can you make clearer what the question is that you're facing in trying to understand the passage?
    – virmaior
    Jul 28, 2016 at 23:40
  • See Epictetus : Key Concepts : "The central claim of Stoic ethics is that only the virtues and virtuous activities are good, and that the only evil is vice and actions motivated by vice (see Disc.2.9.15 and 2.19.13)." "Thus, the Stoics identify the eudaimôn ('happy') life as one that is motivated by virtue." "To maintain our prohairesis (moral character) in the proper condition we must understand what is eph' hêmin ('in our power' or 'up to us'; see Disc.1.22.9–16). " Jul 29, 2016 at 7:49
  • "What is in our power, then, is the 'authority over ourselves' that we have regarding our capacity to judge what is good and what is evil. Outside our power are 'external things', which are 'indifferent' with respect to being good or evil. What is in our power is the capacity to adapt ourselves to all that comes about, to judge anything that is 'dispreferred' not as bad, but as indifferent and not strong enough to overwhelm our strength of character." Jul 29, 2016 at 7:50
  • See the Enchiridion, aka Manual of Epict.: 13 " If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don't wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other. Jul 29, 2016 at 8:45
  • virmaior, I don't fully understand the highlighted text. Mauro, so you mean motivation, the thing that drives us, is part of the improvement too? Jul 29, 2016 at 9:52

1 Answer 1


In a few words, the argument of the brief Discourse, I,4 : Of progress or improvement, is the following :

Progress (προκοπῆς, to improve) is not to be able to read the books of the philosophers (like the Stoic Chrysippus), but instead in following his precepts: to lean towards virtue.

If virtue is the goal of perfection, progress is sistematically approaching this goal.

We have to measure it (progress or improvement) not so much in the "theoretical" knowledge of what is teached in books, but in the "practical" application of the said knowledge into daily actions.

What actions ? First of all into the sphere of desire and aversion, according to the principle that:

happiness and tranquillity are not attainable by man otherwise than by not failing to obtain what he desires, and not falling into that which he would avoid.

An then into the spheres of pursuit and avoiding, to avoid error, and of assent and suspension of assent, in order not to be deceived.

The first is the most necessary, because

if you are in a state of fear or pain [trembling and lamentation: τρέμων καὶ πενθῶν] you will not be able to judge correctly and thus you will choose what is not good [falling into that which he would avoid].

  • I follow you, this is a good explanation, but it still left the idea behind bold text untouched. Thanks though Jul 29, 2016 at 14:01
  • You interpretation of his last sentence is something like: "Your fear clouds your judgment and you make the wrong move, thus you do not come closer to your goal, which means you do not improve". But he's saying that "If your actions to avoid something bad are driven by fear, you do not improve". In other words, you say that fear creates a chain reaction which leads you to making wrong action, but Epictetus says that fear renders any action, even successful one, useless in terms of improvement Jul 29, 2016 at 17:51

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