It’s a pretty great tweet.
It’s a pretty great tweet.
Epictetus, the former slave turned stoic philosopher, made an eccentric argument for God’s providence in the smallest of human affairs. He argues by reducing to absurdity, as far as he can manage, four the five following views:
“Concerning gods, there are first those who say there is no divinity. Secondly, that there is but he is lazy (inactive) and unconcerned; and he makes no plans concerning anything. Thirdly, there are those who say that he exists and makes plans, rather only for the great and heavenly things, but for those of earth, nothing. Fourthly, there are those who say he makes plans for things upon the earth and the things of humanity, but in general and not for each one. Fifthly, there are those like Odysseus and Socrates who say, “Whither I move, I escape not your notice.”Epictetus 1.121. Epictetus. Epicteti Dissertationes Ab Arriano Digestae. Medford, MA: B. G. Teubner, 1916. Print. 1.12, “Περὶ θεῶν οἱ μέν τινές εἰσιν οἱ λέγοντες μηδʼ εἶναι τὸ θεῖον, οἱ δʼ εἶναι μέν, ἀργὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμελὲς καὶ μὴ προνοεῖν μηδενός·  τρίτοι δʼ οἱ καὶ εἶναι καὶ προνοεῖν, ἀλλὰ τῶν μεγάλων καὶ οὐρανίων, τῶν δὲ ἐπὶ γῆς μηδενός· τέταρτοι δʼ οἱ καὶ τῶν ἐπὶ γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων, εἰς κοινὸν δὲ μόνον καὶ οὐχὶ δὲ καὶ κατʼ ἰδίαν ἑκάστου·  πέμπτοι δʼ, ὧν ἦν καὶ Ὀδυσσεὺς καὶ Σωκράτης, οἱ λέγοντες ὅτι οὐδέ σε λήθω Κινύμενος.”
So those are the five positions. His arguments against them, at a first pass, seem rather empty. They hinge on one assertion, “One ought to follow the gods.” But if there are no gods, then the assertion is worthless, or worse, because it isn’t harmless but harmful, as one who follows the gods follows delusions rather than wisdom. Here’s his refutation:
Therefore, before anything else, it is necessary to inquire into each to these, [to determine] if it is sound or unsound to affirm it. For is there are no gods, how is it our purpose to follow them? 2. Epictetus simply assumes that following the gods is the standard human goal for any thoughtful person. If then, on the other hand, they [the gods] exist and are unconcerned, how can this [to follow them] be sound? But if in fact, they exist and they care, but if there is no communication to humanity from them, and for that matter neither any to me, how is it [to follow them/the life of ethics] sound? Therefore, all these things considered, the good and beautiful man intends to submit himself to the one who manages the whole just as the good citizens submit themselves to the law of the city-state.Epictetus 1.12 3. Πολὺ πρότερον οὖν ἀναγκαῖόν ἐστι περὶ ἑκάστου τούτων ἐπεσκέφθαι, πότερα ὑγιῶς ἢ οὐχ ὑγιῶς λεγόμενόν ἐστιν. ειʼ γὰρ μὴ εἰσὶν θεοί, πῶς ἐστι τέλος ἕπεσθαι θεοῖς;  ειʼ δʼ εἰσὶν μέν, μηδενὸς δʼ ἐπιμελούμενοι, καὶ οὕτως πῶς ὑγιὲς ἔσται;  ἀλλὰ δὴ καὶ ὄντων καὶ ἐπιμελομένων ειʼ μηδεμία διάδοσις εἰς ἀνθρώπους ἐστὶν ἐξ αὐτῶν καὶ νὴ Δία γε καὶ εἰς ἐμέ, πῶς ἔτι καὶ οὕτως ὑγιές ἐστιν;  πάντα οὖν ταῦτα ὁ καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθὸς ἐπεσκεμμένος τὴν αὑτοῦ γνώμην ὑποτέταχεν τῷ διοικοῦντι τὰ ὅλα καθάπερ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ πολῖται τῷ νόμῳ τῆς πόλεως.”
Now, in many places, Epictetus argues for God’s existence, as the one who orders all things (and he from this appears to infer the existence of gods as well) from the order of all things and from the rational mind of humanity. But he does not refer to those arguments here. He basically says, “If one is to follow the gods, it cannot be true that they do not exist, do not care, or do not communicate with us. Since we must follow the gods, these propositions cannot be true.” So what gives? What makes “following the gods” an axiom of rational life? I think I have five answers:
So if we accept that gods are, at the least, mythic representations of indispensable human ideals, then maybe the gods are indispensable. But this argument doesn’t quite satisfy unless we grant the gods some existence outside of the human mind, as that existence is precisely the point. But if God is the necessary postulate of moral science because otherwise moral imperatives have no force behind them, then his argument is at least reasonable, if not sound. “We must as good as possible, only the gods are consistently as good as possible, therefore we must follow the gods. Corollary: If there is such a state as, “as good as possible,” there must be gods to emulate.”
