The Value of Property

Are you so much wiser than the rest of the world? How can you be so peevish? Why are you angry? Is it because you value so much the things these people take from us? Do not admire your clothes, and you will not be angry with the thief. Do not admire the beauty of your wife, and you will not be angry with the adulterer. If you understand that a thief and an adulterer have no place in the things which are yours, if you dismiss these things and consider them as nothing, why should you be angry? But so long as you value these things, be angry with yourself rather than with the thief and the adulterer. Consider the matter in this way: you have fine clothes; your neighbor has not. You have a window; you wish to air the clothes. The thief does not know wherein man's good consists, but he thinks that it consists in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think. Must he not then come and take them away? When you show a cake to greedy persons, and swallow it all yourself, do you expect them not to snatch it from you? Do not provoke them. Do not have a window. Do not air your clothes. I recently had an iron lamp placed on my hearth. Hearing a noise at the door, I ran down, and found that the lamp had been carried off. I reflected that he who had taken the lamp had done nothing strange. "Tomorrow," I said, "I will find an earthen lamp." A man only loses that which he has. "I have lost my garment." The reason is that you had a garment. "I have pain in my head." Have you any pain in your horns? Why then are you troubled? We only lose the objects that we have, and only have pains about those things which we possess.

For those of us reared in the capitalist system this entire paragraph sounds strange. Protection of property is a vital, fundamental basis for freedom and productivity. Yet Epictetus tells us to pity the thief, to pity the adulterer. He goes further, here, than most of us would support. Most married people would be angry if his or her spouse were unfaithful. The average person reacts with shock and horror if his house is robbed. People often say that they feel personally violated when they have been stolen from.

Again, Epictetus is not advocating that criminals should go unpunished. He was a great one for personal responsibility. He expected the government to take care of punishment. He, instead, is talking to the individual. He is using an old philosophic technique, that is: he is taking an example to its extreme in order to illustrate a point. We should not let what happens to our possessions affect the way we think or the way we live. When we love possessions, we leave ourselves prey to anyone who has a whim to harm us.

Christianity takes a parallel view of property. Jesus would have us forsake it because it is not important to the spiritual life. In fact, it is a distraction. In Matthew (19:20) Jesus tells a young rich man, "If you want to be perfect, go sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven."

Possessions do not always make us happy. In fact, their addition often creates care and worry. It is an interesting phenomenon that the more a consumer product costs, the more time it seems to absorb from the owner. A new television, a new car or an expensive video game takes tremendous time. Certainly these possessions can distract from what is truly important. Happiness is not founded in possessions, rather it is founded in our state of being, for Christians this is our relationship with God.

Chapter 18:

  1. The Mistakes of Others
  2. Evil Is Ignorance (18a)
  3. The Value of Property (18b)
  4. Exercising the Will (18c)
  5. Who Is Invincible? (18d)
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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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