Epictetus on Providence

From everything which is or happens in the world, it is easy to praise Providence, if a man possesses these two qualities, the faculty of seeing what belongs and happens to all persons and things, and a grateful disposition. If he does not possess these two qualities, one man will not see the use of things which are and which happen; another will not be thankful for them, even if he does know them. If God had made colours, but had not made the faculty of seeing them, what would have been their use? None at all. On the other hand, if He had made the faculty of vision, but had not made objects such as to fall under the faculty, what in that case also would have been the use of it? None at all. Well, suppose that He had made both, but had not made light? In that case, also, they would have been of no use. Who is it, then, who has fitted this to that and that to this? And who is it that has fitted the knife to the case and the case to the knife? Is it no one? And, indeed, from the very structure of things which have attained their completion, we are accustomed to show that the work is certainly the act of some artificer, and that it has not been constructed without a purpose. Does then each of these things demonstrate the workman, and do not visible things and the faculty of seeing and light demonstrate him? And the existence of male and female, and the desire of each for conjunction, and the power of using the parts which are constructed, do not even these declare the workman? If they do not, let us consider the constitution of our understanding according to which, when we meet with sensible objects, we simply receive impressions from them, but we also select something from them, and subtract something, and add, and compound by means of them these things or those, and, in fact, pass from some to other things which, in a manner, resemble them: is not even this sufficient to move some men, and to induce them not to forget the workman? If not so, let them explain to us what it is that makes each several thing, or how it is possible that things so wonderful and like the contrivances of art should exist by chance and from their own proper motion?  (Arrian, Discourses 1,6)

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher but the above quotation does not express a typical Stoic cosmogony.  The Stoics held to a mechanistic view of the world in which each part is connected to the other.  Events in heaven are related to events on earth so that a man’s life is directed by the stars – or by fate.  For this reason, it is best to accept one’s lot in life and not to fight it.  But in this passage, Epictetus acknowledges the work of an architect and artist who has made the world for our enjoyment.  This is the antithesis of the mechanistic world of the Stoics.

Ought we not when we are digging and ploughing and eating to sing this hymn to God? “Great is God, who has given us such implements with which we shall cultivate the earth: great is God who has given us hands, the power of swallowing, a stomach, imperceptible growth, and the power of breathing while we sleep.” This is what we ought to sing on every occasion, and to sing the greatest and most divine hymn for giving us the faculty of comprehending these things and using a proper way. Well then, since most of you have become blind, ought there not to be some man to fill this office, and on behalf of all to sing the hymn to God? For what else can I do, a lame old man, than sing hymns to God? If then I was a nightingale, I would do the part of a nightingale: if I were a swan, I would do like a swan. But now I am a rational creature, and I ought to praise God: this is my work; I do it, nor will I desert this post, so long as I am allowed to keep it; and I exhort you to join in this same song.  (Arrian, Discourses 1,16 from <http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/discourses.mb.txt>)

Martin Goodman notes that, “for most pagan Romans the wonders of nature provided evidence not of an overall design but of the activities of individual deities, such as Volcanus; worshiped at Rome from early in the history of the city, he was the god of destructive, devouring fire, whose presence, as Strabo noted in the time of Augustus, was particularly felt near the brooding presence of Mount Vesuvius, which was to erupt so disastrously in 79 CE.”  (M. Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem, A Clash of Ancient Civilizations, 273)  Although Epictetus often refers to ‘Zeus and the gods’, whenever he speaks of the wonders of nature, he gives thanks to God alone.  This might reflect the rapid changes then occurring in the Roman world – recently ‘turned upside down’.  (Epictetus – late first century AD)

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