The Piety of Epictetus
If I were a nightingale, I would perform the work of a nightingale, and if I were a swan, that of a swan. But as it is, I am a rational being, and I must sing the praise of God. This is my work, and I accomplish it, and I will never abandon my post for as long as it is granted to me to remain in it; and I invite all of you to join me in this same song. (Discourses 1.16.20-21)
Epictetus is typically considered the most religious of the Roman Stoics. As such, some attempt to portray him as an outlier among the Stoics. However, as my previous post makes obvious, Seneca expresses religious sentiments quite similar to those of Epictetus. As A.A. Long point out,
In his conception of divine providence, creativity, and rationality, Epictetus is completely in line with the general Stoic tradition. His distinctiveness, in what I have discussed so far, extends mainly to the enthusiasm with which he commends obedience to God and to the warmth he infuses in his expressions of God’s concern for human beings.
This “notable religious sensibility” in the philosophy of Epictetus is also found in Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius and is “broadly in line with traditional Stoicism.” To a large degree, these religious sentiments are the result of the inherent “structural resemblance” between the rationality of humans and that of the divine logos, which allows for a “certain degree of personalistic theism in thinking and speaking about god” in Stoicism. We see this language used frequently by Epictetus. Likewise, over the history of the Stoa, God will “assume more and more spiritual and personal traits” and “religiousness will tend to permeate” Stoicism and move it toward theism without fully arriving there. Nevertheless, it is important to balance the religious sentiments of Epictetus with the realization that he never claimed nor adhered to any form of divine revelation; neither did he express a need for religious faith, in the forms those concepts are commonly understood. For Epictetus, to follow God means “we should pay attention to the God in us, i.e. to our reason, in order to determine what is the right thing for us, namely how we are to live in accordance with nature.”
Talk of God’s seeing, helping, guiding, speaking to and punishing us, and of God as our father, can be explained in terms either of God’s overall providence, or of our inner god or daemon, our reason, which is a fragment of the cosmic deity. Likewise prayer, for Epictetus, is not an appeal for intervention by an external God, but rather an admonition to oneself. Epictetus does differ from the early Stoics in the extent to which he uses personalistic language about God; this may be explained partly by his personal outlook, but also by the purpose of the Discourses, in the context of which God’s providence and his status as an ethical example are more important than the cosmological aspects of him which played an important part in early Stoicism.
A.A. Long sums up the difference between Epictetus and his predecessors in the Stoa by arguing he “proceeds from rather than to God”  by repeatedly instructing us ‘to follow the gods’ (Discourses 1.12.5; 1.30.4; 4.7.20). The earlier Stoics used oikeiosis as the starting point to explain Stoic ethical theory; they taught theology last. Epictetus reversed that approach and made theology the starting point of ethics. Epictetus builds his ethical theory and practice on a “theonomic” foundation—an innate moral sense (preconception) of the good and the divine. Because each of us possesses a fragment of divine Reason (logos) as our guiding principle, we are innately capable of understanding and living according to the laws of God that are written in Nature. Thus, Epictetus’ instruction to ‘follow God’ is equivalent to ‘living according to nature’ (1.26.1). Nevertheless, Epictetus is not entirely unique in this approach; as Plutarch noted, Chrysippus always put theology first when discussing ethical matters. Here we see why the Stoic conception of Nature, derived from the study of physics and theology, is essential to understanding this holistic philosophical system. Both oikeiosis and theology fall under the topic of physics in Stoicism. Thus, whether the Stoics began with oikeiosis or theology they grounded their ethical theory in physics—the study of nature.
The Stoics did not conceive of God as a transcendent being; the Stoic divinity is immanent. As such, a fragment of the same logos that providentially orders the cosmos resides in us as our guiding principle (hegemonikon). A.A. Long suggests,
The Stoics’ deepest religious intuitions are founded on their doctrine that the human mind, in all its functions – reflecting, sensing, desiring, and initiating action – is part and partner of God.
In his book dedicated to the application of Epictetus’ teachings to a philosophical life, A.A. Long writes,
Whether [Epictetus] speaks of Zeus or God or Nature or the gods, he is completely committed to the belief that the world is providentially organized by a divine power whose creative agency reaches its highest manifestation in human beings.
