CHAPTER 18 (cont. c): Exercising the Will

"But the tyrant will chain us," protests a student. He can only chain our legs. "He will confiscate our property." But he cannot take away the will. This is why the ancients taught the maxim, "Know thyself." Therefore we ought to exercise ourselves in small things and, beginning with them, proceed to the greater things. If you have a pain in your head do not complain. If your slave is slow in bringing a bandage, do not cry out and torment yourself, and say, "Everybody hates me." For who would not hate such a person? In the future, relying on this knowledge, walk about upright and free. Do not trust to the size of your body, as an athlete, for a man ought not to be invincible in the way that a donkey is.

There is a certain equivalence between the "will" and the soul. These two concepts define the very basis of the self. Yet there is a difference. The will is our conscious ability to control ourselves, whereas the soul is something higher and even more essential. It is the very core of who we are and may be thought of as the divine spark of God within us.

When Epictetus tells us that even the powerful tyrant cannot enslave our will, he might have extended this statement to the incorruptibility of the soul - that is incorruptible if we choose to keep it such. We can gain control of our will and protect our soul. But it takes constant work. Epictetus says that this should begin in small things and extend to every facet of our lives. This almost offhand comment is actually quite important. For Epictetus understands that a small failure of the will weakens it sufficiently that it erodes the will for great things. Take, for example, a dieter. Once a person cheats on their diet, the whole thing falls apart. The same could be said for an alcoholic trying to remain sober or a smoker trying to quit smoking, or even down to something as seemingly innocent as a person resolved to floss his teeth every day. Missing a single day seems to give an excuse to fail the next day or the next.

Every failure of the will is a weakening of the will. Self-discipline can be supported by prayer, study, contemplation and repetitious habit. This does not mean that a small failure of the will results in complete and final destruction of the will and soul. It only means that such tendencies must be continually fought. It is as General Grant once said about horse-riding. The best thing to do when getting thrown from a horse is to get back on - immediately.

Chapter 18:

  1. The Mistakes of Others
  2. Evil Is Ignorance (18a)
  3. The Value of Property (18b)
  4. Exercising the Will (18c)
  5. Who Is Invincible? (18d)
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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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