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The Festival of Life – Episode 49


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Our situation is like that at a festival. Sheep and cattle are driven to it to be sold, and most people come either to buy or to sell, while only a few come to look at the spectacle of the festival, to see how it is proceeding and why, and who is organizing it, and for what purpose. So also in this festival of the world. Some people are like sheep and cattle and are interested in nothing but their fodder; for in the case of those of you who are interested in nothing but your property, and land, and slaves, and public posts, all of that is nothing more than fodder. Few indeed are those who attend the fair for love of the spectacle, asking, ‘What is the universe, then, and who governs it? No one at all? (Discourses 2.14.23-25) In this passage, Epictetus paints an unflattering picture of the mass of humanity. He suggests some of us treat the festival of life as a marketplace; we are distracted by the superficial endeavors of life. This chapter of the Discourses tells the story of a wealthy, influential Roman who was attending one of Epictetus’ with his son. Midway through the lecture, Epictetus instructs his students they must imitate God. With this, the father asked, “Where are we to start then?” The father now has Epictetus's undivided attention. I can only assume he did not know what that would entail. Epictetus acknowledges the father is wealthy and likely known to Caesar. Nevertheless, he informs the father he lacks what is most essential for happiness: …you know neither what God is, nor what a human being is, nor what is good, nor what is bad. (Discourses2.14.19) Next, Epictetus suggests most people behave like sheep and cattle, driven here and there by our appetites (desires). He argues that only a few love the spectacle of the festival of life. These few are the ones who inquire about the nature of the festival: The nature of the cosmos – “What is the universe, then, and who governs it? No one at all? And yet when a city or household cannot survive for even a very short time without someone to govern it and watch over it, how could it be that such a vast and beautiful structure could be kept so well ordered by mere chance and good luck?” (2.14.25-26) The nature of the divine – “So there must be someone governing it. What sort of being is he, and how does he govern it?” (2.14.27) Human nature – “And we who have been created by him, who are we, and what were we created for?” (2.14.27) The relationship between humans and the divine – “Are we bound together with him in some kind of union and interrelationship, or is that not the case?” (2.14.27) Epictetus continues to elaborate on this small group of people who seek to understand this festival of life. He asserts, “they devote their leisure to this one thing alone, to finding out about the festival before they have to take their leave” (2.14.28). Our quest as philosophers is to discover as much as we can about this festival we call life before we take our leave from it. Like Socrates, the true philosopher is naturally curious and cannot be stopped from inquiring—it is in a philosopher’s nature to seek wisdom. It is part of our human nature to inquire about the nature of the cosmos and humankind. Epictetus tells us: But God has brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them. It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do. Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves. Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature. Take care, then, that you don’t die without having contemplated these realities. (Discourses 1.16.19-22) Seneca offers a similar list of inquiries. Seneca’s list is found in his work appropriately titled Natural Questions. That list includes the following:

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