How then do we accept that virtue is as I have said, and seek progress in other things and make a display of it? What is the product of virtue? Certainly it is tranquility or happiness. Who then makes improvement? Is it he who has 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. We declare that approaching near to it is another thing, namely, progress or improvement.

"Such a person," a student says, "is already able to read Chrysippus by himself."

Indeed, sir, you are making great progress. What kind of progress? But why do you mock the man? Why do you draw him away from the perception of his own misfortunes? 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 order that you commit no error in pursuit and aversion, in assent and suspension of assent, you must not be 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.

How do we even know that we are making progress in this sphere of attaining happiness? Epictetus gives as example the student who studies Chrysippus. Chrysippus was the foremost philosopher of the Stoic school. His works were widely published and read. Epictetus tells us that the most important thing is not that a student has thoroughly read and understood the greatest Stoic of the age. What matters is that the student put Ethical Stoicism into practice. It is ironic that the works of Chrysippus are lost to us, fading away in the dark ages, while the admonitions of Epictetus survive in their entirety. The general theorist is all but forgotten while the man who made Stoicism attainable and applicable is remembered and his writings are revered.

So if simple study and understanding are not enough, how then do we become better people?

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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