A cynic might say that Stoicism is the philosophy of the slaves, just as religion is the opiate of the masses, or that a Stoic desperately rationalizes to make his miserable life more endurable, just as an Existentialist tries desperately to justify his own existence.
However, reading the Discourses of Epictetus, who was born a slave and crippled later in life, I didn’t detect any baseness, slavishness, self-pity or cowardice. If Epictetus lived as he taught, he had more dignity, nobility, wisdom, courage, power and freedom than many kings of renown.
Citizens of the World, Sons of God
He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of men and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings — for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with Him — why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men? Is kinship with Caesar or with any other of the powerful in Rome sufficient to enable us to live in safety, and above contempt and without any fear at all? and to have God for your maker and father and guardian, shall not this release us from sorrows and fears?
How God Oversees All Things
All things are united in one. Earthly things have a natural agreement and union with heavenly things. And how else so regularly as if by God’s command, when He bids the plants to flower, do they flower? when He bids them to send forth shoots, do they shoot? when He bids them to produce fruit, how else do they produce fruit? when He bids the fruit to ripen, does it ripen? when again He bids them to cast down the fruits, how else do they cast them down? and when to shed the leaves, do they shed the leaves? … But are plants and our bodies so bound up and united with the whole, and are not our souls much more?
Our souls are bound up and in contact with God as parts of Him and portions of Him; and does not God perceive every motion of these parts as being His own motion connate with Himself? Now are you able to think of the divine administration, and about all things divine, and at the same time also about human affairs, and to be moved by ten thousand things at the same time in your senses and in your understanding, and to assent to some, and to dissent from others, and again as to some things to suspend your judgment; … and is not God able to oversee all things, and to be present with all, and to receive from all a certain communication? And is the sun able to illuminate so large a part of the All, and to leave so little not illuminated, that part only which is occupied by the earth’s shadow; and He who made the sun itself and makes it go round, being a small part of Himself compared with the whole, cannot He perceive all things?
- “The Discourses of Epictetus” at ebooks@Adelaide (translated by George Long)
- “The Discourses of Epictetus” at Perseus (translated by George Long)
- “The Discourses of Epictetus” at Perseus (translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson)