Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 8

A person walking on a road with an arrow painted on it to move forward.
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Why do we need Virtue to make progress? This post will reflect on the text in the discourse of Book 1, Chapter 8. We can read Epictetus, as recorded by Arrian, tell us that pursuing certain skills or traits can be dangerous without Virtue. We should measure ourselves by what matters and what makes the person act in a moral way, with reason and logic.

Arrian titled this discourse; “That For The Uneducated Our Reasoning Capacities Are Not Free Of Danger.” While we share our most prized possession with the Rational Universe, our reasoning faculty. There lies a danger if we don’t use it in the right way. Applying our skills in whatever way possible, won’t make us use them in the way they are intended to be used. That’s why we need Virtue to make real progress. And why Epictetus and the Stoics keep pointing us to the importance of the virtues.

“For in general every faculty is dangerous to weak and uninstructed persons, as being apt to render them presumptuous and vain.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 8.8

Incompetent hands do damage

It doesn’t matter how strong the sword and shield are, if incompetent hands handle them, then they will do more damage than good. Virtue is our sword and shield to protect us from external and internal foes. The ones that can lead us astray from living the good life. These dangers we can find highlighted in the rest of this discourse. In the quote above we can see it can lead to vain and presumptuous behavior. This will keep us from a path of wisdom and thus away from the virtues.

All the studying we do is useless if not applied with Virtue. This is the only way we can make true progress. The idea of philosophy has changed throughout the ages, and it has become an academic pursuit, rather than a pursuit of living well. Instead of applying the knowledge to life itself, it is now used more and more for display. Those who throw quotes around, do not even check if they are correct. Ask them what they mean to them and they fall silent. 

We overanalyze each word and phrase, combating each other on a syllable. While the world keeps spinning and before we know it, all we are left with is perfect sentence. But the most precious possession of ours kept ticking away.

“For by what method can one persuade a young man who excels in these kinds of study that he ought not to be an appendage to them, but they to him.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 8.9

Progress through Virtue

A little statue of an angel reciting from a book.

We should guard ourselves against becoming a servant of the skills we have. But rather, they should become tools for us to interpret the world. A better life isn’t found in books or videos. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them and find knowledge there. Yet, to make the proper progress, we need Virtue. We need to apply Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance

We can stack our bookshelves, and stack our brains with as many words as possible. But it is best to read and understand what matters. Yes, you can pull out a line from Plato in a discussion, but do you have that same line at hand when you need it in life? Or have you then forgotten all about it?

We revere people who seem knowledgeable and who know when to say the right words. But do we know what they are like? We need to find out the true meaning these words have to us. This is something I’ve been using to examine my own life more and more. Whether what I write and say is something I put into practice. Often I judge myself to be a hypocrite. 

In those moments I need to stop speaking and start reflecting. Then it’s time to go back to what is important and apply it first. Holding yourself accountable for how you live, is how you will be able to make progress. We can use Virtue to measure it. Break it down into the four parts and see how well you apply them.

“Will you not perceive and distinguish what are the things that make men philosophers, and what belong to them on other accounts?”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 8.14

The True Philosopher

Why we need Virtue to Make progress. "For in general every faculty is dangerous to weak and uninstructed persons, as being apt to render them presumptuous and vain." Epictetus

Epictetus was looking at the likes of Plato and Hippocrates. Wondering if Plato was handsome, that all philosophers had to be handsome. Or if the physician Hippocrates was good at expressing himself, that what showed a physician to us. He makes us look at the core skills that make a person good. And while it isn’t bad to have these extra qualities, they are not what matter at the end of the day. Which is a good reminder to us when we see people presenting themselves to us. We see one layer of their lives. This is often one that looks great and makes us want the same. Yet, by reaching them we will see that they won’t change anything.

“What then? Do I reject these faculties? By no means. For neither do I reject the faculty of seeing. Nevertheless if you ask me what is the good man, I can only reply to you that it consists in a certain disposition of our choice.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 8.14-16

Epictetus places the responsibility to live a good life back in our hands. It is up to us to make the right decisions. Use the skills we have as tools, but keep in mind where the real progress is made, which is in Virtue. If we forget about that, then those qualities can become dangerous. Not only to the world around us but to our souls as well. This way we will never be able to live the peaceful life we are working towards. And becoming true philosophers will elude us until the end. Rather we would become sophists, telling others how to live, while we remain lost. Learn to make true progress through Virtue. Apply your knowledge with reason and logic.

Why We Need Virtue to Make Progress
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