July 26, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
God Is Knowledge And Reason (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English II.8)
Key ideas of this discourse
The nature of God is in knowledge and right reason.
Plants and animals cannot interpret the impressions they receive. So, we cannot apply the terms “good” and “bad” to them.
Humans are the principal work of God and they can interpret the impressions they receive.
God is within us all the time, but we are not aware of it.
God wants us to look after ourselves and preserve the qualities we are born with: modesty, faithfulness, dignity, patience, calmness, and poise.
We will not be able to avoid death and disease, but we can bear death and disease with God-like dignity.
The true nature of God
God is helpful. What is good is also helpful. It seems then that where there is the true nature of God, there is also is the true nature of good.
“What, then, is the true nature of God. Is it flesh?”
“Not at all.”
The nature of God is in knowledge and right reason. Only here should you look for the true nature of good. You won’t find it in plants or animals. Then why go looking for it in places other than what distinguishes the rational for the irrational?
The terms “good’ and “evil” do not apply to plants or animals
The terms “good’ and “evil” do not apply to plants because they don’t have the capacity to deal with external impressions. Even the ability to deal with external impressions not enough. If it is, then you should be able to speak of “good,” “happy,” and “unhappy,” when we talk about animals as we do when we talk about humans. But we don’t, for a good reason.
Animals may use external impressions well, but cannot reflect on them or understand them. There is a reason for this. Animals are born to serve, and they do not have any other primary purpose. A donkey was created because humans needed an animal with a strong back that could carry a heavy load. Because the donkey also needed to walk around, it was given the ability to deal with external impressions for this purpose. But that’s where it ends. If donkeys had the ability to go further and understand how to deal with impressions, they would refuse to obey us and would be our equal. And rightly so.
Humans are the principal works of God
“Because the nature of good is absent from both plants and animals, should you not look for it in that quality that distinguishes humans from all other things?”
“Aren’t plants and animals works of God?”
“They are. But they are not of primary importance and are not parts of God.”
But you are a principal work of God, a fragment of him. You have a part of Him in you. Why are you then ignorant of your noble birth? Why don’t you remember your origin? Why don’t you remember, when you eat, who you are and whom you are feeding? When you have sex, who is it that’s doing it? Whenever you converse, exercise, or socialize, don’t you know that it is with God you do these things?
God is always with us and we don’t know it
You carry God around you and you don’t know it, poor fool! I am not talking about some external god made of silver of gold. The God you carry around with you is a living one and yet you are so blind to the fact that you defile Him with your impure thoughts and offensive behavior. You wouldn’t repeat such behavior even when a god’s statue is nearby. When God himself is there within you, and sees and hears everything you do and say, are you not ashamed to think and act the way you do? You are not aware of your own nature and are an object of God’s anger.
What are we anxious about when we send out a young man into the real world after he graduates from school? That he may make mistakes, eat poorly, have affairs, humiliate himself, and dress in poor clothes or dress to impress? Why? Because he is ignorant of his God within him. He fails to realize who goes with him and says, “I wish you were here with me.” Is it not so that God is with him wherever he goes? Having Him with you, why look for someone else? Would they tell you any different?
If you were a sculpture made by (the famous sculptor) Phidias, then you would have remembered who you are and who it is that made you. If you had any intelligence, you would try to avoid doing anything unworthy of your creator or of you, such as making yourself a spectacle in front of others. God made you. Are you then unconcerned about the spectacle you make of yourself? How can you even compare the creations of a sculptor with creations of God?
What other work of art comes with all the powers that the artist displayed while making it? Is it anything more than marble, bronze, gold, or ivory? Phidias’ statue of Athena, once finished with its arms raised to support Victory, remains that way forever. The works of God, on the other hand, are living, breathing beings. They can deal with impressions and test them. When you are the work of such an artist, will you discredit him – especially when he not only created you but has given you complete control over yourself? You not only forget that, but dishonor the trust he placed in you.
God has entrusted each one of us to our own care
If God had asked you to care for some orphans, would you have ignored them? God has asked you to care for yourself, saying, “I don’t have anyone more dependable than you. Preserve this person for me along with the qualities nature has given him: modesty, faithfulness, dignity, patience, calmness, and poise.” Will you not keep him so?
People might say, “Why does this person look so serious and self-important?”
“Well that’s only because I am not yet totally confident about the principles I have learnt and agreed to live by. I am still afraid of my weakness. Let me gain more confidence and I will show you the right look and bearing. I will show you what a completed and polished statue looks like.”
What do you think of it? A proud look? Heaven forbid! Even God doesn’t have a proud look. He keeps up the steady gaze of a person who is about to say, “My words are irrevocable and true.” I will show you that I am the kind of person who is faithful, honorable, noble, and poised.
We can all be God-like
“Do you mean to say that you are immune from illness, death, age, and disease?”
“No, but I would die and bear disease God-like. This much is in my power. This I can do. All other things you say are not in my power and I cannot do them. I will show you the strength of a philosopher.”
“What kind of strength are you talking about?”
“A desire that is always fulfilled. An aversion that does not face what it wants to avoid. The right choice. A well-considered assent. This is what you shall see.”
Think about this
Strengths of a philosopher: Desire that never fails in its achievement; aversion that never meets with what it wants to avoid; appropriate impulse; carefully considered purpose; and assent that is never precipitate. This is what you shall see. Epictetus (Christopher Gill), Discourses I.8.29.