Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13
How to treat others and live in accordance with the Universe, is a shorter discourse. But it packs a punch. Epictetus, as recorded by Arrian, is direct and to the point. He doesn’t mince his words and shows us how we should be living together and treating each other. Arrian titled this discourse How Can We Act In Everything In A Manner Acceptable To The Gods. This sounds like a long and extensive topic to unravel, but Epictetus doesn’t spend a lot of time on it.
This discourse starts with a question by someone, as many of them start. Which shows that this is more of an Ask Epictetus Anything style part of the lessons, than his formal teachings. The question asked by this person is how one should eat in a way that is acceptable to the gods.
“If he eats as he ought and sensibly, and, one might say, with restraint and self-control, will he not also be eating in a manner acceptable to the gods?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.1
How to eat like the gods
We can take this idea of eating and apply it to other aspects of our lives. If we learn to use common sense when undertaking any kind of action, we will soon find that we are doing it in the way Epictetus described. We can read common sense as reason and logic and bring it into the realm of Stoicism. This is also how we should treat others. Sensibly, with restraint, and self-control. Yet, Epictetus takes it a little further as he will show us why we should treat people as such.
As an example, Epictetus brings up the story of a slave boy not bringing hot water or only bringing tempered water. How would one treat this person or others when they don’t follow exact orders? Or do what we had in mind? Our behavior should be as such:
“Then not to be angry, or lose your temper, is that not acceptable to the gods?” Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.2Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.2
Treat others like their gods
The visitor cannot but agree. He does continue to ask how we can then bear with such people. Now Epictetus starts to touch on a core concept of the gods and our connection to them. As he explains, we can see that the example of the slave adds a lot more weight to how we should treat others. Many didn’t look at slaves as people, but Epictetus does. This could be stemming from the fact that he was one for most of his life. Or, most likely, because it is how he sees it from a Stoic and humanistic point of view.
“Will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus as his forebear and is born as a son of the same seed as you, and is of the same high descent?” Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.3Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.3
We are all brothers and sisters in this world, coming from the same origin. Whatever story works best for you to understand this concept, comes down to the same result. The Stoics look at it from the Logos. Where humans have been given a part of the divine. The logic and reasoning powers we all own. We are thus not only kin to each other but also to the gods. How can we then not treat each other on equal grounds? That doesn’t mean that we all have different roles to play, but this should not affect the way we act toward our fellow humans.
Stuck to earthly laws
The last paragraph of this discourse says it all. These sentences show us that we are not looking in the right direction when we are looking at the relationships we have within society. We see a social structure, where some occupy positions we judge as higher. While others are seen as less. The problem here is that there is always a bigger fish or someone beneath you if we use the constructs of our own laws. Epictetus points that out in one clear sentence after asking us if we don’t realize what it is that we are looking at.
“That it is to the earth, that it is to the pit, that it is to these wretched laws, the laws of the dead, and not to the laws of the gods that you are looking?” Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.5Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 13.5
It is on us that we have different layers in our society. This can be seen globally and within our smaller societies. Where we judge someone’s worth based on their accolades. And not on what they are to us when looking at the bigger picture. They are the same and share what we have. If we then ask ourselves how we should treat others. The answer is clear. As we would treat ourselves.
Treat each other with respect
Take this with you, next time you find yourself judging others. They are like you. With all their flaws, doubts, insecurities, but also strengths. Treat them with respect, even when you have to adjust their actions or instruct them. It is part of our duty to lead those who have gone astray. But lead them by example. Show them the right path and make sure you are on it as well.