That was orthodox Stoicism, and much else that Epictetus attributes to divinity is quite traditional. However, no theology is simply a matter of doctrine. Conceptions of the divine are indicated in numerous ways that go beyond such epithets as eternal, creative, providential, and beneficent, on all of which the Stoics were agreed. Awe, reverence, gratitude, joy, prayer, obedience-these are a sample of attitudes that a serious belief in a supreme divinity typically involves. Stoic philosophers, just like other believers, vary considerably over which of these attitudes they express and with what degree of emotional engagement.
When we review Epictetus from this perspective, his theology emerges as most distinctive in two respects: first, its serving as the explicit foundation for his moral psychology, and, secondly, its warmly and urgently personalist tone. More emphatically than any other Stoic in our record, Epictetus speaks of Zeus or God in terms that treat the world’s divine principle as a person to whom one is actually present and who is equally present to oneself self as an integral aspect of one’s mind.
A word of caution is appropriate here. We must use due caution when approaching Stoicism with our modern conceptions of God, religion, and piety. If we fail to check our preconceived notions and biases upon entry into the Stoa, we are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand the Stoics by “falling victim to either over-assimilation or excessive differentiation.” We moderns commit a serious error when we attempt to position the Stoics at either end of the modern metaphysical spectrum. The Stoics were neither theists nor atheists in the modern sense. Stoicism is a rational form of spirituality that arrived at a conception of divinity through reason rather than revelation. The Stoic conception of a divine cosmos stands in the no-mans-land between theism and atheism. As a consequence, the Stoic conception of God is often distorted and abused by those firmly entrenched on both sides of the modern theism/atheism battle in the West.
Nevertheless, as we will see, the Stoics, in general, and Epictetus, in particular, considered their worldview essential to their philosophical system. The difference in worldview—the nature of the cosmos and the nature of human beings—was one of the primary differentiators among the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and Sceptics during the Hellenistic period. They all agreed that eudaimonia (a good flow) was the summum bonum of human life. Likewise, they all agreed an excellent character (virtue) was essential. The Cynics even agreed with the Stoics that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. It was largely their divergent worldviews, which subsequently affected their other doctrines and differentiated these philosophical schools. In fact, A.A. Long argues,
The choice of Stoicism over Epicureanism, its principal rival, was decisive not only for one’s ethical values and priorities but also for one’s understanding of the world’s general structure, one’s theology, and the importance to be attached to systematic reasoning and the study of language. Yet, however much these and other schools disagreed over their accounts of such things, they all shared the view that philosophy should provide its adepts with the foundation for the best possible human life—that is to say, a happiness that would be lasting and serene.
At Epictetus’ date (and in fact, from long before) philosophy in general was taken to be a medicine for alleviating the errors and passions that stem from purely reactive and conventional attitudes. To put it another way, the choice of Stoicism over another philosophy depended not on its promise to deliver an admirable and thoroughly satisfying life (that project would not distinguish it from rival schools) but on its detailed specification of that life and on the appeal of its claims about the nature of the world and human beings.
Popularizers of Stoicism are simply wrong when they argue that physics and theology are not essential to the Stoic philosophical system. There is no support for such an assertion in the surviving texts or credible scholarship. Certainly, one can abandon those aspects of Stoicism in modern times, as Lawrence Becker did, and attempt to create something entirely different for atheists and agnostics who reject the Stoic worldview. Nevertheless, the essential tenets of traditional Stoicism remain viable in the twenty-first-century for those who are both rational minded and spiritually inclined. We already saw this combination in Seneca; now, we will explore the deeply religious sympathies and rational spirituality of Epictetus.
Even the table of contents for the Discourses reveals the religious nature of Epictetus’ teachings. Below is a list of a few chapter headings from the Discourses:
- How, from the idea that God is the father of human beings, one may proceed to what follows (1.3)
- On providence (1.6)
- How, from the idea that we are akin to God, one may proceed to what follows (1.9)
- How may everything be done in a way that is pleasing to the gods? (1.13)
- That the divine watches over all of us (1.14)
- On providence (1.16)
- On Providence (3.17)
Throughout the Discourses, Epictetus encourages us to seek coherence with the divine, which is the same as living in accordance with Nature since all of Nature is divine for the Stoic. Epictetus acknowledges our kinship with animals and repeatedly contrasts those humans who succumb to their animal-like impulses with those who live according to their divine nature. In Discourses 1.3.3, he highlights our mixed human nature and implores us to heed our reason and intelligence, “which we share with the gods”, rather than our “wretched” animal-like nature. The former “inclines” us toward our “kinship” with beasts, the later toward coherence with the “divine and blessed.” Again, in Discourses 1.6, Epictetus stresses that God brought us into existence to live in accordance with Nature, not our animal nature,
But God has brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them. It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do. Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves. Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature. (1.6.19-21)
About the passage above, Pierre Hadot asserts, to “contemplate divine creation” was the meaning of existence for Epictetus. Likewise, in Discourses 1.14.6, Epictetus states we are “closely bound and united with God” because our soul is a fragment of the divine. Then, in Discourses 2.8, Epictetus makes a profound statement about the presence of God, as a fragment, in each person and challenges us to keep this in mind at all times,
In your social relationships, in your physical exercises, in your conversations, aren’t you aware that it’s a god whom you’re feeding, a god whom you’re exercising? You carry God around with you, poor wretch, and yet have no knowledge of it. (2.8.12)
Then, he chastises his students by pointing out that they would not consider behaving inappropriately in the presence of a statue or image they consider sacred; yet, they behave poorly while God is immanent in their very person (2.8.13).
Epictetus on Providence
Like all of the Stoics who preceded him, Epictetus considered a providential cosmos essential to Stoicism. Pointing to the tradition of the Stoics philosophers who preceded him, Epictetus considered it the first thing a philosopher must learn:
The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe, and that it is impossible to conceal from him not only our actions, but even our thoughts and intentions. The next thing to be considered is what the gods are like; for whatever they’re discovered to be, one who wishes to please and obey them must try to resemble them as far as possible. (Discourses 2.14.11)
Likewise, as Epictetus makes clear, his famous dichotomy of control entails more than simply resigning ourselves to that which is beyond our control; it includes ours assent to providence—that what is beyond our control is in the control of a providential cosmos,
What are we to do, then? To make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes. ‘How does it come, then?’ As God wills. (Discourses 1.1.17)
Again, in Discourses 4.7.20, Epictetus declares his trust in a providential cosmos:
‘How does it come about, then, that you’re not shut out?— Because if I’m not admitted, I have no wish to go in, but rather, I always want what actually comes about; for I judge whatever God wants as being better than what I want; I’ll attach myself to him as a servant and follower, I’ll share his impulses, I’ll share his desires, and in a word, make his will my will.
Epictetus highlights three paths to develop trust in a providential nature of the cosmos, and thereby be free of fear (Discourses 4.7.6):
- Through madness
- Through habit
- Through “reason and demonstration” that “God has made all that is in the universe, and the universe itself as a whole, to be free from hindrance, and self-sufficient, and has made all the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole”
[A]ll other animals have been excluded from being able to understand the divine governing order, but the rational animal possesses resources that enable him to reflect on all these things, and know that he is a part of them, and what kind of part, and that it is well for the parts to yield to the whole. (4.7.7)
In the passage above, Epictetus is pointing out that Stoics assent to a providential cosmos after observation and reflection on the nature of reality. What is the result of that trust in providence? Epictetus outlines that in (4.7.9); he suggests the person who deploys the dichotomy of control properly and trusts in providence for that which is outside his control will be:
[F]ree, contented, happy, invulnerable, magnanimous, reverent, and one who is grateful to God for everything, and never finds fault with anything that comes about, and never casts blame on anyone.
Again, in Discourses 4.4, Epictetus links the dichotomy of control and trust in a providential cosmos. It was not enough for Epictetus to assert that some things are outside of our control, and that is just the nature of reality. If Epictetus stopped there, we would be left with nothing more than the stiff upper lip, “suck it up buttercup” caricature of Stoicism most people find unfulfilling. Instead, Epictetus provides us with a conciliatory message: stop struggling with what you cannot control and leave those things in the care of the providential cosmos.
