April 5, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Behave Like You Are Related To God (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.9)
Key ideas of this discourse
Because we are children of god, we should stop identifying with a small place, and think of ourselves as a citizen of the universe.
You don’t have to worry about the future. Even irrational animals don’t. When you think that you cannot take care of yourself, you don’t realize that you are having mean thoughts about yourself.
When you realize that external things have no power over you, you may want to end your life. But my advice to you is that god has stationed you here. Wait until you are called back.
Be a citizen of the universe
If what philosophers say about our kinship with God is true, then it is only logical we are citizens of the universe, not of any particular country. When asked where he was from, Socrates never replied that he was from Athens or Corinth, but always, “I am a citizen of the universe.” Why identify ourselves with the place where our body was dropped off at birth?
Those who know how the whole universe is administered, know the first all-inclusive government is that of God and us. It is the source of all beings, going back generations upon generations, covering every creature ever born and bred on this earth. This is particularly true of rational beings since they alone are entitled by nature to be associated with God through reason.
Why not identify ourselves as citizens of the universe and children of God? Why should we fear any human condition? You may think if you are related to a king, or to some other powerful person, you can live safely and fearlessly. But you are related to God. Shouldn’t you be free of grief and fear?
Be content being where you are
“But how can I feed myself if I am destitute?”
“Well, how about other poor people or runaways? Do they depend on their land, their servants, and silverware? Hardly. They rely on themselves and still manage to survive.”
Are you, a philosopher and citizen of the universe, going to be dependent on others when you travel? Do you want to be more cowardly than irrational animals that are self-sufficient? Are they not provided with a mode of survival to live in harmony with nature? As an old man, I shouldn’t be trying to persuade you not to think so small.
On the other hand, some young people among you may know your relationship to God, know that you are chained by your body, by your possessions, and other needs of your daily life. You may try to get rid of these things. But I would discourage you from doing so. It is your teacher’s job to guide you. You should go to your teacher and say, “We no longer want to be tied to our body, possessions, and other things that bind us; we don’t want to be associated with uncongenial people. All such things are indifferent to us. Here we have thieves, robbers, law courts, and people who think they have some power over us because of our body and possessions. Allow us to show them that they have power over no one.”
If I were your teacher, I would say, “Friends, wait for God’s signal for your release from service. Then go. For now, be content to be in the place he stationed you. Your stay here is brief and it is easy enough to endure for people with your level of understanding. No tyrant, thief, or court of law can harm someone who places little value on body and possessions. So stay here, don’t depart without good reason.”
No need to worry about what may happen
In reality, this is not how teachers and young students behave. Instead, as soon as you eat your meal today, you sit and worry about tomorrow’s meal. I say to you, “If you get it, you will have it. If not, you will depart this life. The door is open. Why cry and complain? Why flatter or envy others? Why admire those with possessions, especially when they are powerful and quick to anger? What can they do to us? Or for us? Things they control are of no interest to us. What we care about, they cannot control. When we think this way, no one is our master. We cannot be made to act against our will.”
How did Socrates feel about these things? Just like someone who knows the affinity between him and God. When offered freedom if he refrained from engaging in the type of dialogues that he had been engaging until then, and annoying the young and the old, Socrates responded, “If one of your generals assigns me to a post, you would expect me to maintain and defend it and not quit even if my life is threatened. Not once, but a thousand times. Isn’t it absurd that you expect me to abandon what God has assigned me to do and made it my way of life?” This is how a person with affinity to God would behave.
But we identify ourselves with our bodily organs such as our stomachs and guts. Our fears and desires are shaped accordingly. We become vulnerable to fear and desire. We flatter those we think can help us and fear those we think can hurt us.
Be self-reliant and appreciate what you have
A man, who was once wealthy and eminent, came to see me. He had fallen to bad times, lost everything, and asked me to write a letter to Rome on his behalf. I wrote a submissive letter. He read it and returned to me saying that he needed my help, not my pity, and that he faced no evil.
My teacher, Musonius Rufus, used to test me in a similar fashion. He would say, “Your master is going to afflict you with some hardship.” When I answered, “Such is life,” he would reply “Why, then, should I intervene with him when I can get the same things from you?” It is silly and superfluous to get from another person what you can get for yourself. Since I can get greatness of soul and noble spirit from myself, why should I look to get an estate, money, or some position from anyone else? No, I will not be so insensitive to what I already have.
No one is ever unhappy because of someone else
If you are meek and cowardly, what else is left but to write letters for you as if you are already dead? If you don’t realize that no one is unhappy because of someone else, you are just a dead body and a little blood.
Think about this
It is silly and pointless to try to get from another person what one can get for oneself. Discourses !.9.31. Epictetus/Robert Dobbin