CHAPTER 4: On Progress or Improvement

He who is progressing in his studies will have learned from philosophers that desire means the desire of good things, and aversion means aversion to bad things. He must also have learned that happiness and tranquility are attainable by man only when he obtains what he desires and does not fall into that which he would avoid. The wise man, then, removes desire from himself altogether. 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 which he wishes to avoid, and he will be unhappy. Now if virtue promises good fortune and tranquility and happiness, certainly also the progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these things. For it is always true that to whatever point the perfecting of anything leads us, progress is an approach toward this point.

There is perhaps one idea here that is new. Epictetus says, "…virtue promises good fortune and tranquility." Tranquility we understand, but good fortune? The idea was prevalent among the Romans. Livy, the noted historian wrote, "Good Fortune attends virtue." Yet we have the same idea in our folk wisdom inherent in such phrases as, "God helps those who help themselves." Luck or fortune is a nebulous, seemingly random factor. But the logic behind the idea is sound. Those who are virtuous simply create more opportunities for their own success and their own happiness. You will find that Epictetus often makes a tangential reference to this advantage of stoicism, especially in this chapter.

This paragraph also summarizes some of the earlier chapters. Epictetus reminds us that happiness depends upon us realizing what is within our power and what is not. Virtue is in knowing how to handle these aspects of our life. Our goal then should be to make progress toward this end.

It all sounds so simple, but it is much more easily said than done...

Chapter 4:

  1. On Progress or Improvement
  2. Chrysippus (4a)
  3. Evidence of Progress (4b)
  4. Withdrawing from Externals (4c)
  5. Where Tranquility Arises (4d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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