April 29, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Always Be Thankful (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English I.16)
Key ideas of the discourse
We should be grateful for the many gifts we have received from God, says Epictetus. But we don’t recognize or appreciate them. Worse still, we keep complaining. We must stop doing this and be grateful to the gifts we are given.
The evidence of God’s work is everywhere. You can see it even in insignificant things.
Instead of giving thanks for the gifts we have received, we keep complaining.
Let’s constantly give thanks for the gifts we have received.
Why animal needs are provided for
Animals are provided with all the things they need to maintain their body – food, drink, a place to lie down. Not only that, they don’t need shoes, beds, or clothes while we humans do. Don’t be surprised by this. Animals are born to serve others and not themselves; therefore, they are not burdened with additional needs. Imagine what it would be like if we had to worry about finding clothes and shoes, or food and drink for sheep and donkeys, in addition to providing these essentials for ourselves! But just as soldiers report to their generals ready for service, equipped with shoes, clothes and armour, so nature has created the animals already prepared and equipped, so they require no further care. It would be too much to expect the commander to have to equip them personally. The result? A small child, armed with nothing more than a stick, can control the entire flock of sheep.
Give thanks that it is so
We don’t see all this and give thanks. Instead we complain about our condition. If we even had a tiny amount of gratitude or respect, the lowest of creations would be enough for us to admit the existence of providence. I am not even talking about great things for now but just simple things: milk is produced from grass, cheese is produced from milk and wool can grow out of skin. Who created or thought of these things? “No one,” some say. What stupidity and shamelessness!
Consider how nature makes everything useful
Ignore the main features of nature. Just consider the secondary ones. Is there anything less useful than hairs that grow on a chin? But nature found an excellent use for it too, enabling us to distinguish between the man and woman even from a distance: “I am a man. Approach me and deal with me as a man. Nothing else is needed. Just notice nature’s signs.” Similarly, nature has provided a softer voice to women and they are deprived a beard. Of course, we could announce ourselves, “I’m a man!” or, “I’m a woman!” But consider how proud and becoming these signs are. They are more attractive than a cock’s comb and prouder than the lion’s mane. We should safeguard these signs God gave us.
Are these the only signs that providence gave us? Hardly! In fact, there are no words adequate to do justice to them or praise them. If we had any sense, there is nothing better we could do with our time than praise God and appreciate his good works, publicly and privately and remember the benefits he bestows upon us. We should praise him even when we are busy digging, ploughing, or eating.
“God is great – he has given us these instruments to work on the earth.”
“God is great – he has given us hands, a mouth, and a stomach.”
“God is great – he has given us the ability to grow unconsciously and breath in our sleep.”
This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, celebrating the ability he has given us to understand and use his works systematically. This is the greatest and the holiest of hymns.
But most of you have become blind. Someone has to fill this role and praise God on your behalf. What else can a lame old man like me do except sing God’s praises? If I were a nightingale or a swan, I would sing like either of them was born to sing. But I am a rational being, so my song is a hymn. This is my job and I will do it. I will continue to sing as long as I am permitted. I invite you to join me.
Think about this
“We neglect to give thanks … then complain to God concerning our own condition.” Discourses I.16.6, Epictetus/Robert Dobbin