“Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender.” – Henri Amiel, Swedish philosopher.
In the last two posts, we looked at how two Stoics assessed purpose and acquaintance: Cicero who sees its purpose as filling a fundamental need of humans for society with others and as opportunity to carry out moral duties and demonstrate honor and decorum, and Seneca who considers acquaintances as a kind of necessary evil and test of virtue in the ultimate quest for tranquility. In other words Cicero seems to view acquaintanceship as predominately positive while Seneca views it as mostly negative. We move next to Epictetus (CE 60 to 138), the former slave and exceedingly pious pagan whose teachings emphasize the divine, metaphysics, internal ethics, and human mortality, and only incidentally address human relationships.
While an apparent hermit, Epictetus condones trying “to enjoy the great festival of life with other men.”1 He also asserts that humans are made for an active life. But perhaps the most revealing statement regarding his observations of human relations is this: “For universally, be not deceived, every animal is attached to nothing as much as its own interest.”2 Self-interest then is the modus operandi of most acquaintances. Alternatively a friend must remove this ‘bestial principle’ and suppress self-interest for friendship to flourish.
Epictetus offers guidelines in behaving with others. “Wouldst thou have men speak good of thee? Speak good of them. And when thou hast learned to speak good of them try to do good unto them, and thus thou will reap in return their speaking good of thee.”3 He urges forgiveness over revenge; devising his own golden rule – “My brother ought not to have treated me thus. True; but he must see to that. However he may treat me, I must deal rightly with him. That is what lies with me, what none can hinder.”4 The good demonstrate by example by being sufficient to themselves and avoiding the contamination of the crowd. “Strive to walk alone and hold converse with thyself, instead of skulking in the chorus!”5 He also advises “be cautious in associating with the uninstructed.” 6 A philosopher does not apply to others, but attracts them. When certain company cannot be avoided he advises “Bear and forbear.” 7 And finally “Nature hath given man one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” 8
In brief Epictetus believes the wise man is concerned with his own mind, with the study of philosophy, and remaining free from passion and perturbation. Human acquaintances are unavoidable and perhaps necessary, but relationships should be tempered and ground in virtue whatever treatment we may receive from others, and play only a secondary role in the ideal life.
Eliot, Charles W. (editor), The Harvard Classics: Plato Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. P.F. Collier and Son Corporation, New York, 1937. Page 118
2Epictetus, Discourse Book II, Chapter 22 in Great Books of the Western World, Volume 12, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., page 168.
3Eliot, Charles W. (editor), The Harvard Classics: Plato Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. P.F. Collier and Son Corporation, New York, 1937. Page 133
4Ibid. page 153.
5Ibid. page 155.
6Ibid. page 157.
7Ibid. page 179.
8Ibid. page 183.