Thomas W. Higginson translator.

Matheson translation

  Epictetus My Thoughts

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming, therefore, at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, toward the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

 There are things within our control and things beyond it. We can control our state of mind: desires, opinions, and goals. These are what should preoccupy us. We cannot control what is beyond us, what is external to us: what we own, our status in life, our reputations, and even our bodies.

 The state of your mind, your internals, is something you own and control. If you value things that are beyond your control, your externals, you will be frustrated. You will project this frustration onto both your condition in life and those around you. If, instead, you value what is within your control and accept that what is within the control of others is beyond your control, then you will be free. No one will be able to coerce you. You will not resent others for the internals that they control.

 What is beyond your control is necessarily contingent on the will of others and various random events around you. It is transient because that which is acquired cannot be maintained indefinitely. After all, it is beyond your control.

 If your goal is to value only your internals, you must focus on attaining this goal. Pursuing other goals, particularly goals that are external to your control, you will fail to attain what only can yield happiness and freedom.

 When you have an unpleasant experience, evaluate according to your understanding of what is and is not within your control: your internals and externals. If the experience is external, realize that it is beyond your control, that it is something not to be valued.

II Remember that desire demands the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion demands the avoidance of that to which you are averse; that he who fails of the object of his desires is disappointed; and he who incurs the object of his aversion is wretched. If, then, you shun only those undesirable things which you can control, you will never incur anything which you shun; but if you shun sickness, or death, or poverty, you will run the risk of wretchedness. Remove [the habit of] aversion, then, from all things that are not within our power, and apply it to things undesirable which are within our power. But for the present, altogether restrain desire; for if you desire any of the things not within our own power, you must necessarily be disappointed; and you are not yet secure of those which are within our power, and so are legitimate objects of desire. Where it is practically necessary for you to pursue or avoid anything, do even this with discretion and gentleness and moderation.

 Remember that desire wants to possess its object. Aversion wants to avoid it. If you fail to possess what you desire, you will be unhappy. Likewise, if you fail to avoid things for which you are adverse, you will be unhappy. Worrying about avoiding sickness, death, or poverty will make you unhappy. The first two are unavoidable; the last is often thrust upon us. Focus on avoiding the things it is in your power to avoid. For the present, avoid the desire, for if you desire things beyond your power, you will be unhappy; you do not yet know the things within your power and are thus legitimate objects of desire.

Whenever necessity forces you to desire or avoid something, do it with discretion and moderation, recognizing your limitations.

III  With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind or contribute to use or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond of—for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child or your wife, that you embrace a mortal—and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.  Remember the nature of things that delight you, from the trivial to your most valuable. The favorite suit will wear, the beautiful car will age, and loved ones will die. Externals must be seen for what they are, or their loss will hurt unnecessarily. 
IV When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bath—some persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering. And thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go to bathe and keep my own will in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. For thus, if any impediment arises in bathing, you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus if I am out of humor at things that happen.” Keep in mind the nature of the actions that you take. Pounding steering wheels in rush hour traffic kills unknown thousands every year with the resulting high blood pressure and heart disease. The ultimate goal of your actions is not only the accomplishment of the action itself but to keep your mind in harmony with the world around you, with nature.
V Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves—that is, to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for his own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach himself; and one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others nor himself. We react according to our opinions of things, not the things in themselves. We know nothing of death other than that it is the natural destiny of all living things. It should be; it can be embraced as a part of life. When we perceive that misfortune happens to us, we should not blame others. Our assessment of misfortune is our own, no one else's. When misfortune befalls the undisciplined one, he blames others; when it befalls the one in training, he blames himself; when it befalls the one who is in control of his mind, he blames no one.
VI Be not elated at any excellence not your own. If a horse should be elated, and say, “I am handsome,” it might be endurable. But when you are elated and say, “I have a handsome horse,” know that you are elated only on the merit of the horse. What then is your own? The use of the phenomena of existence. So that when you are in harmony with nature in this respect, you will be elated with some reason; for you will be elated at some good of your own.

Celebrate and value only accomplishments or excellence that you own. When you celebrate some football team's success, you are celebrating excellence, a success that is not your own and that has no relation to you. You own the use of your beautiful car. You do not own the car; it will age and decay no matter your efforts and will ultimately disappoint

What is your own, then? You own only the use of things. To be in harmony with reality is understanding that you can only use externals. When you celebrate, celebrate an excellence that is you is your own, not an external's.

VII As in a voyage, when the ship is at anchor, if you go on shore to get water, you may amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish or a truffle in your way, but your thoughts ought to be bent toward the ship, and perpetually attentive, lest the captain should call, and then you must leave all these things, that you may not have to be carried on board the vessel, bound like a sheep; thus likewise in life, if, instead of a truffle or shellfish, such a thing as a wife or a child be granted you, there is no objection; but if the captain calls, run to the ship, leave all these things, and never look behind. But if you are old, never go far from the ship, lest you should be missing when called for. The focus of your life, the process of defining who you are, is your ship. In the journey, the ship may anchor where you can allow distractions. But you should never allow distractions to forget your focus. Life sails away.