Epictetus part 11: Every possession is a gift

Note: this is the eleventh part of a weekly series, in which I translate and discuss the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus. New posts will be released every monday morning (GMT).


In the analogy of the ship, Epictetus has taught us that none of our possessions or relationships are truly ours. Everything is loaned to us, and must be left behind at some point (certainly at the time of our death). In this paragraph, he continues this lesson:

Never say of anything ‘I have lost it’, but ‘I have given it back’. Has your child died? It has been given back. Has your wife died? She has been given back. ‘My property has been taken’. Then that has been given back as well.

We may accept this if we lose something, but should we also accept it if our possessions are stolen? Is theft not against nature and should we therefore not worry about it? Epictetus answers as follows:

‘But he who has taken it, is an evil man’. Why does it matter to you through which person he who has given it to you, has demanded it back?

There it is. According to Epictetus, ‘he who has given it to you’ allots it to somebody else. This is a matter of the giver, not you. So you should not worry about it, and accept that you have to give it back. By the words he uses, it seems as if though Epictetus describes a god of some sort as the entity that allocates possession. Indeed, historians and philosophers have argued that Epictetus had a monotheistic, and fairly personal view of the divine world. Contemporary stoicism is usually regarded as secular. In my view, the allocation of possessions is a matter of the cosmos, of Nature. Following this, we should accept that Nature has given you something and, at a later point, demands it back. To whom it is given after that, is not your concern, but that of Nature.

During the time that we possess something (or, strictly speaking, borrow it from Nature), we should take care of it as a good steward:

As long as he allows it, look after it as something that belongs to another, just as visitors of an inn do.

There is nothing wrong with having possessions, not even if it is a brand new and expensive car or a enormous estate. There is nothing wrong with having relationships. But we must remember that they are not truly ours: at some point, we have to give them back. We are only granted possession, not ownership. While we have it, we may enjoy it. When the time comes to give it back, we must give it back.

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