Epictetus vs Jesus on figs: the difference between philosophy and religion

The relationship between philosophies of life and religion is a complex one. I have argued on another occasion that they are not the same, primarily because one relies (mostly) on reason and the other (chiefly) on faith. Though of course there is quite a bit of good philosophy done by theologians, and a certain amount of assumptions in philosophical systems that need to be taken, if not exactly on faith, at least as granted axioms.

I also think that philosophies of life and religions have much in common because the latter must include a version of the former. Every religion has, at a minimum, two components: a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world hangs together; and an ethics, that is, an account of how to live in the world. Those are precisely the two components also present in every philosophy of life, with the metaphysics either explicit or assumed as background.

Recently, a follower on Twitter -- “Sunday Stoic” -- threw my way a pertinent morsel that I couldn’t pass commenting on, both because it concerns the contrast between philosophy and religion, and because it is about figs out of season, the notion that inspires the title of this site.

The morsel in question comes from a well known passage in the Gospel of Mark:

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ … In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!’ ‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:12-14 & 11:20-25)

There are several interesting things to highlight here. In the first place, and most obviously, the fact that Jesus got impatient with the natural cycle of things (which, being God, he presumably established in the first place), and this is what led him to curse the fig tree. Second, I usually think of miracles as suspensions of the laws of nature that bring about positive results, but this is an example of a destructive miracle, so to speak. Third, Jesus clearly presents his disciples with a metaphysics very different from the Stoic one (and sort of reminiscent of the one underlying “The Secret”), according to which wishing, or really believing, something will actually make it happen (through the agency of God, in this case). Not at all the sort of cause-effect that the Stoics subscribe to.

Now let’s contrast Jesus with Epictetus. He uses the metaphor of figs in or out of season in two important passages of the Discourses:

Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily? (Discourses I, 15.7-8)


You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time. (Discourses III, 24.86)

The first passage is almost a direct rebuke of Jesus (not that Epictetus had the Christians in mind at the time, since they were still a small Jewish sect of no consequence in broader Roman society). He tells his students that good things naturally require time. Figs are excellent fruits, delicious and nutritious, but one has to wait for them to mature before one can enjoy them. The same, Epictetus says, goes for human abilities, particularly the ability to reason correctly, which of course is fundamental to the practice of Stoicism.

The second passage constitutes one of the crucial teachings of Stoic philosophy. This and similar ones from Epictetus are often taken as evidence by our critics that Stoicism is an uncaring and unemotional philosophy. But it takes quite a bit of wilful ignorance of the context to make such a charge. Epictetus is simply reminding us of the reality of things: everything passes, panta rhei, as Heraclitus famously put it. Which means that friends and relatives will also be gone at some point (and, of course, so will we). But this dose of frank realism is no reason for desperation. On the contrary, it’s an enticement to live hic et nunc, here and now. Now is the season to enjoy your friends, your daughter, your partner. Appreciate the beautiful, nutritious figs that life gives while they are there for you. If you wait too long, they’ll be gone, and you’ll be like a fool wishing for things that are impossible (like someone who thinks “that what they say will happen [because] whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”)

Jesus was no god because gods, I think, don’t exist. But he certainly was a wise and good human being, on par with Socrates and Buddha. Contra so many so-called New Atheists I respect people who believe even though I disagree with them, and I do acknowledge that religion has done a lot of good in the world (and a lot of bad, but that goes for other ideologies as well). That said, the contrast I highlighted in this essay is precisely why I’ll take Epictetus over Jesus any day. Besides, since Epictetus doesn’t claim divine origins, and the Discourses are not scripture, I am free to part ways with him whenever I think he got things wrong. As Seneca splendidly put it:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road -- but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (Letters XXXIII.11)


P.S.: I’m aware of the existence of a number of theological interpretation of Mark’s passages, including the traditional one -- that the episode simply demonstrates Jesus’ power over nature -- and the reformed one, according to which the fig tree represents the Jewish nation, which is no longer producing God’s glory, and needs therefore (rather ominously, given the events of two millennia later) to “wither.” None of this changes my arguments above, since they focus on the deployment of contrasting metaphors about figs out of season.

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