On Self-Knowledge

Examining Epictetus: Excerpt Three

If you seek Truth, you will not seek to gain victory by every possible means; and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, CXLIX, Page 171

“If you seek Truth,

Two things to unpack with these first few words. First, you won’t just stumble upon Truth. You must seek truth. It is not a passive endeavor, but an active attempt to find Truth. Second, this excerpt is talking about capital T truth. This is referring to objective and transcendent reality. This topic is far out of my intellectual abilities, as well as the scope of this blog, but just know that the Stoics, and Epictetus in particular did believe in objective Truth.


you will not seek to gain victory by every possible means;

If you have Truth, which is what matters most, then you will find that what everyone else wants isn’t as important. Pursuing the promotion, or a large financial payout becomes less significant when put into a transcendent context. When we die, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the material wealth and social status that we acquired during our time on earth will be inconsequential. The stoics, along with a bevy of religions, would argue that virtue is what will really matter when we die. Thus, don’t compromise your virtue for the sake of temporal and unfulfilling gains. The reputation you have with yourself is one of your most important posessions.


and when you have found Truth, you need not fear being defeated.

Now Epictetus has moved past the speculative portion of this quote to stating his perspective on Truth. To Epictetus, everything external was rather insignificant. Virtue was really the only thing that he believed to be important. Things that we often label as “bad” like financial loss, illness, or heartbreak may not be preferred, but they possessed no more “badness” than a rock. These were simply circumstances. Similarly, things that we label as good are equally neutral. The only area of life that Epictetus suggests we label things as “good” or “bad” is in the moral sphere. This means that any external defeat is neither a good or bad thing. It may or may not be preferred, but it need not have an influence on the internal wellbeing and integrity of a person.


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