Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9
What we belong to is an important question to ask ourselves. What, where, who, we can ask all these questions. Our sense of community drives us to belong to something. The Stoics understood the importance of society and the social aspect of life. Yet, there are different levels to answering this question of belonging. And there are many ways one can respond. This discourse of Epictetus as recorded by Arrian is called: What Should We Conclude From The Doctrine Of Our Kinship To God. It reflects on certain aspects when we look at what we belong to.
“When one is asked where one is from, never to say ‘I am an Athenian’, or ‘I am a Corinthian’, but rather ‘I am a citizen of the universe’?Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.1
“For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and not a native of that corner on which your paltry body was thrown down at birth?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.2
Epictetus tries to show with these quotes that we tend to pick and choose what part of our existence we wish to belong to. And unless we are not satisfied with the small piece of dirt that we landed on, we zoom out and choose a better one. We look for the most sovereign domain to identify ourselves with. He thus points us to the fact that we belong to an ever greater sphere, the universe. Why not say that we belong to that? First of all, the scale of this concept is so big that it is quite difficult to comprehend.
The universe is our place
We need to be able to have a grasp of these things to give them a place in our minds. We belong to the universe, but we can’t picture it because of its vastness. This way of thinking makes me wonder how many problems it would solve. The understanding that we all belong to the same thing and that our differences are insignificant could bring us more together. When we look at the Stoic concept of God and the fact that we all share a piece of the Rational Universe, reason and logic, show the connection we all have. It is then up to us whether we use it or not.
“Why should not a man who understands this call himself a citizen of the universe?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.6
Instead of aligning ourselves with leaders, parties, empires, or whatever transitional power there is. We could consider belonging to the greater world around us. These entities can’t keep us from the natural laws. We will at one point cease to exist as we know it and then belong to the universe again. It is however easier and safer to be guided by someone else. To be told what to do and to rely on others. But this also means that we hand over our freedom and will over to them. Why do we do this? Because there is a fear that we can’t take care of ourselves. Epictetus continues to say that we should be self-sufficient.
“Must he (the philosopher) be baser and more cowardly than the irrational beasts, each of which is self-sufficient, and lack neither its proper food nor the way of life appropriate to itself and its nature?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.9
Advancement reduces independence
It seems that we have become less independent because of reason and logic. Since this is what sets us apart from the rest of the animals and we can’t fend for ourselves anymore. And although many of the animals still rely on the community, they can look after themselves. We’ve become so attached to having others think for us, that there is great fear that we can’t do it ourselves anymore. Apart from that, our attachment to our way of life has made it so complex that there is no way to take a step back. Our preferred indifferences have ceased to be indifferences. They have turned into necessities. And the more they depend on externals, the more masters we must obey.
“Here thieves and robbers, and courts of law, and those who are called tyrants, are thought to have some power over us, because of our poor body and its possessions. Suffer us to show them, that they have power over nobody.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.15
We can release us from the hold these forces have on us. By detaching ourselves from our wants and desires, and by accepting what comes our way. Trusting in ourselves that we can deal with whatever comes our way. And yet we can read some despair in the quote above. This was an example of someone asking Epictetus how to live with these burdens. If they are too big for us to handle, is there no way to free ourselves from it? This was his answer to them:
“My friends, wait for god, till he shall give the signal, and release you from his service; then depart to him. For the present, be content to remain in this place where he has stationed you.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.16
“Stay. Do not depart without reason.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.17
Do not depart without reason
The Stoics show us that there is always a way out if things become too unbearable. But we should not give it up without reason. These tests that we are being put through are here to show us what matters in life and what we belong to. The universe isn’t out to get us, we are part of it. We are here to live it and experience it for itself. Until our time has come, it is up to us to make the best of it. The less we desire, the more free we become. These attachments keep us from living, more so with our attachment to life itself. Our fear of dying restricts us in our movements while we are alive. It makes us think far beyond the grave while we forget that only the present belongs to us.
“Why should any one envy another?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.20
We determine what we belong to. The bigger we can make this picture, the more we see that trivial things keep us locked up. We envy those around us because we think that they have things that we deserve. While we don’t know what sacrifices we have not been willing to make to achieve them. Or how they affect their character, a part of ourselves that we prefer to keep pure. What orders are we to follow and by whom are they given to us?
Live with Nature and Virtue
When we look at Stoicism, it teaches us to live in accordance with Nature and to be virtuous. To apply reason and logic to the moment in which we have the agency to give assent to the right impression. And this sounds a bit anarchistic when we keep in mind the society in which we live, but it isn’t. It makes us better citizens of our city, our country, the world, and the universe. We can take Socrates as an example that doing the right thing is not always in line with what society demands of us.
“It is absurd for you to think that if your general had stationed me in any post, I ought to maintain and defend it, and choose to die a thousand times rather than desert it, but if god has assigned us to a certain place and way of life, we ought to desert that.”Socrates, by Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9.24
Our focus lies too close to home. What we think we belong to is our body and our possessions, not the divine world around us. Instead of elevating our existence to a higher level, we live for ourselves. While if we try to understand the fact that everyone around us is living the same fate, why would we try to subject others to us? Or become subjects to those who presumably have power over us. It is not that they take this power, but we give it to them. We choose to value certain things more than ourselves.
What do we belong to?
What we belong to then is the Rational Universe, God when we read the discourses of Epictetus. This technique of looking at the bigger picture will help us create some distance between what we desire and want and that which is necessary to live well. It is up to us to find out what this means to us and to look at what we belong to. What power does this have over us and how can we free ourselves? But beware that it takes responsibility to become self-sufficient enough to accept Nature as our home. Once you do your work toward this, you’ll be able to start living the way it was meant to be experienced.