An Oath to Caesar

"But I cannot," the man replied, "comprehend all these things at once." But who tells you that you have equal power with Zeus? Nevertheless, he has placed by every man a guardian, to whom he has committed the care of the man, a guardian who never sleeps, is never deceived. For to what better and more careful guardian could He have entrusted each of us? When, then, you have shut the doors and made darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not; but God is within, and the better angel of your genius is within, and what need have angels of light to see what you are doing? To this God you ought to swear an oath just as the soldiers do to Caesar. They who are hired for pay swear to ensure the safety of Caesar before all things. You who have received so many and such great favors, will you not swear, or when you have sworn, will you not abide by your oath? And what shall you swear? Swear never to be disobedient, never to make any charges, never to find fault with anything that he has given. Is this oath like the soldier's oath? The soldiers swear not to prefer any man to Caesar. In this oath men swear to honor God before all.

The man questioning Epictetus then reveals his self-centered perspective. He tells Epictetus that he, himself, cannot comprehend more than a few things in a moment - so how could God? Epictetus dispenses with this objection first by telling the man that his powers are necessarily only a fraction of those of God, for God is in possession of the faculties of all humankind and more. Not that we do God's thinking for him. A power so great that it created the very sun has the resources to think and understand in a manner far greater than we as individuals might.

Beyond this, he gave us a great gift. Epictetus calls it "a guardian who never sleeps...the better angel of our genius..." Freud would have broken it down to some amalgamation of the id, ego and superego. We might think of it as consciousness coupled with our conscience. He tells us that God is present even in darkness. God does not need light to see what we are doing. For Epictetus this is a comforting thought. God is present even in our darkest moments.

In the days of ancient Rome, soldiers swore an oath to Caesar because of his political power. To God, Epictetus tells us, we should swear a higher oath. For God is far greater than any earthly power. This implies that we owe a higher allegiance to God than to the state. Although Jesus told us to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's", when these two allegiances come in conflict the choice between the two is obvious. Even the U.S. military recognizes higher laws of morality. Every Officer is inculcated with the idea that he not only has the option, but is required to disobey orders from above that are illegal or immoral.

Chapter 14:

  1. The Deity Oversees all Things
  2. Isaac Newton and the Mind of God (14a)
  3. An Oath to Caesar (14b)
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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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