Saturday, December 15, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.9 - how, from the idea that we are akin to God, one may proceed to what follows

Do you remember that part from the movie The Matrix, where Morpheus is trying to free Neo from the prison of his mind?  If not, then you can find it on YouTube (link).  In a sense, Epictetus is trying to free the minds of his students when he addressed them in this chapter.  He tried back then, and still today, with his written words (thanks to Arrian), he is trying to free his students' minds and our minds.

We are bound in the chains of our body and possessions.  And for people who place happiness and contentment in the body and possessions, they remain imprisoned.  Epictetus took it upon himself to free the minds of his students.  He believed that humans are more than mere animals.  We are related to the divine and to reason.

The chapter starts off with the concept of a cosmopolitan.  We ought "to follow the example of Socrates" when he was asked where he was from.  He would reply, "I'm a citizen of the universe" (p. 22).  We too should take the cosmopolitan view.  If you really think about it, what does it mean to say you're an American or Argentinian?  What it means is that your corpse happened to be born in some corner of the world purely for the reason that your parents and grandparents were born there too.  Does it really make sense to claim allegiance to some plot of land, some neighborhood, some city block, some square mile, some city, some county, some state, some nation, some continent?

We ought to come to the understanding that "of all things, the greatest and most important, and most all-embracing, is this society in which human beings and God are associated together" that of the association of "rational beings" (p. 22).

Epictetus then proceeds to tell his students that his duty, as their teacher and master, is to instruct them how to "prevent [them] from having a mean view of [themselves], or from developing mean and ignoble ideas about [themselves]" (p. 23).  Furthermore, to instruct them of their kinship with the rational gods and to understand that we have "these chains attached to us - the body and its possessions" and that we ought to "cast all of this aside as being burdensome, distressing, and useless" (p. 23).

Having heard all this, some of Epictetus' students claim they can no longer bear to be chained to their body and wish to go back from whence they came and to demonstrate to others that they have no power over them (the students) ... implying they, the students, should simply commit suicide to show everyone how little they esteem the world and its possessions.

Epictetus wisely states, and reminds his students and us, that it is our lot, given by God, to stand at our post.  "You must wait for God, my friends.  When he gives the signal and sets you free from your service here, then you may depart to him.  But for the present, you must resign yourselves to remaining in this post in which he has stationed you.  It is short, in truth, the time of your stay in this world, and easy to bear for people who are of such a mind as you.  For what tyrant, or what thief, or what law-courts, can still inspire fear in those who no longer attach any importance to the body and it possessions?  So wait, and don't make your departure without proper reason" (v. 16-19, p. 24).

Later on, he notes Socrates' attitude on life and the view of his duty.  The judges in Socrates' time did not want him talking and corrupting the minds of the youth.  Socrates responded, "How absurd of you to think that if one of your generals had stationed me in a post, I should hold it, and defend it, preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than abandon it, but if God has stationed us in some position and laid down rules of conduct, we should abandon it!" (p. 24).  The idea, here, is that Socrates was telling them that it was his duty, from God, to pester the people and spur them to reason.  But since he made the people look foolish, they got upset and put him on trail.  Despite that, Socrates held firm and carried out the duty he felt was his.

We humans are more than "bodies, entrails and sexual organs!"  We can gain our own contentment and we do not have to rely on others or possessions.  "For it is indeed pointless and foolish to seek to get from another what one can get from oneself.  Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility of mind from myself, shall I seek to get a patch of land from you, or a bit of money, some public post? Heaven forbid!  I won't overlook my own resources in such a manner" (p. 25).  "No one suffers misfortune because of the actions of another" (v. 34, p. 25).

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