Free Will and Zeus

What then should a man have in readiness in such dire circumstances? What else than he should clearly understand what he can and what he cannot control? If I must die, must I then die lamenting? If I must be put in chains, must I then also lament? If I must go into exile, does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment? "Tell me the secret which you possess," some official may demand in an interrogation. I will not tell, for this is in my power. "But I will put you in chains," he insists. Man, what are you talking about? Me in chains? You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself will overpower. "I will throw you into prison," he insists. My poor body you may imprison, not me. "I will cut your head off," the official threatens. When have I told you that my head cannot be cut off? These are the things which philosophers should meditate on, on which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves.

This fascinating passage, on first blush, might seem sacrilegious. Epictetus says, "my will not even Zeus (God) himself will overpower." Yet think back on all the bible stories from the Old Testament. God never imposes his will on anyone. He suggests strongly on occasion, as when he told Jonah to go to Ninevah. But he allows us free will to do as we choose. In the New Testament we are continually reminded that we should CHOOSE the path of righteousness. Thus, there is something of us that is ineradicably ours, some indefinable something that is some mix of soul and mind and body that we call "will".

Chapter 1:

  1. Of the Things Which Are and Are Not in Our Power
  2. What Is Fitting (1a)
  3. Mind Control (1b)
  4. Don't Worry, Be Happy (1c)
  5. Lateranus the Stoic (1d)
  6. Free Will and Zeus (1e)
  7. Thrasea the Roman Senator (1f)
  8. The Reaction of Aggripinus (1g)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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