Epictetus
Epictetus


Tyrants and Pipkins

What is it then that disturbs and terrifies the multitude? Is it the tyrant and his guards? I wish that it was not so. It should not be that what is by nature free can be disturbed by anything other than itself. It is a man's own opinions which disturb him. When the tyrant says to a man, "I will chain your leg," he who values his leg says, "Do not chain my leg; have pity!" However, the person who values his will more than his leg says, "If it seems advantageous, chain my leg." "Do you not care?" the tyrant might ask. I do not care. The tyrant says, "I will show you that I am master." He cannot do that. Zeus has set me free. Do you think that he intended to allow his own son to be enslaved? The tyrant is master of my carcass, this body. Take it if you will. "So when you approach me, you have no regard to me?" the tyrant says. No, but I have regard to myself; and if you wish me to say that I have regard to you also, I tell you that I have the same regard to you that I have to my pipkin.

It is, of course, the tyrant's physical power that makes him feared. Epictetus decries this state. People should not be afraid of a tyrant because he does not own their heart, mind and soul. The scriptures would agree with this notion. Jesus himself had something to say on the subject (Mat 22:21), "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Render up to God that which is God's." Of course, in this quote from Matthew, Jesus is referring to money, specifically to taxes levied by Rome. Yet this passage implies a distinction and a separation between temporal and spiritual power. We take it for granted that God may interfere in the spiritual affairs of man, but we also acknowledge that there are governmental authorities here on Earth.

The real crux of this separation of the physical and the spiritual is our ability to keep the soul pure even when the body is corrupted. In Ancient Rome torture, slavery, and other imperial abuses of individuals were common. If we understand that our soul and our will belong to us (and to God) and that our outward manifestations belong to others, then we will be unaffected when we are physically imposed upon.

Now, there is a theme that runs through these several paragraphs that directly counters Christian thought. We see Epictetus espousing a distain for his fellow man that might be just a bit extreme. Christians are taught that the most important instruction Jesus gave us is the "11th commandment", "to treat others as you would be treated." Epictetus ends this paragraph by saying that he has no more respect for the Emperor of Rome than he has for a clay pot (pipkin)."

Ultimately, Epictetus only has regard for the Emperor, or any man, for that matter, to the extent that he can be useful. Whereas a Christian values every human life as he would value his own. But, as we shall see, Epictetus comes at the problem of human relations from an angle only slightly oblique to the Christian view:

Chapter 19:

  1. How We Should Behave to Tyrants
  2. Tyrants and Pipkins (19a)
  3. God Is Useful (19b)
  4. Felicion the Shoemaker (19c)
  5. Alexander and Diogenes (19d)
  6. Honors Are Vanity (19e)
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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