Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Epictetus Discourses 1.3 - the benefit of knowing we are children of God

Marcus Aurelius often wrote about "providence or atoms." This was in reference to the management of the universe and world. Is the world governed by God or Gods? Or is it a random interaction of atoms bouncing off each other endlessly leading to constant chaos?

There are several parts of Meditations that mentions this choice. As you read them, you will notice how he leans towards organization, order, a system or machine.

Book 4.2
Revisit the alternatives providence or atoms - and the many indications that the universe is a kind of community. But will matters of the flesh still have their hold on you? Consider that the mind, once it has abstracted itself and come to know its own defining power, has no contact with the movement of the bodily spirit.

Book 6.10
Either a stew, an intricate web, and dispersal into atoms: or unity, order, and providence. Now if the former, why do I even wish to spend my time in a world compounded at random and in like confusion? Why have any concern other than somehow, some time, to become 'earth unto earth'? And why actually am I troubled? Dispersal will come on me, whatever I do. But if the latter is true, I revere it, I stand firm, I take courage in that which directs all.

Book 6.24
Alexander of Macedon and his muleteer were levelled in death: either they were taken up into the same generative principles of the universe, or they were equally dispersed into atoms.  Reflect on how many separate events, both bodily and mental, are taking place in each one of us in the same tiny fragment of time: and then you will not be surprised if many more events, indeed all that comes to pass, subsist together in the one and the whole, which we call the Universe.

Book 7.32
On death. Either dispersal, if we are atoms: or, if we are a unity, extinction or a change of home.

Book 7.50
Again:  'What is born of earth goes back to earth: but the growth from heavenly seed returns whence it came, to heaven.'  Or else this: a dissolution of the nexus of atoms, and senseless molecules likewise dispersed.

Book 8.28
The recurrent cycles of the universe are the same, up and down, from eternity to eternity. And either the mind of the Whole has a specific impulse for each individual case - if so, you should welcome the result - or it had a single original impulse, from which all else follows in consequence: and why should you be anxious about that? The Whole is either a god - then all is well: or if purposeless - some sort of random arrangement of atoms or molecules - you should not be without purpose yourself. 

Book 9.39
Either all things flow from one intelligent source and supervene as in one coordinated body, so the part should not complain at what happens in the interest of the whole - or all is atoms, and nothing more than present stew and future dispersal. Why then are you troubled? Say to your directing mind: 'Are you dead, are you decayed, have you turned into an animal, are you pretending, are you herding with the rest and sharing their feed?'

Book 10.6
Whether atoms or a natural order, the first premise must be that I am part of the Whole which is governed by nature: the second, that I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts. With these premises in mind, in so far as I am a part I shall not resent anything assigned by the Whole. Nothing which benefits the Whole can be harmful to the part, and the Whole contains nothing which is not to its benefit. All organic natures have this in common, but the nature of the universe has this additional attribute, that no external cause can force it to create anything harmful to itself.

So remembering that I am part of a Whole so constituted will leave me happy with all that happens to me. And in so far as I have some close relationship with the other kindred parts, I shall do nothing unsocial, but rather look to the good of my kin and have every impulse directed to the common benefit and diverted from its opposite. All this in operation guarantees that life will flow well, just as you would judge a citizen's life in proper flow when he moves on through acts which benefit his fellow citizens, and welcomes all that his city assigns him.

We too are faced with this decision about how to view this Universe and life. Whether you talk to an atheist or a theist, both will share what they think is evidence that supports their cause. In a debate, it might be a tie. As an impartial observer, in a sense, we get to choose what we want to believe: Providence or Atoms. And when we arrive at this crossroads, we should do well to remember what Epictetus says: "If only one could be properly convinced of this truth, that we're all first and foremost children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself."

When I read this, it seems that Epictetus is saying that if you view yourself in high regard (a child of God), then your attitude about yourself and even the world, pivots to the positive.

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Later he says, "these two elements have been mixed together in us from our conception, the body, which we have in common with animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share with the gods, some of us incline towards the kinship that is wretched and mortal, and only a few of us towards that which is divine and blessed. Now since everyone, whoever he may be, is bound to deal with each matter in accordance with the belief that he holds about it, those few who think they were born for fidelity, for self-respect, and for the sound use of impressions will never harbour any mean or ignoable thought about themselves, whereas the majority if people will do exactly the opposite."

On which side do you tilt? Are humans just high-functioning animals? Or are they more noble?

For me personally, believing in a God or Gods or Providence and thinking the Universe is ordered, I am more willing to accept my fate in all this; and that keeps me on the positive side of the scale. It also helps me give others the benefit of the doubt. If I tend to think that it is all chaos and random atoms, I might be willing to throw my hands up in the air in ambivalence and may act coldly towards other people and their challenges. But if I believe there is some order, I might be more willing order my life and help instill order and harmony in others.

Further Reading:

Stoicism: Providence or Atoms? Can you be a modern Stoic and an atheist (or agnostic)?

'Providence or Atoms? Providence!'


  1. I disagree with your last point. Just because the world is chaos and a result of random atoms, doesn't mean I want to act coldly towards everyone. I believe in virtue despite being an atheist and therefore conform to it because virtue is good, and what's good brings happiness.

    1. I love the discourse of philosophy and the way it helps me and others evolve. I wrote this passage in 2018, and as of today (January 28, 2024), I agree with your disagreement! I had not discovered existentialism yet when I wrote this. When Camus talks about and defines the absurd, it is not unlike the result of random atoms. And I think his rationale for reacting to the absurd can comprehend a life of virtue. I don't think my brain and beliefs had matured quite enough when I wrote this.

      I'm curious about you - as an atheist, where is your ultimate grounding placed? What reference point guides your life of living a life of virtue? Is it simply that you've lived it and feel 'happy' and that's good enough? Have you tried other philosophies and those didn't work out? Other reasons?