I find Epictetus’ view of God’s providence to be enriching if slightly anemic as Satan is a missing figure. But his view of providence allows for comparing any man seeking to do the right thing in the face of trouble to Hercules fighting the boar and overcoming the challenges before him. This view is harder to hold in the teeth of the evils of the world that harm children, but Epictetus knew the evil of this life and perhaps better than any who live today. Either way, whatever faces us is a challenge from God to do the good, somehow, even Satan in all his anti-providence, becomes for us an obstacle to overcome and finally, being overcome, simply a step along to path of Christ to God who makes us more than conquerors.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Epictetus. Epicteti Dissertationes Ab Arriano Digestae. Medford, MA: B. G. Teubner, 1916. Print. 1.12, “Περὶ θεῶν οἱ μέν τινές εἰσιν οἱ λέγοντες μηδʼ εἶναι τὸ θεῖον, οἱ δʼ εἶναι μέν, ἀργὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμελὲς καὶ μὴ προνοεῖν μηδενός·  τρίτοι δʼ οἱ καὶ εἶναι καὶ προνοεῖν, ἀλλὰ τῶν μεγάλων καὶ οὐρανίων, τῶν δὲ ἐπὶ γῆς μηδενός· τέταρτοι δʼ οἱ καὶ τῶν ἐπὶ γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων, εἰς κοινὸν δὲ μόνον καὶ οὐχὶ δὲ καὶ κατʼ ἰδίαν ἑκάστου·  πέμπτοι δʼ, ὧν ἦν καὶ Ὀδυσσεὺς καὶ Σωκράτης, οἱ λέγοντες ὅτι οὐδέ σε λήθω Κινύμενος.”|
|2.||↑||Epictetus simply assumes that following the gods is the standard human goal for any thoughtful person.|
|3.||↑||Πολὺ πρότερον οὖν ἀναγκαῖόν ἐστι περὶ ἑκάστου τούτων ἐπεσκέφθαι, πότερα ὑγιῶς ἢ οὐχ ὑγιῶς λεγόμενόν ἐστιν. ειʼ γὰρ μὴ εἰσὶν θεοί, πῶς ἐστι τέλος ἕπεσθαι θεοῖς;  ειʼ δʼ εἰσὶν μέν, μηδενὸς δʼ ἐπιμελούμενοι, καὶ οὕτως πῶς ὑγιὲς ἔσται;  ἀλλὰ δὴ καὶ ὄντων καὶ ἐπιμελομένων ειʼ μηδεμία διάδοσις εἰς ἀνθρώπους ἐστὶν ἐξ αὐτῶν καὶ νὴ Δία γε καὶ εἰς ἐμέ, πῶς ἔτι καὶ οὕτως ὑγιές ἐστιν;  πάντα οὖν ταῦτα ὁ καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθὸς ἐπεσκεμμένος τὴν αὑτοῦ γνώμην ὑποτέταχεν τῷ διοικοῦντι τὰ ὅλα καθάπερ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ πολῖται τῷ νόμῳ τῆς πόλεως.”|
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Virtue signalling is “the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group.” Jesus, while not using the terminology, definitely addresses the concept.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.(Matthew 5:14-16 ESV)
Virtue signalling looks like a moral duty..
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.(Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)
It also looks like the central tenet of hypocrisy.
Doing good deeds publicly with full knowledge that you may be seen is simply part of what it means to be Jesus’ disciple. To seek the good we must, in many cases, be public, and in doing so, this makes the good appealing to those who seek lesser goods or accidentally seek evil.
On the other hand, doing good deeds solely for social credit is bad. Most public moral criticism happens this way. We criticize easy moral targets publicly with the hope that people will like us. The internet has made this dopaminergic process available on a mass scale at micro-costs.
To answer the question, “Is virtue signalling good or bad?” It depends on if you’re virtue-signalling to God.
Christians are called upon by God to share the Christian gospel with others in order to help them become Christians.
One of the ways Christians try to evangelize (help non-Christians believe the gospel) is to help them see how wretched they really are so that they might see their need for Jesus.
Others try to help people see their philosophical need for a source or ground of absolute truth. This can be done using various methods.
Some take time to talk people through whether God exists at all or if he does, that miracles occur and can be attributed to him.
Some just share how much Jesus loves that specific person and to do that, they have to demonstrate their own love for that person. This can take hours, months, or even years.
But pretty much all of these methods involve preparing the person to hear the message of Christ.
These methods are often wise.
Other times, Christians focus on an evangelism method that they just know is right, but since it is more catered to their own personality type or perhaps a narrow definition of how the human mind works, the method can become a hindrance rather than a help.
Despite that, most people would acknowledge that sharing the gospel of grace requires pre-evangelism.
But I’ve come across some people who are so weak, self-hating and resentful toward the world in general that sharing a gospel message that includes the promise of something like “living forever with God” sounds worse than dying and sleeping forever.
How can we help them aside from prayer? I think that sometimes pre-evangelism is helping people find that life has the potential for happiness, that choices matter, and that nature is not against them. This is not easy. And of course, in all of this, we must point people to God’s grace here and now. But still, in a culture where consumerist nihilism reigns supreme and product acquisition is the highest good, it won’t be easy to help some people see that life is meaningful in the first place.