Thursday, December 08, 2005

Our Principal Duties

Epictetus usually prefers to speak in terms of the roles ( prosopa, personae) we should adopt—spouse, parent, citizen, etc—but occasionally he reverts to a more traditional Stoic idiom and speaks of our duties ( kathekonta). Thus at Discourses III. 7. 25 he says

With man it is not his material being that we should honor, his bits of flesh, but principal duties. What are these? To engage in public affairs, to marry, to have children, to worship God, to take care of our parents,…

The question I keep asking in these pages is how we going to do these things without resources and, in particular, money? How will we take care of our parents and family, how will we support our church and community, if we lack the material means to do so? With words? And if we need externals like money to fulfill our duties, isn’t it also our duty to assiduously pursue these things?

It is one thing if you aspire to the life of a hermit or a street person. Then you can consistently denounce the pursuit of externals as a waste of time. And you will have plenty of time to do so! It is another if you are trying to live a responsible and worthwhile life. The pursuit of externals is at the heart of such a life. How can the philosophers urge us to neglect externals and yet hold that it is our duty to pursue a life that requires externals? Someone please explain this to me.


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