In one of my classes we’re reading the Dialogues of Epictetus. This has led to a lively discussion about what constitutes a human being. What does ‘care of the self’ mean in the equation that Epictetus sets up, particularly in book II of his Dialogues where he emphasizes cultivation of character, discernment, and self-control on the one hand and proper performance of one’s social roles and maintenance of natural hierarchies on the other? I really love his emphasis on fidelity to the Gods, to one’s spouse, to fulfilling one’s roles for the common good – fidelity in general, fidelity as a key aspect of a properly developed self – and on duty and self-control and that by doing these things we are helping to sustain the divine order, the order of the cosmos.
This led me to think (after weeks of reading Plato and Epictetus in this class) about how we as contemporary polytheists define the self (realizing that this may differ significantly between traditions).
For me, a clear development of the self is predicated on being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, and aligning one’s will with Them. It is predicated on allowing that sense of reverence and respect to inform every decision, every possible way that we chooseto move in our world. It is acknowledging that we have a choice and part of devotional living is deciding to make the proper one with respect to our Holy Powers and traditions (particularly prioritizing those things especially). Without that essential orientation, there is simply no fullness of being, self-awareness, or properly developed character. Without that, we are at best semi-beings. (This is, of course, within our control. We can choose to pursue devotion, choose to align our lives rightly, to be in right relationship with the Holy Powers, etc. We’re in no way helpless here. We may have to unlearn certain bad habits and poor priorities that our society has taught us, curb unruly or spiritually unhealthy impulses, or reprogram things we’ve learned in non-polytheistic birth religions, but we can do that. We’ve been gifted with reason, intellect, passion, and the ability to focus. We just have to want to do the work).
If we participate in maintaining divine order by the way that we choose to live our lives and by cultivating a devotional consciousness – which I very much believe we do – then a proper ‘self’ is one that rooted in an actualized awareness of one’s place within cosmological hierarchy and the rightness of one’s duties within that system. A fully developed self willingly participates in fulfilling its duties within that cosmological framework. Without that, there is no personhood.
That’s my position on the matter – quickly articulated while on break between classes. I would love to hear what you all have to say.