Epictetus’s modest optimism

In his Entretien avec Saci, Pascal both praises and criticizes Epictetus: “I dare to say that he [Epictetus] ought to be adored, if he had known his impotence…After having so well understood that which one ought to do, look how he loses himself in the presumption that one can do it” (293a). Epictetus serves here as a cipher for Stoic naiveté in thinking that a duty entails the capacity to fulfill it; their ignorance of original sin, Pascal argues, leaves them overly optimistic about the human capacity for goodness.

But in his Discourses, Epictetus seems to me to be more modest in his optimism than Pascal portrays him. So, he does indeed paint a strikingly grand portrait of human dignity: “εἴ τις τῷ δόγματι τούτῳ συμπαθῆσαι κατ᾽ ἀξίαν δύναιτο, ὅτι γεγόναμεν ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ πάντες προηγουμένως καὶ ὁ θεὸς πατήρ ἐστι τῶν τ᾽ ἀνθρώπων καὶ τῶν θεῶν, οἶμαι ὅτι οὐδὲν ἀγεννὲς οὐδὲ ταπεινὸν ἐνθυμηθήσεται περὶ ἑαυτοῦ” (1.3.1). (“If someone could sympathize with this dogma insofar as it’s worthwhile, namely that we have previously come to be from God, and that God is the father of men and of the gods, I suppose that he would think nothing ignoble or humiliating concerning himself.”) Nonetheless, this divine element is mixed in with an animal body, and most “ταύτην ἀποκλίνουσιν τὴν συγγένειαν τὴν ἀτυχῆ καὶ νεκράν, ὀλίγοι δέ τινες ἐπὶ τὴν θείαν καὶ μακαρίαν”(“they turn aside to this unfortunate and dead kinship, but some few to the divine and blessed”) (1.3.3).

How does Epictetus compare with Paul? He takes it that the resources for living well are already present in each of us, and that the derangement of our desires and will is a natural feature of human existence that can be overcome by sheer force of reason. Paul’s view of things is both far darker — Sin is a power that enslaves and corrupts us, not a built-in feature of our nature — and far more glorious — by the Spirit, we are fully incorporated into God the Son, both now spiritually, and at the resurrection, in body as well.

 

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