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).

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