Nightingale’s song

Last Monday, and again yesterday, I discussed a colleague’s anecdote about the insistence of his students that human life has no purpose.  In amazement, he asked, “So, if I were to tell you that the Westminster Confession says the chief end of man is to glorify God and love him forever, you would say I was crazy?”

Another reader comments, “I found this post interesting for several reasons, most especially the resemblance of the Westminster Confession to the following passage:  ‘If I were a nightingale I would sing like a nightingale; if a swan, like a swan.  But since I am a rational creature my role is to praise God.  This is my task.  I do it, and shall not desert this post, as long as it will be given me to fill it; and I exhort you to join me in this same song.’

He continues, “It comes from Epictetus (Discourses, 1.16.20).  I find it striking, and curiously moving, that a pagan philosopher with no investment in Judeo-Christian belief should find it natural as birdsong that the rational intellect be ordered not just to contemplation but to the praise of God, even allowing his notion of God to be seriously incomplete.  I wonder whether some of those students perched in their high-chairs might take off the spoon of the Stoics the same food they would spit if offered by the Christian tradition.”

Whether they are more troubled by the spoon or by the taste of the food itself – that is the question, isn’t it?  Epictetus says a little later (2.14.11), “Now the philosophers say that the first thing we must learn is this: That there is a God, and that He provides for the universe, and that it is impossible for a man to conceal from Him, not merely his actions, but even his purposes and his thoughts.”