Epictetus
Epictetus


The Philosopher's Job

It is not the job of the philosopher to contrive how you may have no mean thoughts nor mean and ignoble talk. It is his job to take care that young people not come to believe that they can give up life when they begin to recognize their kinship to God. For when they understand that we are all fettered by the body and its possessions and that the economy and commerce of life can be difficult, painful and even intolerable, seeing all this, they may wish to depart to Heaven. But this is the labor that your teacher and instructor ought to be employed upon, if he really were what he should be. You should come to him and say, "Epictetus, we can no longer endure being bound to this poor body, bothering to feed it and give it drink, and rest, and cleaning it, and for the sake of the body complying with the wishes of these and of those. Are not these things indifferent and nothing to us, and is death no evil? Are we not in a manner kinsmen of God, and did we not come from Him? Allow us to depart to the place from which we came. Allow us to be released at last from these bonds by which we are bound and weighed down. Here there are robbers and thieves and courts of justice, and those who are named tyrants that think they have some power over us by means of the body and its possessions. Permit us to show them that they have no power over any man." And I, as a stoic on my part would say, "Friends, wait for God. When He shall give the signal and release you from this service, then go to Him. But for the present endure to dwell in this place where He has put you. Short indeed is this time of your dwelling here, and easy to bear for those who are so disposed; for what tyrant or what thief, or what courts of justice, are formidable to those who have thus considered as things of no value the body and the possessions of the body? Wait, and do not depart without a reason."

If we truly believed that God is our father then we are eager to trust in him, eager to be with him. Epictetus hints that we might even wish to hurry our time on Earth to propel ourselves into the afterlife. We might especially be prone to this idea if we feel that we lead a difficult life. Shakespeare, in a speech in his famous tragedy, "Hamlet", had his character speak of "shuffl(ing) off this mortal coil" as if death were preferable to the life of woes destiny seemed to have laid out for him.

Christianity, in some regards, can be viewed from an aspect that can make death seem preferable to life. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (15:54) Paul writes "So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?"

To wish for death so that we might go to heaven does make a kind of sense from a logical point of view and has some appeal from a naively emotional perspective. Thus, taken to this logical extreme, Epictetus sees this idea might be harmful to his students.

Epictetus off-handedly reminds us that even though we have good things awaiting us upon death, we have a reason for being here on Earth. God did not put us here so that we might immediately relinquish our souls at the first sign of discomfort or adversity. Indeed, God obviously had a purpose for putting us here. Thus it would be wrong of us to alter our own condition as living beings merely for our own comfort. Suicide is a sin against the will of God. We may not currently know or understand our mission in life (other than as a Christian mandate to treat others as we would be treated), but it is still impingent upon us, by this reasoning, to seek God's will, not to thwart it for our own petty wants.

We have Jesus himself as an example. At any time during his suffering He could have "shuffled off this mortal coil" and gone to sit by His Father. But He understood that He had a mission to perform on Earth, and, though it cost Him extreme physical suffering, He performed his duty to the end.

Chapter 9:

  1. Our Relationship with God Has Consequences
  2. The Power of God Protects (9a)
  3. Sustenance (9b)
  4. The Philosopher's Job (9c)
  5. Our Mission (9d)
  6. Death Not Desired or Feared (9e)
  7. The Worthless Life (9f)
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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