The Necessity of the Wager

It is necessary, then, to inquire about each of these opinions, to find out whether they are true or not. For if there is no God, how can it be our proper end to follow him? And if He exists, but doesn't take care of anything, how will it be right to follow him? But if, indeed, He does exist and looks after things, yet He does not communicate with men, how can it be right? The wise and good man, then, after considering all these things, submits his own mind to Him who administers the whole, as good citizens do to the law of the state. The good student should consider, "How shall I follow God in all things? How shall I be content with the divine administration, and how can I become free?" He is free to whom everything happens according to his will and whom no man can hinder. "What then, is freedom madness?" Certainly not: for madness and freedom do not co-exist. "But," you say, "I would have everything be just as I like, and in whatever way I like." You are mad, you are beside yourself. Do you not know that freedom is a noble and valuable thing? But for me to wish for things to happen as I like, this appears to be most base. For how do we proceed in the matter of writing? Do I write the name of Dion as I choose? No, but I am taught to choose to write it as it ought to be written. And how am I taught to make music? I am taught in the same manner. There is universality in every art or science. If it were not so, it would be of no value to know anything. Is it, then, in this alone, in this which is the chief thing, I mean freedom, that I am permitted to use my will? By no means; but to be instructed is this, to learn to wish that everything may happen as it does. And how do things happen? Answer: as the Disposer has disposed them. And He has appointed summer and winter, and abundance and scarcity, and virtue and vice, and all such opposites for the harmony of the whole; and to each of us he has given a body, and parts of the body, and possessions, and companions.

Epictetus is going back to fundamental questions about how we view God. He says that this is a question that we must ask ourselves if we are to know how to act in this world. The great Christian Philosopher and Mathematician, Blaise Pascal would ask a similar question. In the time of Louis XIV's France and what was known as the age of the Enlightenment, Pascal proposed an idea called the "necessity of the wager".

Based on pure logic Pascal noted that there are only two possibilities regarding the existence of God. Either He exists or He does not. Based on this knowledge we can pursue two courses of action. We can either choose to believe in God or we can choose not to do so. This leaves us with four possibilities. 1.) God does not exist + we choose not to believe = oblivion. 2.) God does not exist + we choose to believe = oblivion. 3.) God does exist + we choose to believe = heaven. 4.) God does exist + we choose not to believe = Hell.

Of the four possibilities which would we prefer? Why, number three, of course. The remaining choices are unthinkable because the results are so undesirable. The fact is that only one factor is under our control, to believe or not to believe. Logically it is most intelligent to choose belief, even if the odds against it were tremendous, because it produces the only desirable outcome. Pascal was said to have swayed much of the thinking public with this argument during years that saw a sudden upswing of atheism and skepticism.

Epictetus does not delve so deeply into the reason for his assumptions, but he does stipulate that it would not make any sense to assume other than that God is a personal God and that we should act accordingly.

He also throws in an essential item: our freedom to choose. We may choose this or that course, this or that way of viewing God. But we must remember that with this freedom also comes the responsibility to bear the consequences of our actions. Pascal and Epictetus would agree that the choice is important and the implication to our lives is huge. God gives us free will so that we may choose to conform to his will. Paul, in all his epistles, continually argued with his readers to make the correct choice about God and Faith. He exhorted them to choose the "Way of Jesus" and the New Covenant. This New Covenant more than implies an intimate God who (Matthew 10:29) knows every sparrow's fall and the very number of hairs upon our heads.

Chapter 12:

  1. On Contentment
  2. The Necessity of the Wager (12a)
  3. Control What You Can (12b)
  4. Hell Is Other People (12c)
  5. Giving Yourself Trouble (12d)
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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