Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 1/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

How from the thesis that we are akin to God may a man proceed to the consequences?

If what is said by the philosophers regarding the kinship of God and men be true, what other course remains for men but that which Socrates took when asked to what country he belonged, never to say "I am an Athenian," or "I am a Corinthian," but "I am a citizen of the universe"? For why do you say that you are an Athenian, instead of mentioning merely that corner into which your paltry body was cast at birth? Or is it clear you take the place which has a higher degree of authority and comprehends not merely that corner of yours, but also your family and, in a word, the source from which your race has come, your ancestors down to yourself, and from some such entity call yourself "Athenian," or "Corinthian"?[1] Well, then, anyone who has attentively studied the administration of the universe and has learned that "the greatest and most authoritative and most comprehensive of all governments is this one, which is composed of men and God,[2] and that from Him have descended the seeds of being, not merely to my father or to my grandfather, but to all things that are begotten and that grow upon earth, and chiefly to rational beings, 5seeing that by nature it is theirs alone to have communion in the society of God, being intertwined with him through the reason,"—why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the universe? Why should he not call himself a son of God? And why shall he fear anything that, happens among men? What? Shall kinship with Caesar or any other of them that have great power at Rome be sufficient to enable men to live securely, proof against contempt, and in fear of nothing whatsoever, but to have God as our maker, and father, and guardian,—shall this not suffice to deliver us from griefs and fears?—And wherewithal shall I be fed, asks one, if I have nothing?—And how of slaves, how of runaways, on what do they rely when they leave their masters? On their lands, their slaves, or their vessels of silver? No, on nothing but themselves; and nevertheless food does not fail them. And shall it be necessary for our philosopher, forsooth, when he goes abroad, to depend upon others for his assurance and his refreshment, instead of taking care of himself, and to be more vile and craven than the irrational animals, every one of which is sufficient to himself, and lacks neither its own proper food nor that way of life which is appropriate to it and in harmony with nature?

10As for me, I think that the elder man[3] ought not to be sitting here devising how to keep you from thinking too meanly of yourselves or from taking in your debates a mean or ignoble position regarding yourselves;[4] he should rather be striving to prevent there being among you any young men of such a sort that, when once they have realized their kinship to the gods and that we have these fetters as it were fastened upon us,—the body and its possessions, and whatever things on their account are necessary to us for the management of life, and our tarrying therein,—they may desire to throw aside all these things as burdensome and vexatious and unprofitable and depart to their kindred. And this is the struggle in which your teacher and trainer, if he really amounted to anything, ought to be engaged; you, for your part, would come to him saying: "Epictetus, we can no longer endure to be imprisoned with this paltry body, giving it food and drink, and resting and cleansing it, and, to crown all, being on its account brought into contact with these people and those. Are not these things indifferent—indeed, nothing—to us? And is not death no evil? And are we not in a manner akin to God, and have we not come from Him? Suffer us to go back whence we came; suffer us to be freed at last from these fetters that are fastened to us and weigh us down. 15Here are despoilers and thieves, and courts of law, and those who are called tyrants; they think that they have some power over us because of the paltry body and its possessions. Suffer us to show them that they have power over no one." And thereupon it were my part to say: "Men, wait upon God. When He shall give the signal and set you free from this service, then shall you depart to Him; but for the present endure to abide in this place, where He has stationed you. Short indeed is this time of your abiding here, and easy to bear for men of your convictions. For what tyrant, or what thief, or what courts of law are any longer formidable to those who have thus set at naught the body and its possessions? Stay, nor be so unrational as to depart."

Some such instruction should be given by the teacher to the youth of good natural parts. But what happens now? A corpse is your teacher and corpses are you. As soon as you have fed your fill to-day, you sit lamenting about the morrow, wherewithal you shall be fed. 20Slave, if you get it, you will have it; if you do not get it, you will depart; the door stands open. Why grieve? Where is there yet room for tears? What occasion longer for flattery? Why shall one man envy another? Why shall he admire those who have great possessions, or those who are stationed in places of power, especially if they be both strong and prone to anger? For what will they do to us? As for what they have power to do, we shall pay no heed thereto; as for the things we care about, over them they have no power. Who, then, will ever again be ruler over the man who is thus disposed?

How did Socrates feel with regard to these matters? Why, how else than as that man ought to feel who has been convinced that he is akin to the gods? "If you tell me now," says he, "'We will acquit you on these conditions, namely, that you will no longer engage in these discussions which you have conducted hitherto, nor trouble either the young or the old among us,' I will answer, 'You make yourselves ridiculous by thinking that, if your general had stationed me at any post, I ought to hold and maintain it and choose rather to die ten thousand times than to desert it, but if God has stationed us in some place and in some manner of life we ought to desert that.'"[5] 25This is what it means for a man to be in very truth a kinsman of the gods. We, however, think of ourselves as though we were mere bellies, entrails, and genitals, just because we have fear, because we have appetite, and we flatter those who have power to help us in these matters, and these same men we fear.

A certain man asked me to write to Rome in his behalf. Now he had met with what most men account misfortune: though he had formerly been eminent and wealthy, he had afterwards lost everything and was living here.[6] And I wrote in humble terms in his behalf. But when he had read the letter he handed it back to me, and said, "I wanted your help, not your pity; my plight is not an evil one." So likewise Rufus was wont to say, to test me, "Your master[7] is going to do such-and-such a thing to you." 30And when I would say in answer. "'Tis but the lot of man," he would reply. "What then? Am I to go on and petition him, when I can get the same result from you?"[8] For, in fact, it is foolish and superfluous to try to obtain from another that which one can get from oneself. Since, therefore, I am able to get greatness of soul and nobility of character from myself, am I to get a farm, and money, or some office, from you? Far from it! I will not be so unaware of what I myself possess. But when a man is cowardly and abject, what else can one possibly do but write letters in his behalf as we do in behalf of a corpse: "Please to grant us the carcase of so-and-so and a pint of paltry blood?"[9] For really, such a person is but a carcase and a pint of paltry blood, and nothing more. But if he were anything more he would perceive that one man is not unfortunate because of another.

FootnotesEdit

  1. The terms "Athenian," "Corinthian," etc., characterize citizens of a country, not merely of a locality, i.e., citizens of Attica or Corinthia. The "corner" in which one was born might have been Marathon, Rhamnus, Lechaeam, Tenea, or the like.
  2. This seems to be a quotation from Poseidonius (Diogenes Laertius, VII. 138), but is also ascribed variously to the Stoics in general and especially to Chrysippus (see Diels, Doxographi Graeci, 464, 20 and 465, 15, comparing 20 f.).
  3. Referring to himself.
  4. There is less need of his urging them to regard themselves as sons of God than of preventing them, if they are convinced of this, from acting as if the life of the body were a thing to throw aside, and so committing suicide,—a practice which was defended by many Stoics.
  5. A very free paraphrase of Plato, Apology, 29 C and 28 E.
  6. At Nicopolis.
  7. In his youth Epictetus had been a slave.
  8. The thought seems to be: If the punishment can be humanly borne, I need not petition your master to remit it, for you have within yourself the power to endure it.
  9. As when a friend might ask for the body of an executed criminal.