June 2, 2023


I have gorgeous hair: a review of  The Complete Works: Handbook, Discourses and Fragments by Epictetus, translated by Robin Waterfield (Emily Wilson, LRB)

A short, accessible pamphlet, the Handbook (Encheiridion in Greek) has been the more popular and widely read of the two texts and can readily serve as a very short introduction to Stoicism. But you need to read the more expansive Discourses to understand the charm of Epictetus' version of the philosophy, which depends not on the regurgitation of Stoic doctrine but on the vigorous, humane and often funny interaction of the teacher with his students, and his insights into the concerns that impede their philosophical progress. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations were written by a misanthropic, warmongering emperor for his own edification, but Epictetus' kindness to his needy, self-pitying students is legible on the page. The Discourses are not easy to read straight through because there is no real structure or development, but they're wonderful to dip into.

Stoicism was a well-established philosophical system by Epictetus' time. Founded in the third century bce in Athens by Zeno of Citium, and developed by Chrysippus, Stoicism included logic and physics as well as 'ethics' - a set of teachings about the disposition and behaviour needed to attain well-being. The modern term 'ethics' may be a little misleading as a descriptor of the ancient field: Stoic ethics was concerned not with establishing a rational basis for moral judgments, but with the way an individual - usually imagined as a male, relatively privileged individual - could attain the best possible life, through making himself immune to the vicissitudes of fortune. The goal was 'well-being' - eudaimonia - a term that is sometimes misleadingly translated as 'happiness': for a Stoic, as for an Epicurean or a Cynic, well-being is not about feeling cheerful, but about control. The philosopher seeks ataraxia: a state of being untroubled, which could be attained by ridding yourself of false beliefs and aligning yourself with what truly matters.

According to the Epicureans, the true good is pleasure, of a moderate, balanced kind. For the Stoics, by contrast, the true good is individual human excellence or virtue - aretē in Greek, or virtus in Latin. Such excellence, for the Stoics, could be attained only by aligning your own will with the universe, nature or God (the Stoics often spoke of a singular deity). The central theme in the teaching of Epictetus is that we can and must choose to stop paying attention to things we have no control over. 'Some things are up to us and some are not,' the Handbook begins - foreshadowing the teachings of modern recovery programmes and the Serenity Prayer, with its distinction between the things we can change and the things we cannot.

For Epictetus, nothing is up to us except our own purpose, attitude or 'will', as Robin Waterfield translates it (the Greek is prohairesis): 'wealth, health, status - these things aren't up to us.' Rhetorically, it's no coincidence that these lists of unimportant things - there are many of them in the teachings of Epictetus - tend to focus on individual privileges that most people would agree are overvalued. An ancient Roman student or reader wouldn't be surprised to learn that it is undignified to be too concerned with money or prestige, or that the bravest, most noble man will show courage in the face of physical danger. Epictetus presents a version of Stoicism that often aligns with traditional Roman social norms, even if his expression of those ideals is often wonderfully vigorous. 'I'll cut off your head,' a tyrant threatens. 'Well,' the insouciant Stoic replies, 'have you ever heard me suggest that I'm unique in having a non-detachable head?' (Waterfield's clear, readable translation brings out Epictetus' humour and conversational tone as well as his philosophical vision. A preening man at one point comforts himself with the thought: 'I have gorgeous hair.')

In terms of behaviour, too, Epictetus' version of Stoicism posed no threat to existing social norms. Diogenes the Cynic had shown his contempt for convention by living in a barrel, wearing rags and defecating in public, but Epictetus recommends that his students adapt themselves with dignity to perform whatever social role they happen to find themselves inhabiting. This is not a philosophy to inspire a slave revolt, or a revolution. All anger - including righteous rage at collective injustice - is to be eradicated for the individual's peace of mind. The followers of Epictetus are supposed to do what is 'appropriate' (kathēkon), and he doesn't worry about what that is. Convention and tradition are good enough guides. According to Epictetus, the Epicurean ideal of a quiet life focused on friendship and moderate pleasure is 'subversive of the state, destructive of households and unsuitable even for women', but Stoicism will allow an elite Roman man eager to advance in his political career to perform his normal 'duties'.

The fundamental conservatism of Epictetus' teaching can be seen in many of his favourite metaphors: life is an inn at which we make only a brief stop; our station in life is a role in a play. Presumably, most of his students were privileged men; as Waterfield observes, the anonymous addressee is always imagined as masculine. The assumed student is usually a wealthy, privileged enslaver, whose problems include such trivialities as 'the slave' bringing water that isn't hot enough. Epictetus advises the student who has been 'assigned a somewhat higher station' in life to be 'just' and 'decent' in his response (qualities that are viewed as quite compatible with enslaving others). At the same time, however, he pushes back against the idea, present in ancient philosophical thought since at least the time of Aristotle, that some human beings are naturally slavish. The enslaved are the enslaver's kinsmen, Epictetus says, and they, too, are the offspring of Zeus; their subjugation is not justified by their supposed inferiority. The only real 'slaves' are those who have failed to follow Stoic teaching - including the philosopher's ostensibly free students. He hammers this point home by addressing the reader who is subject to the whims of passion as 'Slave!'

Posted by at June 2, 2023 2:41 PM