For Epictetus, moral purpose is the embodiment of an integrated set of values (virtues); they might be fully encompassed by the classic Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance.
What do these words mean to him? To my knowledge, he never expounds or even explicitly recommends these classic virtues. Yet his occasional references make clear that he takes them for granted. Some modern commentators believe that it is the freedom of the will (or choice) that is most essential for him. But, in my reading, it is the value-driven purposiveness of that choice (rather than freedom for its own sake) that is most important to Epictetus.
Of course, the most important thing for me is not accurate understanding of Epictetus’s teaching (the finger), but rather the clarification of the Good and the values it entails — i.e. in the objective sense, insofar as it governs my own moral purpose (the moon).
My moral purpose needs to imbue and guide all my processing of impressions, my thoughts, feelings, words and intentions.
What is my best current understanding of my moral purpose? Quick, write it down!
- to be a wise steward of what has been given me and what I have (body, mind and spirit)
- to pursue little for myself, other than what is needed to support my freedom to think, feel and act virtuously
- to discard everything that detracts from this purpose
- to respect and honor everything and everyone
- to feel and express gratitude for all that is
- to teach primarily through example
- to find the joy in every moment
- to restrain my judgements
- to encourage
- to honor my commitments
- to refrain from commitments that distract from my moral purpose
- to be helpful and kind
- to embody humility
- to both build up and conserve my energy to the sole end of living according to my moral purpose
- to consistently and persistently embody the courage needed to live this mission, resisting temptations, condemnations, distractions, mockery, anger, demands, pains and pleasures that oppose it
- to suppress unproductive and distracting emotions — especially anger, frustration, disgust, envy, pride, greed, fear, guilt, regret, sadness, hatred
- to refrain from any impulse to control anything outside my moral purpose
- to act out of benevolence whenever I’m afforded the opportunity
Well, that all sounds great! But why is this my moral purpose? There are utilitarian arguments to recommend these choices, but is it more solidly grounded than that? Does it rest upon some solid authority, or is it just my personal set of prejudices? Am I free to completely change my choices tomorrow?