Enchiridion XV


Remember that you must behave as at a banquet. Is anything brought round to you? Put out your hand and take a moderate share. Does it pass by you? Do not stop it. Is it not yet come? Do not yearn in desire toward it, but wait till it reaches you. So with regard to children, wife, office, riches; and you will some time or other be worthy to feast with the gods. And if you do not so much as take the things which are set before you, but are able even to forego them, then you will not only be worthy to feast with the gods, but to rule with them also. For, by thus doing, Diogenes and Heraclitus, and others like them, deservedly became divine, and were so recognized.

There is a sixth century commentary on this by Simplicus, who is one of the chief Neoplatonist writers; I am not referring to it on purpose, and indeed have not read it, as I never read secondary sources prior to engaging a philosophical text myself. Nor should you; we may engage it later. There is always a lot to be learned from what the wise think about any topic, but you should wrestle with it first to decide what you think. They may convince you that you were wrong, or that you misunderstood something; but you should first find a ground of your own, rather than letting any of them tell you what to think. Aristotle's efforts often begin by explaining the positions of the wise, and when they do they quickly turn to him refuting them. 

The process described in the end is apotheosis, a Greek pagan notion by which some heroes were raised to the ranks of the immortals. Many local heroes were worshipped after a while as if they were gods, though usually as chthonic gods of the underworld. (That is redundant, if you are unfamiliar with the word chthonic.) Some Greeks believed in a cycle of reincarnation, involving an eventual return to light and life in a cycle that embraced death and perhaps godhood; we don't fully grasp exactly how all of this worked. 

The general advice is interesting. At a banquet, everyone should usually be served all the courses. Here the idea is that the banquet is somewhat chaotic, and some dishes are offered but others pass by. Others that might have been offered to your fellows have not yet been offered to you. Patience is the key virtue; that and self-discipline, which allows you to take not of some of the offerings if you decide they are not good for you. If you do that, you will be worthy of ruling like the gods: though in fact you may gain nothing at all, and pass by some things of value (perhaps including good glasses of beer or cider, or even fine Scotch whisky) along the way. 

It's a strange sort of banquet, not arranged with the convenience nor the enjoyment of the guests as its first order. Such is how we find it, however, whatever that says about the qualities of the host.


james said...

It seems a trifle presumptuous to assume that one can become "worthy to feast with the gods" merely by living the virtuous life we are supposed to. (We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.) Perhaps Diogenes was given the gift for some other reason.

The alternative is that his gods are relatively small things, if a man can aspire to their status. (like Mormons?)

J Melcher said...


Is anything brought round to you? Put out your hand and take a moderate share.

Moderation. Balance. Reach out but don't push forward. This, over and over, we see in the Bible and Shakespeare and Seneca and Aristotle and moderns who are not even considered philosophers, like ex-spy turned media celebrity cook Julia Child:

“Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.”

Up until this chapter I hadn't noticed much of such from Epictetus. Maybe he's of the school that argues ' you should practice moderation, most of the time but not always ' ?

Grim said...


I want to say two different things about that. The first is that the Greek and Roman gods were definitely smaller compared to the transcendent God of the Bible, who appears only in fire and visions, and cannot be seen without dying. The Greek gods did regularly visit with human beings, especially the Oracle of Delphi and other oracles; but also, in Homer, might be encountered in a lane or on a battlefield, and might visit with favorites such as Odysseus or Achilles. The gods do not always come off looking great by comparison to the heroes in these stories; even Zeus, as Plato regularly complains, comes off as unjust and violent to the innocent. Athena, the embodiment of wisdom and philosophy, is often petty and vicious in the stories. Plato argued at length that these stories should be banned and poets punished severely if they persisted in telling them.

That leads me to the second thing to say, which is: look who doesn't qualify according to the standard Epictetus lays out here, namely, Odysseus and Achilles. Achilles is given something like an option to qualify, told that he can leave Ilium and return home to long life and peace; and if he had, being half-divine already, he might have in time found his way to Olympus. Instead Odysseus meets him in Hades, a sad shade who wishes he had found a wiser way. (Odysseus' death is variously reported, but in some versions he dies at the hand of his own son due to a misunderstanding he doesn't take the time to understand before resorting to violence.)

There is a lot going on here. Often I've remarked, "Hey, we can easily see parallels with the Bible here." Here is a place where it is very hard to see them; this is much more legitimately pagan, at least in its descriptions of the gods and their work.

Grim said...


Is your frustration that Epictetus has not been adequately Epicurean, by suggesting that you shouldn't even reach out to take moderate portions? He allows that there is nothing wrong with finding a wife or loving a child, so long as you remember that you might always be called to duty; and that you remember and accept the reality that they are mortal, and like yourself might die at any time. That seems to me to be a sort of moderate indulgence, accepting what is offered you without blinding yourself to what is, in fact, really being offered to you. You aren't being offered everlasting love or immortality, neither for yourself nor your children. You're being offered a dish, in the metaphor, that will be enjoyed for a moment that will pass.

james said...

wrt the tiny gods: Exactly. And with such precedents, I'm curious (I haven't read ahead) if Epictetus was merely being idiomatic here; if he had a higher view of the gods than the regular culture. Even to say "we can't know about the gods" would have been a higher view of them.

It might be interesting to compare Achilles with Hercules wrt their respective failure/success at apotheosis--but probably not useful. Stories weren't required to be consistent with each other.