Epictetus teaches and instructs, even today, almost 2000 years later. So it is with the great thinkers. A freed slave and Stoic, his philosophy is often compared to that of Jesus Christ though he never met any Christian teachers.
Like many teachers of the classical era, Epictetus wrote down none of his teachings. He delivered his lessons or discourses through dialectic and his student Arrian transcribed them as best he could. Four of the eight books survive. Arrian, or Flavius Arrianus, was the first Roman appointment to a key military command and he was also an historian and philosopher.
In his introduction to the discourses, Arrian says, “that he [Epictetus] aimed at nothing more than to move the minds of his hearers toward virtue.” Not surprisingly, these brief chapters are packed with weighty ideas. If contemporary fiction is candy for the brain, than Epictetus is the main course. And it takes time to digest.
In the four paragraphs which make up Chapter IX, Epictetus answers three questions with other questions. This Socratic format lets the student or listener arrive at his own conclusions.
Epictetus asks if God brought you here as a mortal, “with a little portion of flesh upon earth, to see His administration; to behold the spectacle with Him, and partake of the festival for a short time….. will you not depart when He leads you out, adoring and thankful for what you have heard and seen?”
“But I would enjoy the feast a little longer.”
Epictetus answers, “So perhaps, would the spectators at Olympia see more combatants. But the show is over.”
“Ay, but I would have my wife and children with me, too.”
Epictetus asks, “Why? Are they yours? And they not the Giver’s? Are they not His, Who made you also?”
“Why then, did He bring me into the world upon these conditions?”
Here’s the crux.
“He has no need of the discontented spectator. He wants such as will share in the festival; make part of the chorus; who will extol, applaud, and celebrate the solemnity. He will not be displeased to see the wretched and the fearful dismissed from it. For, when they were present, they did not behave as at a festival, nor fill a proper place in it; but lamented, found fault with the Deity, with their fortune, and with their companions. They were insensible both of their advantages and of their powers — the powers of magnanimity, nobleness of spirit, fortitude, and that which concerns us, — freedom.” (The Philosophy of Epictetus, Bonforte 1955, link)
My 13 year old son wandered into the Tree House and he read and talked about these paragraphs. What did Epictetus mean?
Life is a festival you attend and when it’s over, you leave. You can’t take others with you, because they don’t belong to you, only to Him, the divine. And we discussed the last paragraph the longest.
So why are we in this world? what is this freedom then?
We each have the right to exercise freedom and make choices. Our power lies in our magnanimity, our nobility, and fortitude.
My son summarized the passage and we discussed examples of choices, reviewing good and bad choices of our own. What does magnanimity mean? nobleness of spirit? fortitude? He left the room and he left me thinking.
Society tries hard to stay at the feast, to watch more combatants, to hold on to life even when the festival is over. There’s a time to leave. And it’s easy to lose our way from the path, the path whose aim is to move us towards virtue. We have freedom of choice to take advantage of our powers. If this is the highest and best path, does it matter whether you’re a philosopher, a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist?