Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16
What are we born for? How often do we ask ourselves this question, but in doing so, fail to see some of the foundational aspects of life? In this discourse by Arrian on the teachings of Epictetus, titled On Providence. Of which there are a few with the same name, Epictetus brings us back to the basics. Many try to strive for a greater goal, something they believe will immortalize them in the annals of time. Yet, when we are able to see what it is that we are here to do, we can learn to find more peace with our duty and consequent meaning.
Arrian starts his notes on this discourse by looking at how animals live and why they have everything they need ready at hand. The reason Epictetus gives us for that is because they are born in service to others.
“Since they were not born for themselves, but for service, it would not have been beneficial to create them with these additional needs.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16.2
The ‘additional’ needs he is referring to are things like shoes, beds, or clothes. The animals are able to survive without any of the things we need. And it would be interesting to see how little we would actually need to survive. But one of the points in this discourse is that we have the time for our thoughts, reason, and logic. Because we don’t need to think about these things for the animals, or for others on a daily basis. He brings up a military example, where a commander doesn’t need to occupy himself with getting every soldier dressed. Those daily tasks, we are capable of doing ourselves. And because animals were born in service, which is a thing that can be debated, and they have few needs, we can take care of many of them with few resources.
“Thus one little boy, with only a rod, can drive a flock.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16.5
Are animals born for service?
One disagreement I have here with Epictetus is that animals aren’t created in service by nature. We have placed them in this situation because not all animals are here to serve us. And if they are serving someone or something, then it would be nature. Like the bees pollinate the fields, so do the sheep and other animals have their purpose in the world. A meaning bigger than serving us. Besides, we are also born to serve nature, but on another level. Since we are capable of reasoned thought and are conscious of our actions, or at least we should be, we’ve become more natural leaders or users of the other animals. But if another species, stronger and more cognizant would come along, then we would be at risk of living in service of them. And this already applies to our own species.
The message shifts a bit now as we look at being grateful for what we are born for and all creation around us. We can see the theological side of Epictetus, where he tells us to thank Zeus and the Gods. But we could replace that with Nature and the message would still ring true. To be grateful for the little things. That is what he wants us to look at. We need a lot more to live, although there is a difference between surviving and living. It would be possible to say that we need far less to survive than what we ask for now. Yet, Epictetus wants us to be present in the moment and see how the processes of life work around us.
“I am not thinking of great things for the moment, but the simple fact that milk is produced from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16.8
What does nature do?
Why is it possible to exchange god for nature? We see it in this discourse as Epictetus does it himself. One moment he uses Zeus, or the gods, and then nature. When looking at the little things we have mentioned and being grateful for them, we can ask ourselves who created them. Now we move away from the question of what we are born for to how we are born, or created.
“But come, let us leave aside the central works of nature. Let us contemplate what she does, as it were, by the way.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16.9
Now we are looking at what she, nature, does. Albeit a sensitive topic in some parts of our society, nature has added hints to our bodies making it easier to distinguish between male and female. An example in this discourse is the fact that men grow hair on a chin. More interesting, he points out how useless it is at first sight, but a deeper look shows its value. These signs should show others, even at a distance, that someone is a man or a woman. That doesn’t mean that we cannot make alterations when we identify in another way. But from nature’s standpoint, we are different and have been given distinguishing features.
“But how noble this sign is, how becoming and dignified. How much finer than a cock’s comb, and more majestic than a lion’s mane!”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 16.13
Look at the signs
What we are born for, we can see in our signs. They also tell us how we are born. Because we have been given reason and logic, we can contemplate on who we are. These clues can help us with some of the answers. They are applicable to however someone identifies. Because we will then adapt our appearance to how we want to express ourselves. But that doesn’t change what we were born for. The part we play in life, the purpose we have while alive. Thus we should be grateful for being here and all that we have. And as Epictetus rounds out this discourse, we should show our gratitude all the time.
Gratitude for being born
“Ought we not, as we are digging, or ploughing, or eating, to sing the hymn of praise to god?Epictetus, The discourses, book 1, chapter 16.16
He goes on to explain the hymn, thanking god for the tools, the hands, the power to swallow, and a stomach. And that this is what we should sing on every occasion. Now we can find that silly, but this practice of gratitude can help us become far more connected with who we actually are. It can help us reduce the drive to want more. But he says that many have forgotten this practice of gratitude. Can’t we not see that in our present day as well? That we have forgotten to be grateful for what we are born for. That’s why there needs to be someone who reminds us of this and Epictetus is willing to take on this role.
What are we born for then? To live in accordance with nature. How do we do that? By reading the signs and by being grateful for who we are at all times. We have outward clues about who we are, but the real ones that matter are inside of us. Only by following our true nature, can we learn to live peaceful and fulfilled lives. We are part of nature, of god or the gods, whatever you prefer to call it. And we also have our role to play and this is what we were born for.