Here is another of my reflections on Sharon Lebell’s free translation of the Stoic philosoopher, Epictetus, The Art of Living. The quotes below seem to be from pages 56-58 of the print edition. I am reading it in Kindle format.
Some of Epictetus’s advice seems traditionalist and conservative. “Avoid most popular entertainment.” “Avoid casual sex.” This advise seems rooted, however, in wisdom rather than some kind of fiat morality. In this way it is similar to the Hebrew book of Proverbs. If you want to flourish, then this is how you should behave.
One should particularly note the following part of his challenge to avoid casual sex: “If, however, you know someone who has had casual sex, don’t self-righteously try to win them over to your own views.” This is part of the Stoic notion that you have to accept reality. You can not impose what makes sense to you on the rest of humanity. And if you try, you will find that it is counter-productive.
I do wonder how his advice would translate into the contemporary world. In his world, marriage took place when people were pretty young. So would he still advise people to avoid sex before marriage in a society where marriage gets put off until the late 20s or 30s? Would the undermining of marriage as an institution change his advice? Would effective birth control change the calculations as to what is wise? Would the fact of television, the Internet and the presence of popular entertainment that is always in your face change his advice? In his world I think people had to actively seek out the games or other popular entertainment. It was not just there in your house.
His instincts would still be traditional, but he might qualify some of his advice. He probably would not advise withdrawing from society in order to avoid temptation.
The questions for people who want to follow the Biblical tradition are not much easier. The New Testament was written at about the same time and in the same society. The Hebrew wisdom tradition, which has a lot in common with the Stoics, is one strand. But more proscriptive language, is also part of the Biblical tradition. There are thou-shalt-nots and certain behaviors get labeled as impure or abominations.
I have reflected on some of these questions in other posts. It seems to me what Christians might want to hear from Epictetus is his advice about how not to to come off as a jerk. For instance, don’t be always bringing up your own abstinence. This could apply to sex, alcohol, gaming, marijuana, non-Christian music, Miley Cyrus or whatever. If you feel you have to abstain, just do it. Don’t talk about it.
And Epictetus has some humorous advise if you are charged with hypocrisy. If someone brings up your faults, rather than getting defensive, you should say, “I guess that person doesn’t know about all my other faults. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have mentioned only these.”