Stoic Piety

Our word “piety” comes the Latin term pietas which refers to devotion to one’s parents as well as to a sense of religious obligation. Epictetus, one of the three great Stoic thinkers of Greco-Roman civilization (the others being Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), comes closest to the monotheistic notion of piety that our society is familiar with. He repeatedly speaks of God the “father” and of the “kinship between God and humanity.” In one of my favorite passages he writes:

From everything that comes about in the universe one may easily find cause to praise providence if one possesses these two qualities, the capacity to view each particular event in relation to the whole, and a sense of gratitude (Discourses, I.6).

Comparing Epictetus, the former Greek slave turned philosopher, with the great Roman emperor, I am struck both by the similarities as well as the differences in their brands of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’ prose is more poetic, concise and vigorous. Some of his passages are among the finest uttered. On quiet evenings I often recall this line from the Meditations:

Watch the stars in their courses as if you were running about with them and think constantly of the changes of the elements into one another. Mental images of these things wash away the filth of life on the ground.

Yet on the whole I find his agnostic outlook less consoling than that of Epictetus. The latter’s style is often that of a lecturing professor. But what he lacks in artistry he makes up for in depth of thought. The Greek Stoic succeeds in bringing together both aspects of pietas—filial love and a sense of duty—and thus infuses what would otherwise be a moral system of grim fortitude with a sense of hope and trust in the purpose of life.

Over the years I have read many translations of Epictetus. The most recent (and very affordable) one volume collection, which I recommend, is the new edition by Oxford World’s Classics. For a brief review of the Discourses, see my earlier post.

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