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The Religious Sentiment of Epictetus – Episode 45


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If I were a nightingale, I would perform the work of a nightingale, and if I were a swan, that of a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, and I must sing the praise of God. This is my work, and I accomplish it, and I will never abandon my post for as long as it is granted to me to remain in it; and I invite all of you to join me in this same song. (Discourses 1.16.20-21) Epictetus is typically considered the most religious of the Roman Stoics. As such, some attempt to portray him as an outlier among the Stoics. However, as A.A. Long points out, In his conception of divine providence, creativity, and rationality, Epictetus is completely in line with the general Stoic tradition. His distinctiveness, in what I have discussed so far, extends mainly to the enthusiasm with which he commends obedience to God and to the warmth he infuses in his expressions of God's concern for human beings.[1] We find this same “notable religious sensibility” in the philosophy of Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius,[2] and, as A.A. Long further notes, it is “broadly in line with traditional Stoicism.”[3] To a large degree, these religious sentiments result from the inherent “structural resemblance” between the rationality of humans and that of the divine logos, which allows for a “certain degree of personalistic theism in thinking and speaking about god”[4] in Stoicism. We see this language used frequently by Epictetus. Likewise, over the history of the Stoa, God will “assume more and more spiritual and personal traits” and “religiousness will tend to permeate” Stoicism and move it toward theism without fully arriving there.[5] Nevertheless, it is essential to balance the religious sentiments of Epictetus with the realization that he never claimed nor adhered to any form of divine revelation; neither did he express a need for religious faith, in the forms those concepts are commonly understood today. For Epictetus, to follow God means “we should pay attention to the God in us, i.e. to our reason, in order to determine what is the right thing for us, namely how we are to live in accordance with nature.”[6] As Andrew Mason, Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, points out in the introduction of a beautiful little volume on The Philosophy of Epictetus: Talk of God’s seeing, helping, guiding, speaking to and punishing us, and of God as our father, can be explained in terms either of God’s overall providence, or of our inner god or daemon, our reason, which is a fragment of the cosmic deity. Likewise prayer, for Epictetus, is not an appeal for intervention by an external God, but rather an admonition to oneself. Epictetus does differ from the early Stoics in the extent to which he uses personalistic language about God; this may be explained partly by his personal outlook, but also by the purpose of the Discourses, in the context of which God’s providence and his status as an ethical example are more important than the cosmological aspects of him which played an important part in early Stoicism.[7] A.A. Long sums up the difference between Epictetus and his predecessors in the Stoa by arguing he “proceeds from rather than to God.”[8] He points out, “Epictetus’ favourite formula for the goal of human life is ‘to follow the gods’ (Discourses1.12.5; 1.30.4; 4.7.20).”[9] The earlier Stoics used oikeiosis as the starting point to explain Stoic ethical theory; they taught theology last. Epictetus reversed that approach and made theology the starting point of ethics. Epictetus builds his ethical theory and practice on what Long calls THEONOMIC FOUNDATIONS.[10] Epictetus argues we are born with an innate moral sense (preconception) of the good and the divine.[11] Because each of us possesses a fragment of divine Reason (logos) as our guiding principle, we are innately capable of understanding and living according to the laws of God that are written in Nature. Thus, Epictetus’ instruction to ‘follow God’ is equivalent to ‘li...

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