Epictetus
Epictetus


Faithless Wolves

Through this kinship with the flesh, some of us become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous. Some become like lions, savage and untamed. But the greater part of us become like foxes and other animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal? See, then, and take care that you do not become one of these miserable creatures.

Yet we do not think this way. Since we mingle in ourselves the body of an animal and godlike reason, we often incline to the miserable portion of our make-up that is mortal. Very few incline to that which is divine within us. Every man makes use of things according to the opinion which he has about these things. Those few who think that they are formed for fidelity and modesty and a sure use of appearances have no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves. But with the many it is quite the contrary. For they say, "What am I but a poor, miserable man, with my wretched bit of flesh?" Wretched they are indeed. But you as an individual possess something better than a "bit of flesh". Why then do you neglect that which is better? Why do you attach yourself to the physical?

Though we have gotten our mind from God, we must also be mindful that we are made of clay. Epictetus calls this "kinship with the flesh". Throughout the history of philosophy there has always been a dichotomy between the body and the mind. Epictetus looks at the body as bad - well, not bad, but at least a bad influence - if we let it control our actions.

Paul held the same view. He acknowledged that God sent us the Holy Spirit. In the last part of Galatians Chapter 5 (verse 16) he says, "What I say is this: let the Spirit direct your lives, and you will not satisfy the desires of the human nature. For what our human nature wants is opposed to what the Spirit wants..." Paul is as adamant about the difference between body and "spirit" as is Epictetus. Even so, Paul saw it in a slightly different context. Instead of the two forces, body and mind, Paul viewed the self as a kind of trinity, body, mind and spirit. We make decisions and act with our mind, while our body tells us to do one thing and the Spirit insists upon another.

Popular culture reveals this idea as an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on another. Both are advising the individual. This is a bit of a simplification, but it is not a bad analogy. Choosing the wrong shoulder sitter inevitably has its consequences.

Both Paul and Epictetus warn us that we should ignore the body, for it will always insist on the lazy way. It will insist on indulgence of desires that ultimately hurt and harm ourselves and others. The key is to consciously and conscientiously make decisions that obey the spirit and that are worthy of us as children of God. This does not mean that we ignore our health, but that we ignore our base and sometimes instinctual desires.

The idea of "God the Father" has further ramifications. Those who do not view God as their father will see themselves as animals. Because of this they suffer some distinct disadvantages in life. They do not have the comforts of knowing God cares for them, and they also are more likely to choose the base part of their nature when making decisions. We should thank God every day for our inheritance and be guided by the Spirit. Doing so will incalculably improve our own lives and the lives of others around us.

Chapter 3:

  1. God Is Father of All
  2. Faithless Wolves (3a)
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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