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:
- There is no god.
- There is a god who is unconcerned for the cosmos.
- There is a god who cares for the heavenly sphere only.
- There is a god who cares for the general affairs on earth, not the details.
- There is a god who cares for the affairs of men.
“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:
- In Stoic philosophy, there were three orders of discourse: ethics [right, wrong, happiness, politics, etc], logic [the laws of thought, nature of consciousness, rhetoric, grammar, etc], and physics [the nature of things, cause and effect, etc]. Ethics was conceived of as simultaneously the art of discovering right from wrong and the art of flourishing. “One ought to follow the gods” is a necessary postulate for moral reasoning. So it’s as if Epictetus was saying, “If one is obligated to do right/be happy, then god must be real.”
- The gods were seen as either interminably separated from us or that but condescendingly kind to our nature. This is taken to the nth degree in Christian theology. Epictetus, elsewhere says that human beings bear the image of God in their minds [Discourse 2.8]. So the idea is that a monotheistic God [orderer of all things] and the various minor gods represent the ideals of human nature. So much so, by the way, that elsewhere Epictetus says that the human mind is equal to Zeus’ mind in its capacity to avoid evil and choose goodness.
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.”|
I’ve never watched the video, this is best played in the background.
The site will be down for a couple days/weeks while I solve some problems on it.
Thanks for reading.
What is virtue signalling?
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.
Which is it?
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 do good for its own sake (part of ‘the good’ is the reward of knowing God and receiving his promises, btw).
- To do so, we must realize that ‘the good’ is inclusive persuasive actions on the part of sincere actors.
- Therefore, some level of virtue signalling that invites new participants in good behavior, reinforces that behavior in those who do it already, or increases alliances amongst those who practice virtue is virtuous.
- Finally, virtue signaling for hedonic (pleasure seeking) reasons is sinful.
To answer the question, “Is virtue signalling good or bad?” It depends on if you’re virtue-signalling to God.