Alexander and Diogenes

Has a man been exalted by becoming a tribune? All who meet him offer their congratulations. One kisses his eyes, another kisses the neck, and slaves kiss his hands. He goes to his house; he finds torches lighted. He goes to the Capitol. At the temple he offers a sacrifice for the occasion. Now, whoever sacrificed for having acted well? In fact, we thank God for those things in which we place our good.

The tribunate was an office in Ancient Rome that was normally held by men of patrician or equestrian birth. Its holders were charged with looking after the interests of the mass of plebeians (the lower class). Tribunes held considerable political power inherent in their office. There is a dual action that occurs when a person is elevated politically. First, he is praised by his fellows, looked up to by them, obeyed. This has a tendency to turn the head of the new "tribune". Thinking highly of himself, he becomes more dictatorial even as his charges become more servile. To Epictetus this is an obviously bad cycle that should be broken.

There is a famous and perhaps apocryphal story about the cynic philosopher, Diogenes. He, like Epictetus, believed in the mastery of the self. He was thought to be a little crazy and did many outlandish things such as the time he walked about Athens in the daytime with a lit lamp, "looking for an honest man." Plato called him a "Socrates gone mad." In his later life Diogenes was visited by Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, who would go on to conquer Egypt and India. Alexander asked what he could do for Diogenes. Diogenes had been sitting in the sunshine. He looked up at Alexander and said, "You can move from between me and the sun." Alexander's guards and followers were scandalized. They were ready to deal harshly with the aged Diogenes. But Alexander intervened saying, "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

The implication is that not only was Alexander standing between Diogenes and the sun in physical sense, but also in a figurative sense he came between the masses and their God because of the imposition of his will. At one point even had himself declared a god. Alexander was a powerful and adept leader, but perhaps he did not understand the deeper meaning of this comment, perhaps, like his followers he would have been scandalized.

Yet this, for Epictetus, was how the powerful should be treated - as if they were any other person. In Christianity, too, there is a leveling effect upon society. God created all people and loves them all equally no matter their station in life. This egalitarianism is fundamental. Yet there is a passage by Peter in his first letter (2:18) that says, "Servants, [be] subject to [your] masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forceful." But this is tempered in Paul's letter to the Ephesians (6:9), "Masters...remember that you and your slaves belong to the same Master in Heaven, who judges everyone by the same standard." Peter and Paul would have us treat those elevated in society with respect. This we presume includes being honest with them and not fawning on them to the increase of their ego and the decrease of their good judgment.

In some ways, Peter and Paul are closer than Epictetus to the basic idea of Stoicism, which is that we should view our spiritual life as being primary and our physical life as being merely secondary - or not important at all.

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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