Epictetus part 30: Relational duties

The thirtieth paragraph of the Encheiridion provides us with guidance for our duties towards others. Epictetus argues that our duties are dictated by the natural relations between us and other people. No matter how the other person behaves, your relation towards him should guide your own behaviour.

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Duties are universally measured by relations. Is a man your father? That implies that you must take care of him, that you must obey him and that you must bear his reproaches and strikes. ‘But he is a bad father’. Surely you are not bound by nature to a good father? Just to a father. ‘My brother is unjust’. Maintain your own position towards him and don’t look at what he does, but what you must do to keep your free will in accordance with Nature. Because another cannot hurt you against your will. And you will be hurt if you believe you are hurt. So in this way you will find your duty towards your neighbour, towards your fellow citizen and towards your superior, if you accustom yourself to observing the relations.

Today, this point of view is difficult to defend. Should we honour our father just because he is our father, even is he hits us? Should we respect our brother on the sole ground that he is our brother, even if he is unjust and mean? Personally, I don’t think so. But it is good to keep your relationship in mind when dealing with other people. Your stance towards family is probably fundamentally different than your stance towards strangers. You probably behave different towards your father than towards your boss. In that sense, the nature of your relationship does in fact determine (in part) your behaviour towards people. You may like it or not, but apparently it matters in what kind of relation you stand with others. Your duty is in part determined by your relationship.

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