There is one path alone that leads to happiness—and keep this thought at hand morning, noon, and night—it is to renounce any claim to anything that lies outside the sphere of choice, to regard nothing as being your own, to surrender everything to the deity, to fortune, to consign the administration of everything to those whom Zeus himself has appointed to carry out that task, and to devote yourself to one thing alone, that which is your own, that which is free from all hindrance… (Discourses 4.4.39-40)
In Discourses 1.12 (On Contentment), Epictetus outlines various positions people take on the gods. He notes five distinct metaphysical theories (1.12.1-3):
- Atheism – “the divine doesn’t even exist”
- Epicureanism – “it does exist” but “it is inactive and indifferent”
- Aristotelian Deism – “It both exists and exercises providential care, but only with regard to important matters relating to the heavens, and in no way to affairs on earth”
- General providence – “it does take thought for earthly and human affairs, but only in a general fashion, without showing concern for each particular individual”
- Individual providence – “not a movement of mine escapes you”
Next, Epictetus examines each of these theories in connection with the Stoic edict to ‘follow God.’ He begins by pointing out the obvious fact that the command to follow God is nonsensical if no gods exist (#1). Likewise, he argues, it does not make sense to follow (obey) the gods if they have no interest in human affairs as the Epicureans suggest (#2). Then, Epictetus lumps #3 and #4 together as metaphysical theories which deny communication between the gods and human. Here, Epictetus argues we cannot follow or obey what we cannot comprehend. Finally, he argues for a providential cosmos that is concerned with individual humans (#5) and has provided a means to communicate with them so they can understand and follow Nature (God).
Our daimon—a fragment of the divine
As noted earlier, we are capable of understanding universal Nature (logos) because our guiding principle is a fragment of that logos. However, in 1.12.6, Epictetus goes beyond mere comprehension of the divine via our guiding principle (rational faculty or hegemonikon); he is arguing for metaphysical theory #5 because it alone allows for individual communication with the divine.
If, on the other hand, they both exist and exercise care, but there is no communication between them and human beings, and indeed, by Zeus, between them and me specifically, how even in that case can this idea still be sound? (1.12.6)
In this passage, Epictetus uses the Greek word diadosis, translated as communication. He argues that some form of communication between the divine and humans is necessary to make it possible for us to ‘follow the gods’ (live according to nature). Marcus uses this same word in his Meditations,
[T]o have clearly and regularly pictured to myself the proper meaning of a life according to nature, so that, in so far as it depends on the gods and on communications, assistance, and inspiration from the divine, there is nothing to prevent me from living according to nature straight away, although I still fall somewhat short of this by my own fault and by failing to heed the reminders and, one might almost say, the instructions of the gods. (1.17.5-6)
Again, in 1.14.9, Epictetus uses diadosis to describe God’s ability to have “some communication with all that is.” Epictetus and Marcus are not referring to a form of divine revelation as conceived in one of the monotheistic religions. The God of the Stoics dwells within us as a fragment of the divine rationality that operates in the cosmos. The communication between the divine and humans is facilitated by reason through our rational faculty. As A.A. Long argues,
Epictetus follows his tradition in taking the general character of God and his works to be fully accessible to human understanding. If we apply our minds properly to the study of our own and the world’s nature, we are literally in touch with God. Physical nature, not a sacred text or revelation or inspired prophecy, is the Stoic’s guide to the divine. The Stoic outlook on God is this-worldly in the sense that there is no supernatural domain for which we should be preparing ourselves in this life, no `end of days’ when lives will be judged. The life that we have now is what requires all of our attention; the only punishment for those who neglect the principles of Stoicism, Epictetus says, is to `stay just as they are’, emotionally disturbed and discontented.
