Monthly Archives: October 2015

Treasures in heaven and Epictetus

At feasts, remember that you are entertaining two guests, body and soul. What you give to your body, you presently lose; what you give to the soul, you keep for ever.

(CLXXVII, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

(Matthew 6:19-21)

Fasting and Epictetus

In general, any methods of discipline applied to the body which tend to modify its desires or repulsions, are good – for ascetic ends. But if done for display, they betray at once a man who keeps an eye on outward show; who has an ulterior purpose, and is looking for spectators to shout, “Oh what a great man!” This is why Apollonius so well said: “If you are bent upon a little private discipline, wait till you are choking with heat some day – then take a mouthful of cold water, and spit it out again, and tell no man!”

(C, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

Study how to give as one that is sick: that thou mayest hereafter give as one that is whole. Fast; drink water only; abstain altogether from desire, that thou mayest hereafter conform thy desire to Reason.

(CI, ibid.)

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

(Matthew 6:16-18)

The will of God and Epictetus

Finally, in the room of all other pleasures put this – the pleasure which springs from conscious obedience to God.

(CXXXIII, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

I find this phrase very striking – talk in Christianity about the “pleasure which springs from conscious obedience to God” typically seems in the background – indeed, Christians usually talk about what one must give up to do so. Yet, it seems from a psychological perspective it is very important that there is a ‘pleasure’ which springs from doing the will of God, or else people won’t continue to do it long-term.

My impression is that Christians very much do believe that doing the will of God tends to, in the long run, lead to happiness, joy, and so on (‘pleasure’ in a sense) in both this life and the next – it’s just that they often don’t straightforwardly express this.

New Thought Christianity is therefore unusual in this respect, where a sentiment like Epictetus’ is front-and-centre. Consider Emmet Fox, here in Around the Year (1958)

A tragic mistake that is often made is to assume that the will of God is bound to be something very dull and uninviting, if not positively unpleasant. Consciously or not some persons look upon God as a hard taskmaster, or a severe parent. […] The truth is that the will of God for us always means greater freedom, greater self-expression, newer and brighter experience, wider opportunity of service to others – life more abundant.

I wonder to what extent the more typical Christian expression is related to the idea of ‘carrying one’s cross’. This comes from a passage in the Gospels, where Jesus tells his disciples each must ‘take up your cross, and follow after me.’ This is often interpreted to mean carrying a burden for a long period in one’s life. There are a couple problems with this interpretation.

The first problem is that it seems the more important part of the saying has to do with dying to one’s ego, not to carrying a burden. Indeed, dying to one’s ego involves lifting a burden off of oneself (egoistic desires). Similarly, when one carries a cross to one’s crucifixion, the period of time where one is carrying something heavy is actually quite short.

Contrarily, Jesus says ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’. Some have said that in this case he is speaking ironically, because they are tied to the idea that doing the will of God is like carrying a heavy burden. It seems it’s just the opposite, though – when people let go of egoistic fears and desires, they are unburdened, and when they start to do what they believe aligns with God’s will for their life, they tend to have experiences of joy and so on.

Here is the full passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Habits and Epictetus

If you have given way to anger, be sure that over and above the evil involved therein, you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the fire. If overcome by a temptation of the flesh, do not reckon it a single defeat, but that you have also strengthened your dissolute habits. Habits and faculties are necessarily affected by the corresponding acts. Those that were not there before, spring up: the rest gain in strength and extent.

(LXXV, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

Often, the rationalization given at a moment is that one will do it just the once. Epictetus is exactly right. “Do not reckon it a single defeat.” If one can impress that upon one’s mind, it should strengthen one’s resolve – more is at stake than an isolated act.

The flip side to this state of affairs is that doing something that would lead to a good habit also affects the corresponding habits and faculties.

Making a Principle One’s Own and Epictetus

You must know that it is no easy thing for a principle to become a man’s own, unless each day he maintain it and hear it maintained, as well as work it out in life.

(XXX, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

You must know that it is no easy thing for a principle to become a man’s own, unless each day he maintain it and hear it maintained, as well as work it out in life.

(XXXI, ibid.)

Epictetus here gives a recipe for changing one’s habits of thought.

“How can I say this today?” “How can I hear this today?” “How can I apply this today?” Repeat each day.

The second part of the recipe, in particular, can be connected to

If a man has frequent intercourse with others, either in the way of conversation, entertainment, or simple familiarity, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. A live coal placed next a dead one will either kindle that or be quenched by it. Such being the risk, it is well to be cautious in admitting intimacies of this sort, remembering that one cannot rub shoulders with a soot-stained man without sharing the soot oneself. What will you do, supposing the talk turns on gladiators, or horses, or prize-fighters, or (what is worse) on persons, condemning this and that, approving the other?

(XCIX, ibid.)

Nowadays, much of what people hear each day comes from mass media. Since it is impossible to change mass media to your own fashion, the only other option is to become like the mass media that you watch. Therefore, choose your mass media carefully. The same applies to social media.

The Centre and Epictetus

Know you not that the thing is a warfare? one man’s duty is to mount guard, another must go out to reconnoitre, a third to battle; all cannot be in one place, nor would it even be expedient. But you, instead of executing your Commander’s orders, complain if aught harsher than usual is enjoined; not understanding to what condition you are bringing the army, so far as in you lies. If all were to follow your example, none would dig a trench, none would cast a rampart around the camp, none would keep watch, or expose himself to danger; but all turn out useless for the service of war. … Thus it is here also. Every life is a warfare, and that long and various. You must fulfil a soldier’s duty, and obey each order at your commander’s nod; aye, if it be possible, divine what he would have done; for between that Command and this, there is no comparison, either in might or in excellence.

(CXXV, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

Although Epictetus was a Stoic, this analogy captures much all at once that is in Christianity. Often, instead of a military metaphor, Christians talk about something like a bee hive or they talk about being parts of the ‘body of Christ’. The points are similar, however. You have action as part of a larger whole. There is a centre – a Commander – who is able to guide you if you will listen.

Epictetus’ analogy emphasises that God is essentially playing this role of a central, guiding intelligence. He is moving the universe – to the extent we among other things will listen – towards a goal (in Christianity a ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, often inaccurately understood to be non-physical, when in Christianity it is fully physical and fully divine).

Guardian Angels and Epictetus

Yet God hath placed by the side of each a man’s own Guardian Spirit, who is charged to watch over him – a Guardian who sleeps not nor is deceived. For to what better or more watchful Guardian could He have committed which of us? So when you have shut the doors and make a darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone; for you are not alone, but God is within, and your Guardian Spirit, and what light do they need to behold what you do?

(XXXVII, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

It is common Catholic belief that each person has a Guardian Angel, similar to what Epictetus (a Stoic, teaching probably around A.D. 100) is describing here. It seems this belief that many people might nowadays think of as specifically Christian (as I had) in its origination was more broadly held, both before and during the rise of Christianity.

A simple reason for why it was more broadly held is that it’s not a belief based on Christian scripture. Rather, people have experiences which suggest to them something like Guardian Angels.

Oaths and Epictetus

Refuse altogether to take an oath if you can, if not, as far as may be.

(CLXVI, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, trans. by Hastings Crossley, 1909)

Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

(Matthew 5:34-37)