Epictetus
Epictetus


The Rational Facility

Are these things relevant only to us? Many, indeed, are relevant only to humans. The rational animal has peculiar needs, but you will find we share many needs with irrational animals. Do irrational creatures understand what is done? By no means, use is one thing, and understanding is another. God had need of irrational animals to make use of appearances, but he made us to understand the use of appearances. It is therefore enough for them to eat and to drink, to sleep and to copulate, to do all the other things which they severally do. But for us, to whom He has given also the faculty of understanding, these things are not sufficient; for unless we act in a proper and orderly manner, conformably to the nature and constitution of each thing, we shall never attain our true end.

Where the constitutions of living beings are different, there also the acts and the ends are different. In those animals, then, whose constitution is adapted only to use, use alone is enough. But in an animal which has also the power of understanding the use, unless there be the due exercise of the understanding, he will never attain his proper end. Well then, God makes every animal, one to be eaten, another to serve for agriculture, another to supply cheese, and another for some like use. Do these creatures need to understand appearances to perform their functions? But God has introduced man to be a spectator of God and of His works, not only a spectator of them, but an interpreter. For this reason it is shameful for man to begin and to end where irrational animals do. Rather he ought to begin where they begin, and to end where nature ends in us. Nature ends in contemplation and understanding, in a way of life conformable to nature. Take care then not to die without having been spectators of these things.

Besides creating order in the universe, God also gave humans the rational facility to understand our world. Epictetus laments the fact that we do not often appreciate this. We should take the opportunity to contemplate it, and having done so, we should realize that we ourselves have a place in it all. According to Epictetus this place is to be "a spectator of God and all His works." And more, we are to be an interpreter of them.

The Bible tells us that we have domain over all the Earth. Epictetus is telling us much the same thing. It is our right and duty to shepherd these resources in a positive way. We do this by making our lives "conformable to nature." Now, this does not mean that we cannot cut down a tree or eat a chicken. By "conformable to nature", Epictetus means that we should fulfill our place in God's grand design. We should use what God has given us, technology and our understanding, to make the world a better place. Building cities and factories and farms is good, this is what is in our nature, but at the same time we should be careful not to destroy the resources that God has given us, the air and water and land.

Had Epictetus been alive today he would have advocated a balanced and practical approach to environmental issues. Note how he talks about each animal and thing in the context of what use it can be made to man.

Epictetus ends this paragraph with a warning to "Take care then not to die without having been spectators of these things." Epictetus was a great devote' of Socrates. He took quite seriously the Athenian's statement, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Epictetus goes into more detail in the next paragraph.

Chapter 6:

  1. On Providence
  2. The Workman (6a)
  3. The Rational Facility (6b)
  4. Backyard Magnificence (6c)
  5. Exercise Your Will! (6d)
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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