How does this communication with the divine occur? Through our daimon—personal guardian spirit. As Epictetus points out, our perceptual powers are limited by time and space; nevertheless,
[God] has assigned to each of us, as an overseer, his own personal guardian spirit, and has entrusted each of us to its protection, as a guardian that never sleeps and is never open to deception. (1.14.12)
The Greek word daimon means spirit. Thus, a happy man is called eudaimon and a state of happiness (good flow or well-being) is called eudaimonia. The excellent (virtuous) person in Stoicism is the one with a good spirit inside them—a good spirit developed through the Stoic spiritual attitude of prosoche and the three disciplines of the prokopton. The daimon can be considered a conscience—that still, small voice of God. Socrates referred to his daimon frequently; he said it never told him what to do, but it warned him against doing wrong. For the Stoic, the voice of God—our daimon—speaks from within rather than from on high. Our daimon is the God that dwells within mentioned by Seneca in Letters 41. Epictetus continues to elaborate on our daimon and its implications,
To what other guardian could he have entrusted us that would have been better and more vigilant than this? And so, when you close your doors and create darkness within, remember never to say that you’re on your own, for in fact, you’re not alone, because God is within you, and your guardian spirit too. And what need do they have of light to see what you’re doing? (1.14.13-14)
I will cover the topic of the daimon again in the next post on The Piety of Marcus Aurelius since he refers to it frequently. For now, it is important to recognize that we are a fragment of the divine. That recognition can have a profound psychological impact on our self-esteem,
If only one could be properly convinced of this truth, that we’re all first and foremost children of God, and that God is the father of both human beings and gods, I think one would never harbour any mean or ignoble thought about oneself. Why, if Caesar were to adopt you, no one would be able to endure your conceit; so if you know that you’re a son of God, won’t you be filled with pride? (Discourses 1.3.1-2)
I could go on much longer; Epictetus mentions God nearly three hundred times in the Discourses and Enchiridion (Handbook). One cannot read Epictetus and miss his pious nature. I will close with two passages from the Enchiridion that are both relevant and critically important to anyone attempting to follow the path of the Stoic prokopton.
Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role. (Enchiridion 17)
This first passage serves to remind us of the providential nature of the cosmos and simultaneously encourages us to find the unique role Nature created for each of us as individuals. In addition to cosmic nature and human nature, each of us has a unique individual nature. Our unique nature allows us to simultaneously live in accordance with Nature and live out our specific role. As I wrote in my essay, Providence or Atoms:
Trust in providence allows us to take a step back from our circumstances and view the whole of our life from a distance. We are often unable to see the whole picture because we are too close—too focused on the individual events. When we step back, a different picture begins to emerge. The threads of painful events and difficult circumstances are still there; yet, they are woven into the tapestry of our life. This perspective of the whole allows our judgments of the parts to dissolve into equanimity. Additionally, this panoramic view of our whole life, allows us to see the causal chain of providence playing itself out. We begin to understand how each of those events was a necessary causal link in the story of our life; they are now part of the person we have become. More importantly, a view of the whole may reveal a trajectory to our life we did not see before, and this may open our minds to new possibilities for our future.
This last passage is also the final chapter of the Enchiridion and is prefaced with the admonition to keep it close at hand:
Guide me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
To wheresoever you have assigned me;
I’ll follow unwaveringly, or if my will fails,
Base though I be, I’ll follow nonetheless.
Whoever rightly yields to necessity
We accord wise and learned in things divine. (Enchiridion 53)
 Long, A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic guide to life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 147
 Reale, G., & Catan, J. R. (1990). The Schools of the Imperial Age. Albany: State University of New York, p. 75
 Long, (2002), p. 16
 Algra. K. (2007) ‘Epictetus and Stoic Theology’, in Scaltsas, T., & Mason, A.. The philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford: Oxford University Press,p. 39
 Reale, G., & Catan, J. R. (1985) The System of the Hellenistic Age. Albany: State University of New York, p. 247
 Ierodiakonou, K. (2007) ‘The Philosopher as God’s Messenger’, in Scaltsas, T., & Mason, A. The philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 69
 Mason, A. (2007) ‘Introduction’, in Scaltsas, T., & Mason, A. S. (2007). The philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford: Oxford University Press,p. 4
 Long, (2002), p. 184
 Long, (2002), pp. 186-9
 Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions, 1035B-C
 Long, A. (1986) ‘Epicureans and Stoics’. in Armstrong, A. Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, New York: Crossroad Publishing, p. 149
 Long, (2002), p. 143
 Long (2002), p. 18
 Becker, L. (1998). A new Stoicism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
 These titles are from the Robin Hard translation (2014), Oxford World’s Classic. These titles are present in the extant Greek text.
 Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life. New York: Blackwell Publishing, p. 97
 Long (2002), p. 146
 Fisher, C. (2015). Providence or Atoms: a very brief defense of the Stoic worldview. http://www.societyofepictetus.org/show_PDF/Providence_or_Atom_a_very_brief_defense_of_the_Stoic_worldview20150215