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The Smackdown on Bad Parenting by Epictetus

One of the most amusing passages in the Discourses by Epictetus occurs in 1.11. Some translators give this section the heading "On Family Affection" or "On Natural Affection." The entirety of the section can be read here.

To summarize, a government official approaches Epictetus to ask the philosopher whether he acted appropriately. The official has a daughter who is sick, and he does not know how to act in response to the illness. After a series of insights, questions, and answers, Epictetus convinces the man that an affectionate father does not follow Nature when he deserts his child. The man eventually agrees, and Epictetus eventually goes on to explain how causes are related to certain effects.

The conclusion of Epictetus' life lesson ends with this insight: "From this day forth, then, whenever we fail to act rightly, we'll ascribe the blame to nothing other than the judgment that led us to act as we did, and will endeavor to destroy it and cut it out, even more than the tumors and abscesses of the body" (1.12.35). This lingering message is particularly powerful to the government official because Epictetus just convinced him that he acted wrongly as a father. Even though we might feel justified criticism toward a father who decides to leave his daughter in a time when she is sick, some of us might find it refreshing that the man is quick to admit his fault in the situation. I think Epictetus finds the man's honestly and willingness to change his mind admirable. As some Stoics know, Epictetus has some pretty tough bold advice for other people in his lectures.

This section is a great reminder that the Stoic principle of "living according to nature" is much more than simply "living how a natural animal should." It also involves thinking about how we have different roles to play, and that we should play those roles to the best of our abilities. In this, we can rest assured that we are doing the best we can in developing who we are as people.

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