Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6

How to view the world and what sets us apart from the rest of the animals. This discourse on Providence takes us on a journey from the divine to the role we play in the whole. Epictetus gives us a clear outline of what faculties we should use to be good human beings. To live in accordance with our nature and where our control lies in doing so. We go from a creator, or an artificer as he calls it, to the welcoming of hardship to put our qualities to the test. That’s why he starts with the view that we need two qualities to see that everything that happens follows reason.

“For everything that happens in the universe one can readily find reason to praise providence, if one has within oneself these two qualities, the ability to see each particular event in the context of the whole, and a sense of gratitude.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, On Providence, Book 1, Chapter 6.1

We start with the quality that is difficult, if not impossible, for us to see, which is grasping the entire picture. When Epictetus writes this, he is most likely thinking about the Sage. The wise person who managed to get so close to the divine that she can use her reason and logic in the purest form. Meaning that she can understand how it all works together. We, however, are not so far advanced and need to do with the limited information that we have. But we can put our trust in the fact that there is a bigger picture. And that things happen because it is the most logical way for them to happen. Here we can refer to my post related to Entropy.

A Creator or Nature

Where I differ from Epictetus is the fact that he attributes everything to a creator. While I’m not sure if that is the case or not, what I do believe is that it is all a part of Nature. Again, whether you call it God, Laws, or Reason, all events happen because a prior cause has set them in motion. As Epictetus goes on to explain that the colors were made for the eyes to behold them, or light was made to see the objects. I think that they evolved because of each other.

If it was different we would have developed other senses to interact with the world around us. But we can agree that we need to make the right use of the faculties to view the world in the right way. As we can see, whether you believe in a Creator or Nature, the same principles apply to living in accordance with nature.

Our senses view the world

Humans and animals working together, both fulfilling their purpose.
Photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash

It is true that we share a great deal with the rest of the animals. We have the same sense impressions for starters. But what sets us apart is that we can become observers and then choose what impressions to yield to. We are capable of understanding the use of our faculties and have this create our view of the world around us. For us humans, because we have the reasoning faculty, the part we share with Providence, the other senses are no longer enough. 

“For if we do not act in a proper and orderly manner, and each of us in accordance with his nature and constitution, we shall no longer attain our end.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.15

Furthermore, Epictetus explains what this end, which we ought to attain, is. But first, he shows us the purposes we beings have. For some animals, their purpose is to be eaten, for husbandry (farming), the production of cheese, or other purposes. They don’t need a higher faculty to fulfill their destiny, but humans have been given the role of spectator. We begin where the rest of the animals are, but our end should be higher:

“It is therefore shameful that man should begin and end where irrational creatures do. He ought rather to begin there, but to end where nature itself has fixed our end: and that is in the contemplation and understanding and a way of life in harmony with nature.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.20

Our personal purpose

What our personal purpose is, that’s for us to find out. We can find clues in the hardships we will endure. Because we will encounter them. No one will be able to avoid difficult times. By changing our mindset and learning to see them as tests, we can reduce their impact. Those moments cross our paths to see what we are made of and to form us to our full potential. The Stoics, and Epictetus in this discourse, tell us to welcome the difficulties. He uses the example of Heracles and what would have happened or what he would’ve turned into if his challenges hadn’t existed. We need obstacles and we are reminded that we have all the qualities to face them.

“Have you not received faculties which give you the power to endure everything that happens?”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.28

“Bring on me now, O Zeus, whatever difficulty you will, for I have the means and the resources granted to me by yourself to bring honour to myself through whatever may come to pass.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.37

This way of viewing the world can change everything. It can turn us into grateful observers. And that’s the second quality Epictetus pointed out to us. Gratitude can help us overcome the moments when we struggle. But by welcoming them we are one step ahead and we can look at them differently. Instead of rejecting them, it is now possible to look for ways to grow as a person because of the hard times. And to put our qualities to use.

A world of hardships

That’s why it is important to train them and keep them strong, even when things go smoothly. The Stoics propose to undergo voluntary discomforts to see what you are capable of. Or if you have been able to identify some aspects of yourself which you need to work on, challenge yourself. Find ways to improve. For example, if you don’t feel comfortable with public speaking, then seek out moments to try it.

What we don’t know, and why we are not the Stoic Sage, is how these tests fit in the wider view of the world. Even less so in the moment itself. But Epictetus assures us that there is a reason for it. And for that, we need to use all our faculties and learn to grow more into the role of the spectator.

“But God has introduced man into the world as a spectator of himself and of his works; and not only as a spectator, but an interpreter of them.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.19

Our view is our duty

How we view the world has now become a duty, a task given to us by the Rational Universe. We are here to interpret the whole, and although we can only see a thin slice. Our collective minds can create a full picture. This is why our sense of society is so strong because we are all needed and required to fulfill this task. We all have our part to play and we should accept it with gratitude. There is comfort in knowing that we have been given all the tools we need to deal with whatever is thrown at us.

“Yet I undertake to show you that you have the equipment and resources for greatness of soul and a courageous spirit: you show me what occasion you have for complaint and reproach!”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 6.43
How to View the World: The Grateful Observer
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