Epicurus and Children

Epicurus, who knows this, ventures to say that we should not bring up children. But a sheep does not desert its own offspring, nor yet a wolf; and shall a man desert his child? What do you mean? That we should be more silly than sheep? Well, who would follow your advice if he saw his child weeping after falling on the ground? Epicurus, I think that even if your mother and your father had been told by an oracle that you would say what you have said, they would not have cast you away.

It is the intention of Epictetus to destroy the entire Epicurean philosophy by demonstrating how ridiculous it is in the matter of the relation of parents to offspring. Yet, Stoicism itself may seem to have something to answer for in this matter. Epictetus has often said that we cannot place our happiness in our children. The only place we can place our happiness is in our will. But Epictetus stressed that this does not mean that we neglect our duties to each other. It is basic to Stoicism that we exercise our will power to do what is right toward others. The Stoic does what he can to set the world right, but leaves the things out of his control to God. This means we do what is right by our children. If our best in this regard fails, then we must accept it and not let it destroy us.

In Ephesians (Chapter 6) Paul reflects on the Christian view of the Child-Parent relationship, "Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents for this is the right thing to do. Respect your father and mother is the first commandment that has a promise added; so that all may go well with you, and you may live a long time in the land...Parents, do not treat your children in such a way as to make them angry. Instead, raise them with Christian discipline and instruction." This is close to the Stoic view. Duties are paramount and, if strictly followed, bring rewards both earthly and heavenly. It is interesting that the Christian view is the most specific in its injunctions. Obedience and duty are stressed.

Epictetus ends this chapter with a sarcastic remark that resonates down the centuries. He says that even the parents of Epicurus would not have thrown the young child to the wolves, had they somehow known that he would eventually advocate this action for children in general. The bond between parent and child is too powerful. The moral imperative to raise a child is too great. Thus, Epictetus demonstrates that a philosophy that equates good with mere physical pleasure is pure folly, for it does not take into account the nature of human relationships.

Chapter 2:

  1. Against Epicurus
  2. Epicurus and Social Responsibility (23a)
  3. Epicurus and Children (23b)
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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