Chamber Pots and Character

The rational and the irrational appear differently to different persons. Just as the good and the bad, the profitable and the unprofitable, can be seen differently from different perspectives. For this reason we need discipline to learn how to adapt the preconception of the rational and the irrational to what we see in nature. But in order to determine the rational and the irrational, we use not only the appearance of external things, but we consider also what is appropriate to each person. For to one man it is consistent with reason to hold a chamber pot for another person because if he does not hold it, he will receive stripes or his food will be withheld. But if he shall hold the pot, he will not suffer anything hard or disagreeable. To another man the holding of a chamber pot is intolerable. It is also intolerable for him to allow another to do this office for him. If you ask me whether you should hold someone's chamber pot, I shall say to you that the receiving of food is worth more than the not receiving of it, and the scourge or lash is a greater indignity than not being scourged. If you measure your interests by these things, go and hold the chamber pot.

That which is reasonable or acceptable is seemingly relative to the person perceiving the event. Epictetus says that even good and bad can appear to be relative. He does not mean this in the sense of good and evil, but in the sense of how it affects the individual.

Exercising his sense of humor, Epictetus discusses what it means to do menial service. He is tweaking those of us who are not willing to perform such lowly service as holding a chamber pot. Jesus, too, would have us relinquish an over-weaning sense of self. He set the example for humbleness when he washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus also reminded us that, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last." Paul of Tarsus was not a social revolutionary. In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells slaves that they should obey their master with a good will. In other words, a slave should be content with his worldly situation, holding a chamber pot if it is required. But in Christianity this relationship comes with mutual obligations. Yes, the slave owes service to the master, but the master owes the slave his due as well, treating him or her with respect due to every child of God.

In the modern world we reject slavery as an institution or a relationship between human beings. This may stem from the egalitarian notions that have been spread about the world by the example of democracy, but it may also be a practical reaction to an institution that is inefficient and ultimately as destructive and restraining on the master (perhaps more so) than on the slave. The institution of slavery drains the master both economically and morally. One of the first persons to recognize this was the father of his country, George Washington, who wished to free his slaves not only for moral purposes, but because he saw that men were less productive when they were subjected to slavery. Ultimately, he would free his slaves upon his death.

Epictetus and Paul would seem to agree that we all have a place in societyBut Epictetus sees the place or position a person takes on as a personal choice, whereas for Paul it seemed to be imposed by society.

Chapter 2:

  1. How to Maintain Proper Character
  2. Chamber Pots and Character (2a)
  3. Examples of Character (2b)
  4. Philosophers and Beards (2c)
  5. A Soul's Worth (2d)
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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