Born of different stations, languages and creeds, Epictetus and Seneca are Roman philosophers who externally appear to be very different. Epictetus was born to a slave mother, sold as a slave himself and spent the majority of his youth as a slave in Rome. Seneca was born into money; he became tutor to a boy named Nero who later acquired position of Emperor of Rome in 54 A. D. Though these two men seem to be from very different worlds, they have a shared purpose in studying philosophy. The purpose of their writings was to teach people how to live well.
Though they had a shared purpose, they suggested its achievement through different means. Epictetus professed an ‘expect the worst so you wont be disappointed when it happens’ philosophy, while Seneca suggested a more comfortable option. To Epictetus philosophy was a way of life, not just a theoretical study. He believed living a philosophic life with a “happy” ending could only be achieved through living virtuously and “in accordance with nature”. As this was his belief, he had few possessions and no family. He lived a simple life.
He suggested, in his books, The Discourses and The Encheiridion that living a life in accordance with nature could be achieved by living moderately. This is not a bad suggestion, but there are many things on living simply that Epictetus has to offer in his writings. In his Encheiridion he presents a story about a man who is aboard a ship. The ship docks and the man ventures off in order to fetch water, a small shellfish and a vegetable. Of course it behooves this man to keep his ship within distance incase it was to start away with out him he could leave behind the small shellfish and the vegetable to run and catch his ship.
Epictetus believes this is how it should be in real life as well, he says, “if you are given a wife and a child instead of a vegetable and a small shellfish that will not hinder you; but if the captain calls, let all those things go and run to the boat without turning back…” (6). I understand this is a metaphor for life, but is this man really suggesting that it is better to leave your wife and child behind in a strange land in order to procure yourself safe voyage so that you yourself are not left there?
This, to me, is completely asinine. To me, that’s like saying to your child, “hey, driving you to school is going to make me late to work and I don’t want to be late to work, so what I’m going to do is throw you out of the car on the freeway. It’s better for me that way. ” Well, that’s completely rational. Epictetus suggests that family has value only when it’s convenient and that it’s better not to love your wife or child, but to simply not be offended by their presence. In the case of anything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is… If you are fond of a jug, say ‘I am fond of a jug! ’. For when it is broken you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset. ” (3) Now, I elect to give Epictetus the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that what he means by this is that a person is more then a body and the body is what is lost when a human being dies, not the person itself.
Yet, this too proves itself a bit perplexing. When a person dies, that person is gone. A dead person will never come back to life, you can’t seek physical comfort from a dead person, have a conversation with a dead person, be in a relationship with a dead person and because of these things, you can not love a dead person, you can only have loved a dead person. Some people believe that there is some type of after life, or that humans have souls, then it is not the person that dies, rather the shell of the person that does.
But, everything a person is, their unique spirit and personality, everything that makes a person a person is dependent on the proper functioning of a complex, fragile and miraculous chunk of meat that is the human body and without a body, a “person” cannot exist. This is a bit of a bold statement to make, for a man who never had a proper family. He was born into servitude, taken away from his mother at a young age and sold into slavery. He never had a wife or child of his own, so how can he begin to instruct others on how to treat or feel about their own wives and children.
Epictetus says, “If it ever happens that you turn outward to want to please another person, certainly you have lost your plan of life. ” I completely agree that it is best to live your life for yourself and that if you are living your life for someone else, it may be an unhealthy relationship. I agree with Epictetus there, but it makes me sad to believe that the man who wrote such things, never had the opportunity to consider doing things differently in life in order to please another person. If I met Epictetus today, the only thing I would have to say to him is, “don’t knock it, ‘til you try it. ”.