Today’s discourse throws out a phrase that rings a bell for Christians. Whenever I run into these familiar phrases in Stoicism, I get excited. Why? Because without getting into how much exactly Christianity pulled from ancient Stoic philosophy, the fact remains that there are these “uncanny” similarities you run into. And I love these, because they widen my understanding of Christianity actually. Where Christian teachings during my youth may have fallen short at times, they suddenly make so much more sense in light of Stoic philosophy. Don’t know what I mean? Read the discourse and see for yourself.
1.3 How to proceed from the idea that God is the father of human beings
If you could only be convinced of the truth, that first and most importantly, because God has shared his divine capabilities of reason with us, we are all children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods. If only you could be convinced of this, you would never think any mean or dishonorable thought about yourself. Why, if Caesar adopted you, you’d be filled with so much vanity, no one would be able to endure it! So if you know that you’re a child of God, are you not filled with pride? But as it is, we humans don’t react like that. But ever since these two elements have been mixed together in us since our conception: the body, which we share in common with animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share in common with God, some of us lean towards the side of the family that is grim and mortal, and only a few of us point ourselves towards what is divine and blessed. And since every single person, no matter who they may be, is bound to deal with each matter in the way he believes to be correct, those few individuals who think they were born for loyalty, for self-respect, and for the correct use of impressions will never keep any mean or dishonorable thought about themselves, contrasted with the majority of people who will do exactly the opposite. They say, “What am I? A poor wretched man; this miserable flesh of mine!” Miserable, certainly. But you also have something in you that is much better than that poor flesh. Why do you neglect it and attach yourself to what is mortal?
It’s because of this partnership with the flesh that some of us who lean towards it become like wolves—deceitful, treacherous, destructive creatures; or like lions—wild, savage, and untamed creatures; or in many cases, like foxes, or something even more undignified and shameful. What else is a slanderous and ill-natured person than a fox, or something even more unfortunate and shameful? Watch out! And take care that you don’t sink so low as these!
(Epictetus, Discourses 1.3)
Children of God?
Yes, you read correctly. Epictetus starts talking about how humans are children of God. Sound familiar? When he says this, he’s building on the idea he started in Discourse 1.1, that is, that God gave us a bit of his divine spark—reason. Because he gave us this spark, we are thus descended from him, children of God. If that didn’t sound enough like Christianity, let’s take it a step further. Epictetus reasons that as long as we remember that we are children of God, we won’t have any bad thoughts about ourselves.
“Why, if Caesar adopted you, you’d be filled with so much vanity, no one would be able to endure it! So if you know that you’re a child of God, are you not filled with pride?”
Epictetus points out that since we are a combination of both reason and body/flesh, we live out a daily struggle between the two. He wants us to always remember that we are descended from the divine, and to try to lean toward that part of ourselves.
Partnership with Flesh
There’s one more part of this short discourse that will sound incredibly familiar to Christians:
“It’s because of this partnership with the flesh that some of us who lean towards it become like wolves.”
Once again, Epictetus has pointed out an inner struggle between reason and flesh, divine and mortal. Christianity also talks about “sins of the flesh.” These are typically things like adultery, gluttony, even hatred, jealousy, rage (I’m pulling from Galatians 5:19 here). How could jealousy be a sin of the flesh? Because it’s a mortal tendency—it doesn’t come from reason! These are acts that might feel good at the time, or stem from a lack of self-control, but they won’t get us to where we want to ultimately be.
Well there we have it. One of those interesting parallels where ancient Stoic philosophy might shed light on some ideas behind Christianity. If you go to church, I might recommend that next time you go and hear someone talking about “sins of the flesh” or how proud you should be to be a “child of God,” think of it in light of what Epictetus said. It’s a bit enlightening, really.