Sunday, December 9, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.6 - on providence

The title of this chapter is On providence.

The point of this discourse is to show us that we are not mere brute animals.  What makes us humans unique is our providence-given abilities to "act in a methodical and orderly fashion, and in accordance with our own specific nature and constitution" (verse 15, p. 15).

Humans have the ability to think; to ponder; to reason and to appreciate.  What beasts create museums or art or music or ballets?  What animals write philosophical treatises or carry out experiments?  This is what sets us apart from all other creations.  Epictetus says "God brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them.  It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do.  Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves.  Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature.  Take care, then, that you don't die without having contemplated these realities" (verses 20-22, p. 16).

And where do we go to appreciate God's works?  I think they are not only found all over the world in the most pristine places, but they are also found in the day to day interactions.  To be able to see reason in philosophy and to see God's creations create!

Then the deep, reflective question Epictetus poses to us: "Will you never come to a realization of who you are, what you have been born for and the purpose for which the gift of vision was made in our case?"

And what about when difficult and disagreeable things happen to us?  How are we supposed to appreciate God's works then?  He offers a really good analogy.  People will take a pilgrimage to various places.  Perhaps they travel to Olympia or Mecca or to Washington D.C.  Despite the heat, humidity, the crowds, the traffic, the weather, the noise, the shouting - they endure it all to pay homage to whatever they find valuable.  Is this not true too with life and finding God or Zeus in the world?  Do we not fight the difficulties every day, if only to capture a glimpse of greatness?

And furthermore, God has given us the ability to endure said difficulties.  "by balancing all these things off against the remarkable nature of the spectacle, I imagine that you're able to accept and endure them.  Come now, haven't you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about?  Haven't you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage?  And with endurance?  If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about anything that may come to pass?" (verses 28-29, p. 16)  And there is the rub - the key - the point of it all: to seek, to journey, to venture to find and then appreciate God's handiwork, while using the gifts God provides to enable us to get to that point.  To be able to seek, to use the inherent tools within us, to overcome and to achieve or at least to attempt to achieve.  That's all.

Without a lion to fight, there is no Hercules.  Without a lion, hydra, stag or boar, there is no Hercules.  Without the challenges, Hercules has no definition, no existence.  "What would have been the use of his arms and of all his strength, endurance, and nobility of mind if such circumstances and opportunities hadn't been there to rouse him and exercise him?" (verse 34, p. 17).

Now, take note!  In the seeking of trying to appreciate God's creations, you not only discover and appreciate those creations, but in the doing you discovered something within you: fortitude, grit, determination, reason, justice, discipline.  And you ought to appreciate this too!  In the seeking, you come to appreciate God's work without and within.  You may even exclaim, "Bring on me now, Zeus, whatever trouble you may wish, since I have the equipment that you granted me and such resources as will enable me to distinguish myself through whatever may happen" (verse 37, p. 17).

Or ... or, you do not embark on the journey to seek and appreciate God's works and you fail to not appreciate God's works and you fail to discover God's works within you.  In other words, "you cast blame on the gods" (verse 38).  You become impious.  In Christian vernacular, you break the first great commandment.

And one final point before the big question of the day.  God has given each of us the resources to deal with whatever difficulties come our way in our search to appreciate God's works.  God has given us the choice; God has given us freedom to choose.  There is no "constraint, compulsion" or "impediment" in this choice of ours - the choice of seeking to appreciate God's work or not.

And finally, to the big question of the day (maybe the question of a lifetime): what will you choose to do?

Will you use your God-given resources and God-given character of strength and resilience to seek out ways to appreciate God's works (both externally and within you)?  Or will you be wail, grieve, complain and groan?

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