How can it guide us?
Epictetus, The Discoures, Book 1, Chapter 3
What is the Stoic idea of God and how can it guide us in living the good life? A question that might divide the opinions, since the concept of God can be somewhat sensitive. Stoics look at it as Reason and Logic, the Rational Universe. This is the part that we share with the Divine and is what sets us apart from the rest of the animals. In this third chapter of book One of the Discourses, Arrian shows us the way Epictetus thinks and how this can influence us. How we can learn to find a way to live in accordance with Nature.
The idea of a God or the gods, has been around for thousands of years if not longer. The concept or vision of what this Divine being looks like, feels like, or is, differs per person. The idea repels some, while others can’t imagine life without it. It has created communities, religions, and philosophies. Even those who believe there is nothing, come together through this concept. Wars have been fought to impose their idea over another. Even among the Stoics, there are slight differences in how to approach this subject. We can read Epictetus and see that he refers to Zeus and the gods, of which there were many in his times. Modern-day religions, such as Christianity, which was up and coming in his times, went the monotheistic way.
The Stoic God
In ancient Stoicism, God is not seen in the same light as the religions or the common people did and do. Yet, it takes on many of the forms that were seen around them. One reason for this could be that there was a common consensus regarding God and that this is why the Stoics used these ideas. It makes me wonder what they would say now with all our technological advances in sciences and how our knowledge of the Universe and its laws has expanded.
“He (Epictetus) does not have in mind the gods of conventional Greek and Roman religion, but rather the god of Stoic theory, who stands for the order and rationality that are inherent in the universe.”Christopher Gill, Epictetus, The Discourses, Introduction, 11
“…the existence of gods involves the fact that he governs, or rather is, the cosmos, which explains why some of the proofs for the existence of god simply amount to proofs that the cosmos itself is a rationally ordered living being.”Keimpe Algra, The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Stoic Theology, p. 160
“Similarly, the Stoic sage is the equal of God, since God is nothing other than universal reason, producing in self-coherence all the events of the universe.”Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel, Stoicism of Epictetus
These experts, and what Epictetus himself tells us in this chapter, show us how the Stoics, at a basic level, viewed theism.
“but since in our birth we have these two elements mingled within us, a body in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence with the gods, many of us incline towards the former kinship, miserable as it is and wholly mortal, and only some few to the divine and blessed one.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 3.3
What makes us mortal and divine
Although we share a part with the Rational Universe, we do also share the physical with the rest of the animals. And this is what sets us apart from the Gods. In the quote by Pierre Hadot, we can see that the Stoic sage is equal to God. Yet, this is a level of perfection that is almost impossible to reach. One must have such high moral standards, which are not for a common person to obtain.
However, the Stoics did believe that a Sage could one day walk among us. But because we still hold too many of the animalistic traits within us, our body and its impulses, keep us from becoming a partner at the table of the gods. But it’s up to us to try and do our best. And in the process learn to be compassionate to ourselves. Doing our best, that is the most we can do right now.
“To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 10.16
When we want to find out whether we have free will in a deterministic cosmos, then this is where we find it. That choice of trying to become better people and leaning towards reason and the rational part we’ve been given. Or we can take the road that seems easiest to many and give in to our urges and emotions. We control our thoughts and how we accept the events that happen to us with proper judgment. Only by looking at what the morally right action is to take in that moment, and not what our impulses tell us to do, can we learn to find peace.
“Those few who think they are born to fidelity, and honour, and a securely grounded use of their impressions, will harbour no abject or ignoble thought about themselves, whilst the multitude will think the opposite.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 3.4
Epictetus goes on to compare those who focus on the ‘kinship with the mortal’ with wolves, lions, and foxes. The first are ‘faithless and treacherous and noxious’, while the lions are ‘savage and untamed’. However, he shows us that foxes are the most ‘roguish of living creatures’. It’s then up to us to save ourselves from turning into one of these animals and stay human. As close to the Rational Universe as possible.
“Look, then, and take care that you do not become one of these roguish creatures.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 3.8
How does God guide us
What does this mean to us as we try to live our lives? We can start with the way Epictetus describes these animals. I’m sure we can all picture some people, whether we know them or not, who possess some of these traits. From them, we can learn a lesson on how not to behave ourselves. But we also need to examine our own actions to see where they come near to what is on display. That’s where we need to be cautious and correct ourselves. Which is under our control, as it pertains to our actions and decisions. We need to make sure our impressions of the situation are correct and then choose the virtuous path. This will help us walk closer to what we share with the Divine, this reason and logic.
It’s up to us, as we can read throughout the Discourses. In this chapter, we are given two choices, and clear ones at that. Either follow your bodily instincts, let them guide you, and take over how you live your life. Become the wolf, lion, or fox. Or use the rational side that sets us apart from them. And even if we can’t completely get rid of the impulses we receive from our mortal connection, we can choose how to act upon them. This doesn’t mean that we should shut them out completely. They are part of our constitution and provide us with valuable information about what is going on. There’s a lot to learn from them, about our desires and aversions. By acknowledging them, we can learn to diminish their impact. This is part of the process of knowing ourselves.
God will return
As we continue with the Discourses, we will touch on the subject of Providence more and look into it deeper. Epictetus refers to plenty, as we can see by Arrian’s notes. It is thus an important topic to examine and understand. But whether you see it as a God, Gods, Nature, Universal Reason, or however you wish to call it, remind yourself that we’ve been given a part. Our reason and intelligence, the capability to think rationally and examine each moment. That’s where our focus should lie and it’s a great place to start on our journey to start living the good life.