Philosophers at the Festival of Life
Our situation is like that at a festival. Sheep and cattle are driven to it to be sold, and most people come either to buy or to sell, while only a few come to look at the spectacle of the festival, to see how it is proceeding and why, and who is organizing it, and for what purpose. So also in this festival of the world. Some people are like sheep and cattle and are interested in nothing but their fodder; for in the case of those of you who are interested in nothing but your property, and land, and slaves, and public posts, all of that is nothing more than fodder. Few indeed are those who attend the fair for love of the spectacle. (Discourses 2.14.23-5)
In the above passage, Epictetus paints an unflattering picture of the mass of humanity. He suggests some of us treat the festival of life as a marketplace; we are devoted exclusively to buying and selling. Additionally, some of us behave like sheep and cattle, driven here and there by our appetites (desires). Only a few love the spectacle of the festival of life. These few are those who make love the spectacle of this festival of life and inquire about:
- The nature of the cosmos – “What is the universe, then, and who governs it? No one at all? And yet when a city or household cannot survive for even a very short time without someone to govern it and watch over it, how could it be that such a vast and beautiful structure could be kept so well ordered by mere chance and good luck?” (2.14.25-6)
- The nature of the divine – “So there must be someone governing it. What sort of being is he, and how does he govern it?” (2.14.27)
- Human nature – “And we who have been created by him, who are we, and what were we created for?” (2.14.27)
- The relationship between humans and the divine – “Are we bound together with him in some kind of union and interrelationship, or is that not the case?” (2.14.27)
Epictetus continues to elaborate on this small group of spectators (philosophers) and asserts “they devote their leisure to this one thing alone, to finding out about the festival before they have to take their leave” (2.14.28). That is our quest as philosophers—to discover as much as they can about this festival we call life before we take our leave from it. Like Socrates, the true philosopher is naturally curious and cannot be stopped from inquiring—it is in a philosopher’s nature to seek wisdom. It is part of our human nature to be spectators of the cosmos. Epictetus tells us:
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. Take care, then, that you don’t die without having contemplated these realities. (Discourses 1.16.19-22)
Seneca also offers a list of inquiries that is similar to that of Epictetus. His list of questions includes:
- what is the material the universe is made of?
- who is the creator or guardian of the universe?
- Is god concerned with humans?
- Is god immanent and acting in the world or created the universe and remains remote?
- Is god part of the world or the world itself? (Natural Questions I, praef. 1-2)
The similarity between these lists is obvious. However, Seneca follows his list of ponderings with a remarkable statement,
If I were not allowed access to these questions, it would not have been worth being born. For what could give me a reason to be glad that I had been included in the ranks of the living? Digesting food and drink? Stuffing full this body—which is vulnerable, delicate, and will perish if it is not constantly replenished—and living as nurse to a sick man? Fearing death, the one thing to which we are born? Take away this invaluable blessing, and life is not worth the sweat and the panic. (Natural Questions I, praef. 4)
Life without such questions is not worth living because that is the life of an animal, not a human. As Epictetus asserts:
Merely to fulfil the role of a human being is no simple matter. For what is a human being? ‘A rational and mortal creature,’ someone says. First of all, what does the rational element serve to distinguish us from? ‘From wild beasts.’ And from what else? ‘From sheep and the like.’ Take care, then, never to be like a wild beast; otherwise you will have destroyed what is human in you, and will have failed to fulfil your part as a human being. Take care that you never act like a sheep; or else in that way, too, you will have destroyed what is human in you.‘When is it, then, that we act like sheep?’ When we act for the sake of our belly or genitals, when we act at random, or in a filthy manner, or without proper care, to what level have we sunk? To that of sheep. What have we destroyed? What is rational in us. And when we behave aggressively, and harmfully, and angrily, and forcefully, to what level have we sunk? To that of wild beasts. There are, besides, some among us who are large ferocious beasts, while others are little ones, small and evil-natured, which prompt us to say, ‘I’d rather be eaten by a lion!’ By all such behaviour, the human calling is destroyed. (Discourses 2.9.1-7)
More than two millennia later, many people are still following the herd and behaving like animals rather than humans, and the spectators (philosophers) are still contemplating the same basic questions. What is the nature of reality? What is this festival of life all about? Is there a purpose? Is there inherent meaning? Unfortunately, many of us neglect to ask these questions because we believe there are no meaningful answers. Additionally, contemplation like this reminds us of the existential angst lurking in the shadow of our psyche. So we continue to behave like sheep and cattle. We follow the herd. We uncritically accept the worldview and values of the society in which we live. We absorb the spirit of the times (zeitgeist) without challenging the current orthodoxy. In the past, the herd followed religious orthodoxy. Today, the herd typically follows the orthodoxy of scientism combined with the latest sociopolitical theory. Neither of those paths is appropriate for the philosopher because both lead to soul destroying behavior. They both demand that we follow the herd which is, in turn, following authority figures rather that thinking for themselves.
Most importantly, we neglect to examine our judgments, desires, and intentions. Why? Because exposing and then changing our thought patterns is hard work and it requires self-knowledge we often lack. We are equally resistant to discovering and relinquishing the desire for things outside our sphere of control. Our desires have driven us toward what we thought was happiness for so long it is difficult to imagine giving them up. Finally, many of us avoid examining our behavior because it may make us aware of some necessary changes we are not prepared to face. Therefore, we continue to follow the herd. We ignore our troubled minds; we remain angry at God, the universe, and fellow humans. Besides, there is a sense of comfort, security, and belonging in the crowd. Alternatively, we know that if we step outside the herd, we face what Epictetus predicted:
[We] become an object of mockery for the crowd, just as the spectators at an ordinary festival are mocked by the traders; and even the sheep and cattle, if they had sufficient intelligence, would laugh at those who attach value to anything other than fodder! (Discourses 2.14.29)
The challenge for us moderns is to step away from the herd long enough to do a thorough self-examination. As uncomfortable as it may be, we need to hear Epictetus’ diagnosis of our current state of mind: our desires are inflamed, our aversions are low, our purposes are inconsistent, our motives are out of harmony with nature, and our opinions are ill-considered and mistaken (Discourses 2.14.22). The diagnosis is harsh, the medicine is bitter, and the path to recovery (virtue) will be long and occasionally quite difficult. The alternative is much worse.
Stoicism offers a path away from the herd. The Stoic path leads toward an excellent (virtuous) life and the accompanying state of well-being (eudaimonia). The first step on the Stoic path requires getting an entirely different perspective on this festival we call life. The Stoic path begins by taking a cosmic view of events and learning to discern, via the dichotomy of control, what is in our power and what is not. Then we can begin to discipline our assents, desires, and actions to bring them into accord with Nature. If you are ready to separate from the herd and begin, or begin anew, your journey on the path of the Stoic prokopton (progressor), you will find some guidance here:
The traditional Stoic path is not easy, and it is not for everyone. Whenever you see the herd migrating in a particular direction you can be fairly sure of one thing; there is little wisdom, virtue, or well-being where the herd is headed. They are looking for fodder: money, pleasure, fame, fortune, power, and the myriad of other externals that are not up to us. Break away from the herd and give some serious consideration to those questions Epictetus and Seneca thought so important to human well-being. Give the traditional Stoic path a try; you might be surprised by what you find there. You may just find what you have been seeking all along: a meaningful life in a rational and divine cosmos.