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Echoes of the Past

Epictetus the Stoic possessed that nobility and dignity of mind which at once places him among the world's sages and philosophers. Centuries have passed since his words, full of the beauty of truth, were uttered, yet despite the hand of time, and the accumulation of knowledge, the thoughts are as fresh, and increasingly retain their power, as though only spoken yesterday. That human nature has always been the same, is proven by the appositeness of his sayings to the doubts, the difficulties, the fears, and the problems, which occupy the attention of present day humanity, and which clamor for solution.

To those held in the bonds of fear, paralyzing their every effort, he says: "Behold me, that I have neither country, nor house, nor possessions, nor servants; I sleep on the ground; nor is wife mine, nor children, nor domicile, but only earth and heaven, and a single cloak. And what is lacking to me? Do I ever grieve? Do I fear? Am I not free? When did any of you see me fail of my pursuit, or meet with what I had avoided? When did I blame God or man? When did I accuse any man? When did any of you see me of a sullen countenance? How do I meet those whom ye fear and marvel at?...None, therefore, that fears, or grieves, or is anxious, is free; but whosoever is released from griefs and fears and anxieties is by that very thing released from slavery...For thou, who art able to emancipate others, hast thou no master? Is money not thy master, or lust, or a tyrant, or some friend of a tyrant? Why, then, dost thou tremble when thou art to meet with an affliction in this kind?...But thou tremblest and sleepest not of nights, for fear lest the necessaries of life fail thee. Wretched man! art thou thus blind, and seest not the road whither the want of necessaries lead a man? And whither leads it? To the same place that a fever doth, or a falling rock—to death...And how often hast thou vaunted thyself that thou wert at peace about death? Yes, but my dear ones shall also suffer hunger. What then? Doth their hunger lead to any other place than thine? Do they not descend where thou descendest? Is there not one underworld for them and thee? Wilt thou not, then, be bold in all poverty and need, looking to that place whither the wealthiest of men, and the mightiest governors, yea, and even kings and tyrants, must go down; thou, it may be, an hungered, and they bursting with indigestion and drunkenness? How seldom is it that a beggar is seen that is not an old man, and even of exceeding age? But freezing by night and day, and lying on the ground, and eating only what is barely necessary, they come near being unable to die. Then you fear hunger, as you suppose. But it is not hunger that you fear—you fear you will have no cook, nor anybody else to buy victuals for you, nor another to take off your boots, nor another to put them on, nor another to rub you down, nor another to follow you about. This is what you fear—lest you be not able to live like a sick man...Doth any good man fear lest the means of gaining food fail him? They fail not the blind, nor the lame; shall they fail a good man? To the good soldier there fails not one who gives him pay, nor to the laborer, nor to the schoolmaster; and shall such a one fail to the good man? Is God, then, careless of His instruments, His servants, His witnesses, whom alone He useth to show forth to the untaught what He is, and that He governs all things well, and is not careless of things, and that to a good man there is no evil, neither in life nor in death?"

"From thy breast, from thy mind cast out...grief, fear, covetousness, envy, malice, avarice, effeminacy, profligacy. And these things cannot otherwise be cast out than by looking to God only, being affected only by Him, and consecrated to His commands." "Knowest thou not that in a great length of time many and various things must change; that a fever shall overthrow one, and a robber another, and a tyrant another? Such is our environment, such our companions; cold and heat, and improper ways of living, and journeyings and voyagings, and winds, and various circumstances will destroy one man, and exile another, and cast another into an embassy, and another into a campaign. Sit down, then, terrified at all these things; grieve and fail, and be unfortunate...Now can no evil happen to me; for me there is no robber, no earthquake; all things are full of peace, full of calm; for me no way, no city, no assembly, no neighbor, no associate hath any hurt." "But choosing anything else than this, thou wilt follow with groaning and lamentation whatever is stronger than thou, ever seeking prosperity in things outside thyself, and never able to attain it. For thou seekest it where it is not, and neglectest to seek it where it is."

Concerning man, Epictetus thus speaks in colloquial form of question and answer: "For what is man? A living creature, say you; mortal and endowed with Reason. And from what are we set apart by Reason? From the wild beasts. And what others? From sheep and the like. Look to it, then, that thou do nothing like a wild beast, for if thou do, the man in thee perisheth, thou hast not fulfilled his promise. Look to it, that thou do nothing like a sheep, or thus too the man hath perished. What, then, can we do as sheep? When we are gluttonous, sensual, filthy, thoughtless, to what are we then sunken? To sheep. What have we lost? Our faculty of Reason. And when we are contentious, and hurtful, and angry, and violent, to what are we sunken? To wild beasts."

"O men, whither are ye borne away? What do ye? Miserable as ye are! like blind men ye wander up and down. Ye have left the true road, and are going by a false; ye are seeking peace and happiness where they are not, and if another shall show you where they are, ye believe him not. Wherefore will ye seek it in outward things?"

Of death he said: "What is death? A bugbear. Turn it round; examine it; see, it does not bite. Now or later, that which is body must be parted from that which is spirit, as formerly it was parted. Why, then, has thou indignation if it be now? for if it he not now, it will be later." Of the invincibility of virtue we read: "If thou wouldst have a household well established, then follow the example of the Spartan Lycurgus. For even as he did not fence the city with walls, but fortified the inhabitants with virtue, and so preserved the city free for ever, thus do thou not surround thyself with a great court and set up lofty towers, but confirm the dwellers in the house with goodwill, and faith, and friendliness, and no harmful thing shall enter; no, not if the whole army of evil were arrayed against it."

The following paragraph breathes the true spirit of holiness and self-surrender: "Dare to look up to God and say: Deal with me henceforth as thou wilt; I am of one mind with thee; I am thine. I reject nothing that seems good to thee; lead me whithersoever thou wilt, clothe me in what dress thou wilt. Wilt thou have me govern or live privately, or stay at home, or go into exile, or be a poor man, or a rich? For all these conditions I will be thy advocate with men—I show the nature of each of them, and what it is."

And again: "And what is the divine Law? To hold fast that which is his own, to claim nothing that is anothers, to use what is given him, and not to covet what is not given; to yield up easily and willingly what is taken away, giving thanks for the time that he has had it at his service."

Finally, of the Fatherhood of God, he thus speaks in a sentence beautiful in its conciseness and comprehensiveness: "No man is an orphan, there is an Eternal Father who careth continually for all."

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Thomas W. Allen

  • Brother of author James Allen
  • Not much else is known about him. If you have information about this author to share, please contact me.

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