How we should act towards the powerful 

Epictetus – Discourses Book 1
I.19. How we should act towards the powerful

What is the advantage of being powerful? Is it that everybody pay you attention and respect?

Well, I can pay attention to a mundane thing such as my pen when I am filling it with ink, or to my dishes when I am washing them. That does not mean that these things are better than I am; it only means that these things are useful to me.

One also looks after his horse, washes its feet and curries its coat, makes it comfortable. But one does this for in self-interest, because looking after one’s horse is looking after one’s self.

So if I respect the powerful, do I flatter them as I flatter my horse; or do I respect them as human beings? Do I respect them as I respect Socrates; do I want to be like them as I want to be like Socrates?

But what about respect out of fear? The tyrant may indeed cut of my head if he wants to. So should I look out for him like I look out for a contagious disease? What sort of respect is that?

What is the source of fear; what keeps people subdued? It is not the person of the tyrant, nor his bodyguards and their arms. It is a persons own thoughts. Remember, what has been made free by nature can only be hampered by itself.

Only one who holds his body in higher regard than his freedom will be cowed by the threat of bodily harm. God has given us freedom and he will not allow any of his children to be enslaved. If he wants, the tyrant may be the master of my corpse; but that is all he can be, and nothing more.

Looking after one’s self is not selfishness, it is only man’s nature. We cannot expect someone to be indifferent to his welfare. But constantly acting in self-interest is not anti-social, and it is not antithetical to altruism. God made rational man is such a way that once he holds correct views about things external to the will—realising that they are not good nor evil—he cannot attain personal ends without also providing for the community.

“Someone is raised to the office of tribune and accepts congratulations on every hand (…) He mounts the Capitol, where he offers a sacrifice of thanks. Now who, I ask you, has ever offered sacrifice for right desires, or for impulses in agreement for nature? We only thank the gods, it seems, for what we popularly suppose are the good things in life.” 

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