Epictetus part 31: Piety, Gods, and Nature

In the thirty-first paragraph of the Encheiridion, Epictetus repeats that we must direct our desire and aversion properly: we should live in accordance with Nature. Epictetus links this to piety towards the gods, but it is also perfectly possible to practise this in a secular context. Epictetus, the pious, starts as follows:

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As for piety towards the gods, know that this is most important: to have a correct view about them, that they exist and govern everything well and just, and to take up the task of obeying them and accepting everything that happens and following voluntarily what is ordained by the ultimate intelligence. Because that way you will never blame the gods or accuse them of negligence.

This reminds us of the first paragraph of the Encheiridion, in which we are warned that we will blame gods and men if we mistake things that are not in our control to be in our control. Obeying the gods may be considered synonymous with following Nature. But how can we accomplish this task?

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Such a thing cannot be accomplished in any other way than by withdrawing from the things that are not in our control and by placing good and bad only in the things that are in our control. For if you believe that any of these former things are good or bad, it is completely inevitable that you fail to reach what you desire and fall into what you don’t want, and you will blame and hate those who cause it.

It seems Epictetus takes us on a trip through the beginning of the Encheiridion, because this passage is very similar to the second paragraph. Here, Epictetus tells us to take away our desire and aversion from the things that we don’t control and transfer it to things that are in our control. What follows is an interesting observation about the psychology of living beings (humans included):

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Because every living being is naturally inclined to avoid and turn away from what seems harmful and its causes, but to pursue and admire what is beneficial and its origins. Accordingly, it is unthinkable for somebody who believes he is harmed, to be happy with the thing that he believes does him harm, just as he is unable to be happy with the harm itself.

So, it is in our nature to avoid pain and anxiety and what causes it. For instance, we will probably not get any happier if we voluntarily torture ourselves or maintain a toxic relationship. Neither will we be happy if we pursue situations that lead to pain. In other words: it is important to pursue what is good and to avoid what is bad. The problem, of course, is knowing which is which. Epictetus continues:

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Hence also a father is scolded by his son, whenever he does not give a share of the things that seem to be good to his child; and this made Polynices and Eteocles enemies of each other: the belief that sovereign power was good. Because of this, the farmer scolds the gods, and the sailor, and the merchant, and those who have lost their wives and children. For where the benefit is, there too is piety. Accordingly, who takes care to desire and avoid as he ought, takes care of his piety with this as well.

This part is a bit cryptic. Following Epictetus Discourse 2.22, I would explain this part as follows: align your interests (what is benficial to you) with the natural things that are in your control. “Do not seek that things happen as you want, but want things as they happen” (Encheiridon, 8). If you do this, there will be no division between your own interest and the situation as it is, and there will be no reason to scold the gods or be unhappy. Live in accordance with Nature, and you will find that happiness follows automatically. Epictetus finished saying that following Nature does not declude offering to the gods.

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But it is also appropriate to offer wine and meat and first fruits in accordance with the customs of our ancestors, purely, not carelessly, not without attention, not greedily and not more than we can.

If you are religious, feel free to revere your God or gods. Personally, I am not a religious person and tend to practise Stoicism in a secular context. For me, therefore, this paragraph of the Encheiridion simply means this: that I should follow Nature, and that I should only desire natural things and avoid unnatural things. If we have a proper understanding of good (in accordance with Nature) and bad (not in accordance with Nature), that is a great starting point to live a happy and meaningful life. Direct your desire and aversion well, and you will notice the benefits.

This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday. Be sure you don’t miss any of them by subscribing here. Thanks!

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