Epictetus
Epictetus


CHAPTER 20: How Reason Contemplates Itself

Every art and faculty concerns specific things. Only when an art or faculty's object is to contemplate may it contemplate itself. No other faculty than reason may contemplate itself. For example, the shoemaker's art is employed on leather, but is itself entirely distinct from the material of leather. For this reason it does not contemplate itself. Again, the grammarian's art contemplates articulate speech. Is grammar then also articulate speech? By no means is this so. Thus articulate speech does not contemplate itself. We were given reason to make proper use of things. What is reason? It is a systematizing of phenomena. So by its nature reason may contemplate itself.

This question of reason contemplating itself has a long history in philosophy. Rene' Descartes, the famous mathematician, came up with a rather brilliant deduction about thinking and existence, "We can know we exist because we can contemplate our existence." From this we get the famous, "I think; therefore I am." Even the Latin phrase is still current in academic circles, "Cogito ergo sum."

This argument has carried water for philosophers for nearly four centuries, and it makes considerable sense. However, it has had its detractors. Perhaps first among them was Jean Paul Sartre. For him and others in the Existentialist movement the thinking mind obscures reality. Sartre felt that we got closest to reality by living in the split second. For him the mind imposed unwarranted meaning on the reality that floods the senses at every moment. It is almost as if contemplation were a distortion of truth.

These two arguments can be viewed as merely an extension of the dispute between the Stoics and the Epicurians over the primacy of the body as opposed to the mind or the soul.

Where would Jesus have come down on this question? He undoubtedly felt that the soul and prayer were important. For Him the greater reality is inside us, in our soul. Before His crucifixion, he talked about the Holy Spirit that would come down to assist the Apostles and give them the strength to carry on the work of Jesus.

Chapter 20:

  1. How Reason Contemplates Itself
  2. Informed Conscience (20a)
  3. Zeno and Jesus Agree (20b)
  4. Mind or Body? (20c)
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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