CHAPTER 19: How We Should Behave to Tyrants

If a man possesses any superiority, or thinks he does, if he is uninstructed in philosophy, he will, of necessity, be puffed up. For instance, the tyrant says, "I am master of all." And what can you do for yourself? Can you fulfill all your desires? How can you? Have you the absolute power of avoiding everything that would pain you? Can you achieve all your objects without error? How do you possess this power? You cannot do everything. When you are in a ship you trust to the helmsman. When you are in a chariot you trust the driver. It is the same in all other arts. So, where is your power? You say, "All men pay respect to me." Well, I also pay respect to my platter. I wash it and wipe it. For the sake of my oil flask I drive a peg into the wall. Are these things superior to me? No, but they supply some of my wants, and for this reason I take care of them. Well, I attend to my donkey. I wash his feet. I clean him. Do you not know that every man must look to himself? Some men regard you no more highly than their mules. For who has high regard for you? Show this person to me. Who wishes to become like you? Who imitates you as he imitates Socrates? "But I can cut off your head," you say. I had forgotten that I must regard you as I would a fever, and raise an altar to you as there is at Rome an altar to fever.

A little power goes a long way to swelling the heads of those who possess it. Lord Acton once said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." There is some truth to Lord Acton's words as well as Epictetus' observation. But, as Epictetus notes, someone instructed in philosophy need not get a big head from his promotions. Epictetus begins by asking what it is about an elevated position that should swell the ego. Even a tyrant has his worries, his pains, and his fears. No one can do everything, thus even the most exalted person must rely on others.

At the time of Epictetus the Emperor of Rome was a young man named Nero, who was famous for murdering his relations (including his own mother), debauchery, dissipation and a host of other moral failings. When Epictetus asks if anyone holds the tyrant in high regard, he may have been thinking of the bad example of Nero, who had forsaken the tenets of his Stoic education (by the famous Seneca - the Younger - whom he also had murdered). By comparing the tyrant to a donkey, Epictetus is pointing out that a person in an elevated position is judged by his fellow men for how much he can be of use.

The final resort of a powerful tyrant is his ability to kill his subjects. Epictetus says that this entitles him to respect only in-as-much as he is similar to a disease. Should we call the doctors and have Nero removed? What pill would cure the body politic of him? No wonder Nero was not fond of philosophers! He exiled them all from Rome so that he would not have to listen their criticisms of his behavior. Yet, well-grounded Emperors did reign at one time and another. Marcus Aurelius famously ruled Rome judiciously and well. He is also famous for having written a Stoic tract called "Meditations". It is known that Epictetus had an influence on Marcus Aurelius, and it was likely Discourses like Number 19 helped him to deal with his heady position.

Chapter 19:

  1. How We Should Behave to Tyrants
  2. Tyrants and Pipkins (19a)
  3. God Is Useful (19b)
  4. Felicion the Shoemaker (19c)
  5. Alexander and Diogenes (19d)
  6. Honors Are Vanity (19e)
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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