“Eat like a human being, drink like a human being, dress up, marry, have children, get politically active – suffer abuse, bear with a headstrong brother, father, son, neighbor, or companion. Show us these things so we can see that you have truly learned from the philosophers.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 3.21.5-6
I recently had a conversation with a close friend who I also work with. We were discussing the role of religion in a secular state (America) when he attempted to qualify what it meant to be secular, along with what it meant to be Christian. Up to this point, the conversation has been pleasant, but he was now drifting into a very dogmatic territory. For him, the secular was framed with being able to do anything one wanted, and Christianity itself was very rigid in how it should be approached. He expressed the latter with the words, “I’ve read the Bible and it says…”. It was that statement which brought my question of how he handles Christians who disagree with his theological position. Those who, for example, find problems in how the Church historically treats the Gay community, and even more “heretical”, find the idea of Hell to be theologically unfounded? His response was that 100% of the people he surrounded himself with, regarding his faith community, agreed with him.
One of my favorite bands, Adam Again (they happen to be a Christian band), have a song called “Worldwide” from the album Dig with this telling lyric:
Don’t think I’ll ever understand it
Don’t think it matters if I do
Three billion people in the world
And I only know a few
If a primary question for philosophers is “How do I live?”, we must conclude that to answer this question we must live. We cannot surround ourselves with like-minded people, or removed from others. I’m of the opinion this is what Epictetus is asking of us. Make life a participatory event. Create relationships. Learn from others. I cannot know how to be a father unless I first have a child. I cannot know how to love unless I have a subject, or object, of love. How can I understand how to be a politician unless I first come to know what others need?
A closing anecdote. I spent years somewhat hostile towards all religious systems. There was this idea that the texts which informed their followers had an absolute sentiment to the words. To put it a different way, I was very dogmatic about my loathing for dogmatism. Once I distanced myself from not wanting to be around religious people I was able to discover the nuances of how the texts were approached. Once I quit reading material that validated my existing beliefs on religion, I began to see just how complicated, and beautiful, being human is. Honestly, it all started when I, again, began living like a philosopher.
Maybe the most important takeaway from this meditation is that we are all philosophers.