Give Up the Material

This was the practice of Socrates: this was the reason why he always had one face. But we choose to practice and study anything rather than the means by which we shall be unimpeded and free. You say, "Philosophers speak in paradoxes." But are there no paradoxes in the other arts? What is more paradoxical than to puncture a man's eye in order that he may see? If any one said this to a man ignorant of the surgical art, would he not ridicule the speaker? Where is the wonder then that in philosophy many things appear paradoxical?

Christianity does seem a paradox. Give up all and you will receive all. For Stoics, it is more like, give up desire for all and achieve happiness through freedom.

Yet there are other paradoxes that occur when we try to apply our faith, our philosophy, upon the broad spectrum of human activity. For example, our child wishes to eat a sweet, we give her a piece of candy from a huge jar we keep in a cabinet. She asks for more. We have an abundance. It would seem a sin to refrain from giving her more. Yet, we know too much candy will "give her a belly-ache spoil her dinner, and rot her teeth right out of her head!" Which is kinder: to be generous with our wealth of candy or to teach our child restraint?

Further in social issues we can see that we want to help the poor and downtrodden. But to vote for a tax that transfers wealth directly from the wealthy to the poor means that we are taking from one person against his will. What is the difference between this and robbing at gun-point? By the same token, if we give too much to the poor person we stifle his desire to work and ultimately destroy his self-esteem. The paradox is this, giving is good, but giving too much is bad. Christ told us to give of ourselves and to follow him. He did not say to take from someone else to give to the poor.

The paradox is resolved when we approach our faith with intelligence and apply it consistently to our own behavior. Epictetus uses the example of a person with no knowledge of medicine, who believes that cutting his own flesh would be insane. Yet the doctor knows that cutting into a body (surgery) will cure many an ailment. The fact is that study and understanding will help us to do the right thing in every circumstance. For this we also have our conscience to aid us. Ultimately, knowing how to deal with adversity is a matter of applying the gifts that God gave us, faith, intelligence and freedom.

Chapter 25:

  1. More on Struggle
  2. Faculty of Understanding (25a)
  3. God Gave Us a Brain (25b)
  4. The Saturnalia (25c)
  5. Conjecture and Life (25d)
  6. Examples of Application (25e)
  7. Where to Sit in the Amphitheater (25f)
  8. Give Up the Material (25g)
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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