Discourses, Fragments, HandbookDiscourses, Fragments, Handbook by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But to begin with, keep well away of what is stronger than you. If a pretty girl is set against a young man who is just making a start on philosophy, that is no fair contest.

Epictetus forms one part of the triad of classic stoic authors, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Born a slave, sent into exile, never rich nor powerful, he certainly had more need of the stoic philosophy than Aurelius, an emperor, or Seneca, a senator. His course of life was closer to that of Socrates. Like Plato’s hero (and unlike Plato himself), Epictetus did not trouble himself with questions of logic, epistemology, or metaphysics. His concern was ethics; his aim was to learn how to live the best possible life. Also like Socrates, he did not write anything down himself. All of “his” works were set to paper by his pupil, Arrian.

In character, too, he is far removed from either Aurelius or Seneca. Aurelius’s voice is intimate and frank; he speaks as a friend. Seneca is sophisticated, suave, and cosmopolitan; he is easy to imagine as a witty dinner guest. Epictetus is like a sassy staff-sergeant. His mode is vituperation; he is a teacher who will mock and chide you into shape. The basic idea of his philosophy could hardly be simpler. His goal is only to instill this idea into your mind so deeply that it reforms your whole character.

What is his philosophy? The basic message is this. The external world is ultimately outside of our control. We cannot determine whether we will be rich or poor, whether our loved ones will die, whether we will be banished, imprisoned, or executed, whether we will be favored or persecuted by the emperor, whether we will get sick, whether other people will like us, or a thousand other things. The outside world—the world outside our minds—will always be able to overpower us, outmaneuver us, and surprise us.

Only the internal world is within our control. This is what Epictetus calls the “realm of choice.” We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to those circumstances. We cannot, for example, prevent ourselves from being robbed; but we can choose not to place value in our jewelry, and so maintain peace of mind in the event of a robbery. Everything, even our lives and our loved ones, only has value because we give it value with our minds. You can laugh at your own executioner if you don’t regard execution as an evil. This power—the power to change our attitude towards the external world—Epictetus regards as the ultimate and quintessential human faculty. This is the power of choice, and constitutes human freedom.

‘He has been taken off to prison.’—What has happened? He has been taken off to prison. But the observation ‘Things have gone badly for him’ is something that each person adds for himself.

He is unwaveringly concerned with the practical rather than the theoretical. This book is full of castigation for philosophy students who consider themselves successful when they can satisfactorily summarize and refute a logical argument. Logic is just a plaything, Epictetus says, and all this argument is entirely besides the point. How will you react when you’re in a ship that’s being tossed about in a storm? How will you react if you’re banished or if your loved one dies? How will you face death? Remember, he says, that books are ultimately just another external good, like money or power, and by prizing them, like any external good, we simply make ourselves victims of circumstances.

Epictetus’s stoicism is more explicitly deistic than Seneca’s or Aurelius’s. He regards all humans as children of God (Zeus), whom he pictures as running every detail of the universe. Thus a large part of his philosophy consists of acting in accordance with God. If you want to live in Rome, but circumstances prevent it, don’t whine and moan, but accept that God has other plans for you. If you go bankrupt and end up a beggar, accept this new role and play your part in the grand design. To reject God’s plan is foolish impiety. It is to overlook all of the blessing bestowed on you—not least life itself—and focus on one small part of the universe that you find unpleasant: “So because of one miserable leg, slave, you’re going to cast reproaches against the universe?” (Epictetus was lame in one leg.)

Although sometimes Epictetus pictures Zeus as a personal god, for the most part it is easy to see his Zeus as merely a personalization of the universe. In any case, Epictetus’s conception of death is entirely materialistic. There is no afterlife; death is the end of existence. But it is only an end from your point of view. The materials of your body will be released and used for other things. Indeed, says Epictetus, we really do not possess anything. Everything—our house, our family, our body itself—is just on a loan from the universe. If Zeus asks for it back, we would be rude to refuse.

Books like these can easily become moralizing and unpleasant; but this one is saved by Epictetus’s rollicking humor and puckish wit. Epictetus is often shown discoursing with a pupil, upbraiding, reprimanding, scolding, chiding, and finally encouraging. His style is distinguished by its relentless use of rhetorical questions. For a philosopher, he can be rather cheeky:

I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?

The only thing that makes this book occasionally unpleasant to read is its repetitiveness. The same ideas are put forward in a hundred different ways; the same theme is returned to again and again. There is little plan or order to the sections. There is no grand unifying scheme, merely a succession of chapters haphazardly arranged. I should admit, however, that this repetition can be partly excused by the need of a moralist to firmly instill his principles: “One should know that it isn’t easy for a person to arrive at a firm judgment unless, day after day, he states and hears the same principles, and at the same time applies them to his life.”

There are theoretical troubles, too. I could not entirely agree with his division of the universe into things falling within or without the sphere of choice. Surely it is more accurate to think of a scale, or a gradation, of things more or less within our power. We can minutely influence an election, we can somewhat influence our friends, we can usually control our bodies, and we can almost always control our attitude. Thus, instead of saying “Only worry about things within the sphere of choice,” it would be more accurate to say “Only worry about things insofar as your choices can affect them.” And then, even so, in practice it is so often difficult to tell whether we are fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities.

This is related to another theoretical weakness. The stoics make much ado about living in harmony with nature (or Zeus). And yet, how can anyone act otherwise? If we are a part of nature, and bound by her laws, how can any of our actions be out of sync with nature? Let’s say, for example, that you get banished from Rome. Epictetus advises you to accept your fate as God’s will and make a new life. To protest your fate would be to act against nature. But what if it’s Zeus’s (or whoever’s) will that you protest? And how can Epictetus know that, by protesting, you won’t be readmitted to the capital? Maybe your protest will be an event in the history of Rome and change the practice of banishment forever?

By this I am led to another potential shortcoming in Epictetus’s system: fatalism. If everyone is entirely responsible for their own peace of mind, and if circumstances play no role in human happiness, then there is no reason to help anybody or to try to improve the world: “If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.” Again, in this situation I think Epictetus’s hard division between things outside or within our control blinds him to the dialogue between attitude and circumstances that comprise human life and happiness.

The modern use of the word “stoic”—someone imperturbable, unemotional, unfeeling—is not entirely accurate as regards the original stoics. Seneca was witty, cosmopolitan, and certainly not unfeeling. Yet in Epictetus we see this stereotype borne out more accurately. The majority of these dialogues is concerned with avoiding disturbance and maintaining peace of mind. Epictetus is constantly warning his pupils what not to do, what actions, people, and things to avoid in order to be properly philosophical. Very little is said about the joys of life. Indeed, unlike Seneca, who was a fan of Epicurus, Epictetus repeatedly denounces Epicureans without seeming to understand their doctrine.

These criticisms are minor when I consider that this book is easily one of the greatest books on the art of living that I have yet read. So often Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to me, with frightening relevance. He is not interested in any of my excuses, but shames me into virtue with his sharp-tongued and good-natured scolding. And it is, perhaps, unfair to criticize the theory of a philosophy whose end is practice. For my part, Epictetus is easily the most powerful of the three classic stoic authors, one who I will be sure to return to when life tosses me about.

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