Epictetus part 24: The Gift of Being a Good Person

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.

The twenty-fourth paragraph of the Enchiridion is longer than usual. Here, Epictetus provides us with a dialogue similar to those in his Discourses. The subject of the dialogue is: how can you best help others? Epictetus maintains that, in order to help others, it is best that you take care to be a trustworthy and modest person. After all, you can only be truly helpful if you are a good person.

As an introduction, Epictetus reminds us that we should not strive to be honoured, but to be honourable. It doesn’t matter what others think of us, since that is not in our control. What matters is how we actually live:

Don’t let thoughts like these disturb you: ‘I will live without honour and be a nobody anywhere’. For if it is bad to be without honour, then you cannot be in a bad state because of others any more than you can be in shame. It is not at all your concern to reach a powerful position or to be invited to a banquet. Not at all. How, then, can this still be a dishonour? How will you be a nobody anywhere if you only have to be somebody in the things that are within your power, in which it is possible for you to be of the greatest value?

But how do we help others by being a good person? How can our friends benefit, if we don’t have something to give them? Epictetus responds:

But surely your friends will be without help! Who says they are without help? They will not receive money from you and you cannot make them Roman citizens. Well then, who said that these things are within our power, and not the concerns of others? And who can give to another what he doesn’t have himself?

Money doesn’t make you happy. Wealth or status is not in our control. What we can control is our character. We can choose to act morally right, to be modest, trustworthy and unselfish. And that is what’s important. For would you rather have money or a good friend?

‘Make some money then’, they say, ‘so we can have some’. If I can make money while keeping myself modest, trustworthy and unselfish, then show the way and I will make money. But if you expect me to lose what is good so you can get what is not good, then see for yourself how unfair and foolish you are. Besides, what would you rather have: money or a trustworthy and modest friend? So rather help me with that and don’t expect me to do things by which I will lose these traits.

This might convince you that a good character is more important to your friends than money or possession, but what about your country? As Stoics, we feel a duty to help our fellow men and women, and bring benefit to our country. How can we achieve this? Epictetus answers as follows:

‘But my home country will be without help’, you say, ‘as far as I can give it’. Again: what kind of help do you mean? It will have no colonnades or baths from you. And what about that? Because it doesn’t have shoes from a smith or tools from a shoemaker. It is enough if everyone fulfills his own work. And if you give it another trustworthy and modest citizen, does that not help it? ‘Yes’. In that case, you yourself are not useless to it. ‘Then what place will I have in the city?’, you say. Whatever you can while keeping your trustworthiness and modesty. But if you lose these traits because you want to help it, how can you help if you have become shameless and untrustworthy?

The answer is the same for your country as it is for your friends: you help them more by being a good, trustworthy and modest person, than by providing all kinds of riches and possessions. Just as it is a shoemakers work to provide shoes, so it is the work of a human being to provide a trustworthy and modest character. This is your duty. This is how you can help others: by being good yourself, as an example to others.

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