Humans’ Proper End

I recently read Epictetus’s “Of Providence,” from his Discourses (book 1, chapter XVI). This particular discourse concerns the distinctions between humans and beasts; we humans clearly have the edge in rational capacity, and if we do not utilize it, we are not achieving all we should:

It is therefore enough for [beasts] to eat and to drink, and to copulate, and to do all the other things which they severally do. But for us, to whom [God] has given also the intellectual faculty, these things are not sufficient; . . . in an animal (man) which has also the power of understanding . . . unless there be the due exercise of the understanding, he will never attain his proper end.

We are made for far more than for satisfying animal urges; we are made to be not just “spectators” of nature but also “interpreters.” Epictetus does not hold back when assessing those who fail to utilize the gift of the intellect:

[I]t is shameful for man to begin and end where irrational animals do; but rather he ought to begin where they begin, and to end where nature ends in us; and nature ends in contemplation and understanding, and in a way of life conformable to nature.

I found myself feeling uncertain on my first reading, especially as someone new to Stoicism. I understand not hanging back with the brutes and beasts, because after all, I read “Streetcar Named Desire,” and Stanley Kowalski is clearly a distasteful brute whom evolution has passed over. But how does a human conform her way of life to nature? What am I supposed to be contemplating and understanding? It could take a lifetime to figure it out, but luckily the author provides some additional elucidation to get me started on the correct path.


No Need to Travel to See the Sights

In a discourse with someone who tells him he wishes to journey to Olympia to see the works of Phidias (depicted above, courtesy of Maarten van Heemskerck (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons), Epictetus replies,

But when there is no need to take a journey, and where a man is, there he has the works (of God) before him, will you not desire to see and understand them? Will you not perceive either what you are, or what you were born for, or what this is for which you have received the faculty of sight?

The would-be Olympia pilgrim sort of whines, “There are some things disagreeable and troublesome in life.” Epictetus retorts by pointing out that he may well be uncomfortable on his trip to Olympia, too:

Are you not pressed by a crowd? Are you not without comfortable means of bathing?    . . . But I suppose that setting all these things off against the magnificence of the spectacle, you bear and endure. Well then and have you not received faculties by which you will be able to bear all that happens? Have you not received greatness of soul? . . . And why do I trouble myself about anything that can happen if I possess greatness of soul? What shall distract my mind, or disturb me, or appear painful? Shall I not use the power for the purposes for which I received it, and shall I grieve and lament over what happens?

The pilgrim to Olympia would endure because the sights would be magnificent, and likewise, in life we endure the difficulties because the sights–what we contemplate in nature with the gift of our intellect–are magnificent. He has essentially associated the intellectual capacity with “greatness of soul”–because it implies that we have the power to interpret phenomena of nature, and this indeed is a great thing. It appears to be an “if-then,” and not a guaranteed correlation between humanness and greatness. If we use our intellect and contemplate nature, then we attain our proper end, greatness of soul.

We ought then to consider ourselves as potentially invulnerable to life’s challenges. We presumably can use our intellects to endure troubles once they inevitably come: “God has not only given us these faculties, by which we shall be able to bear everything that happens without being depressed or broken by it; but . . . he has given us these faculties free from hindrance, subject to no compulsion, unimpeded, and has put them entirely in our own power . . .” This capacity for understanding can be a powerful protector–provided that we use it. Setting aside the notion of the existence of a god, it is clear that we do possess these faculties, and it is supremely empowering to imagine that we can use them and attain the “greatness of soul” of which we are capable. Actually doing it, of course, will be the challenge. Epictetus makes it all appear so simple, and maybe that it is the best way to approach it. Instead of contemplating anything in particular, I will start out by merely contemplating the existence of the intellect, which distinguishes us from the beasts, and by being grateful for it. I will also try to resist taunting my cats about my superiority.


2 thoughts on ““Of Providence,” and of not hanging back with the brutes

  1. Enjoyed this. I love the reference to “greatness of soul”, which is attainable, not in the form of perfection, but In our efforts to use our faculty of reason to the best of our ability. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Discourses, so I think I’ll return to them soon. Your commentary is good to see posted.


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