Epictetus
Epictetus


WWJD - What Would Jesus Do?

"When, then, women are carried off, when children are made captives, and when the men are killed, are these not evils?" queried the student. How is it then that you add to the facts these opinions?

Again Epictetus emphasizes that calamities are still calamitous. They are still horrible. They still should be resisted. But we should not take their occurrence as the destruction of what is essential within us.

Again the student asks, "How is it that you say that these are not evils?" Let us come to the rules, produce the precognitions. It is because this is neglected that we cannot sufficiently wonder at what men do. When we intend to judge of weights, we do not judge by guess. Where we intend to judge of straight and crooked, we do not judge by guess. In all cases where it is our interest to know what is true in any matter, never will any man among us do anything by guess. But in things which depend on the first and on the only cause of doing right or wrong, of happiness or unhappiness, of being unfortunate or fortunate, there only we are inconsiderate and rash. There is then nothing like scales, nothing like a rule: but some appearance is presented, and straightway I act according to it. Must I then suppose that I am superior to Achilles or Agamemnon, so that they by following appearances do and suffer so many evils: and shall not the appearance be sufficient for me? And what tragedy has any other beginning? The Atreus of Euripides, what is it? An appearance. The OEdipus of Sophocles, what is it? An appearance. The Phoenix? An appearance. The Hippolytus? An appearance. What kind of a man then do you suppose him to be who pays no regard to this matter? And what is the name of those who follow every appearance? "They are called madmen." Do we then act at all differently?

We return to talk of precognition. Epictetus means here that we should set some standard for ourselves for judging how to act. We use a ruler (or a laser) to determine whether a line is straight. We use a scale to determine the weight of a thing. Should we not then have some means of judging our actions that is not merely based on the appearances of the moment? For Epictetus this is a return to the idea of the will and the value of the "soul" and the valuelessness of material things.

For Christians there is another standard. It is summed up in the unjustly trivialized acronym, "WWJD", or "What would Jesus do?" For that is what Christianity is all about. Paul, in his letters, often calls it "The Way". What he means by this is living out your life in a manner that imitates Jesus. So the standard of our own behavior is the behavior of Jesus. Jesus is our scale, our ruler, the essential tool by which we may judge our own behavior, what is good and what is evil. This, in finality, is the truth we must perceive.

Let us take one last swipe at the student's bewildered questions. He cannot understand why Epictetus does not condemn calamitous events. Epictetus is not ignoring the fact that they exist. He is saying that they are not important in and of themselves. They are the consequence of bad thinking not the cause of it. As he notes earlier, the great characters of the Iliad suffered so much because of their misconceptions of the truth. They themselves set the chain of events in motion that would eventually create the calamities that consumed them. It is, therefore, the perceptions and the resultant decisions made by the major actors in the drama of life that are good or evil. The responsibility is laid squarely upon the individual and not on societal forces.

Chapter 28:

  1. On Good and Evil
  2. The Strange Medea (28a)
  3. Christianity and Logic (28b)
  4. Paris, Helen, and Menelaus (28c)
  5. Perception (28d)
  6. A Deal with the Devil (28e)
  7. WWJD - What Would Jesus Do? (28f)
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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