God Is Useful

This is not a perverse self-regard, for the animal is constituted so as to do all things for itself. Even the sun does all things for itself. Even Zeus takes care of himself. But when he chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of all, you see that he cannot obtain these functions and these names, if he is not useful to man. Universally, he has made the nature of the rational animal such that it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests, if it does not contribute something to the common interest. In this manner and sense it is not unsociable for a man to do everything, for the sake of himself. For do you expect that a man should neglect himself and his own interest? And how in that case can there be one and the same principle in all animals, the principle of attachment to themselves?

From a theological perspective this does indeed sound like "perverse self-regard". However, we Christians may be viewing the subject from the opposite side of the same coin. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (2:10) stated, "He has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do." Paul means for us to be useful to our fellow men, for what else is a good deed? Christians take the positive, pro-active view.

Epictetus, here, is extrapolating from his own basic premise that God granted men a mind and freewill over that mind. From this notion, all things follow, even this idea of a person's value being their contribution to others. The difference between Christians and Epictetus is that Epictetus pulls other people down to the utilitarian value of objects and Christians elevate all people to their own level as humans.

Another interesting aspect of this paragraph is its foreshadowing of modern ideas about "economic man". Epictetus refers to a division of labor and points out "it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests, if it does not contribute something to the common interest." This idea underpins the whole idea of capitalism. Everyone has something to contribute, and when he or she makes his contribution he is rewarded for doing so. Everyone benefits when the individual strives to help himself.

Finally, we come to a point that only Epictetus could make so off-handedly. He says that we would not honor God if he did not provide for us. He implies that there is a reciprocal relationship between God and man. We have two covenants with God that declare this to be the case.

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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