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The Manual (Enchiridion) and The Discourses (excerpts) of Epictetus

Ce qui d├ępend de nous - Epictetus

Epictetus (c. 60 - c. 125 CE), whose name literally meant "bought", was a Greek born in what is now western Turkey and became, we know not how, a slave in Rome. His last master, himself a freedman, allowed him to attend the lectures of the Roman Stoic philosopher C. Musonius Rufus and eventually freed him. Epictetus taught philosophy in Rome until Emperor Domitian banned all philosophers from Rome. He moved to Nicopolis in Epirus and started a school of his own, where he remained until his death, despite Marcus Aurelius' requests that he return to Rome.


Epictetus was a philosopher in the then already very old tradition called Stoicism, begun by Zeno in the 5th century BCE, and, according to those much more expert in the Stoic literature than I, was not himself a creative thinker. However, he knew the tradition well and adopted a tone and style of presentation which has appealed for nearly 2,000 years. Epictetus did not, in fact, write "his" books; they were written down by his student and future well known historian, Arrian. It is of interest to note that those who can read the original Greek report that the language used in the books attributed by Arrian to Epictetus is quite different from that used by Arrian in his own books, a good indication that Arrian might be reporting faithfully what Epictetus actually said. 


Not all of these writings have survived, but, unlike the founders of the Stoic tradition - Zeno, Cleanthus (Cleanthes), Chrysippus - of whose extensive writings almost nothing has survived, we do have a few hundred pages of these reports on the lectures and discussions of Epictetus. 


The founders of Stoicism were very interested in physics, metaphysics and logic, but there is little to none of that in Epictetus. He seems to be almost exclusively concerned with ethics, with what is the correct way to live, what are the correct values in life. And because he was co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church and generations of the oligarchy in Europe and America, reading Epictetus can arouse some very distasteful associations in one's mind.(*) So, above all, be careful of the translation you read.(**) Also, beware something called The Golden Sayings of Epictetus; that appears to be a cherry-picking of Epictetus made for the above-mentioned clientele.


In this book we have a recent translation into French of the Manual (also known as the Enchiridion) and excerpts from the Discourses (and a little extra, discussed below). The Manual is exactly what the title suggests - a short summary of Stoic dogmas with an admixture of advice and admonishments.


A central Stoic dogma: 1. There is a distinction between that which depends solely on us (that which is solely within our power to affect) and the rest. And precious little is on this side of the line; even one's body is on the other side of the line. 2. Don't be concerned with anything which lies on the other side of the line. Only that which lies on this side of the distinction matters and should occupy us. 


"Quant au désir, pour le moment, supprime-le  complètement.


(As for desire, for the moment, suppress it completely.) This is because that which one desires lies on the other side of the line. But even those things on this side of the line, such as urges, likes and dislikes, follow them only lightly, nonsystematically, without excessive effort. All attachments to objects, people, ambitions, etc. should not be taken as essential or important. In fact, one must constantly remind oneself that they "do not depend upon us," they are outside of our control, and therefore should be taken or left as they come and go.(***)


Another central, but related dogma: "Ce qui tourmente les hommes, ce n'est pas la réalité mais les opinions qu'ils s'en font."   (That which torments men is not reality but the opinions they make of it for themselves.) Our opinions do depend on us; we may change them as we will. Hence, if one feels torment, change your opinion so that you no longer do so. Epictetus grants, somewhat indirectly, that this may well be very difficult to carry out, which is why this manual repeatedly offers various concrete ways to develop this ability to become unattached. 


Another central, but related dogma: "N'attends pas que les événements arrivent comme tu le souhaites; décide de vouloir ce qui arrive et tu seras heureux." (Do not expect that events will occur as you wish; decide to want whatever happens and you will be happy.) Again, not at all easy to do. Hidden within these maxims is the prospect of an enormous mental and spiritual effort.


These are but a few samples of Stoic lore culled from the Manual. Stoicism has always posed the same challenge and exerted the same attraction upon me as Buddhism has.


The Discourses, of which only about half has survived to our day, present in a very unorganized, non-uniform and sometimes repetitive manner Epictetus' thoughts on many matters. These are reports of lectures and conversations. They are not all of equal quality, but altogether I find them to be very interesting. I intend to write a review of another edition I have of the complete (with the above mentioned proviso) Discourses, so I won't expand upon them here.


The little extra "treat" in this particular edition is Blaise Pascal's "demonstration" that philosophy is sorely insufficient, as is man, and both badly need faith in the Christian God. In this argument the books of Epictetus and Montaigne are taken to represent philosophy, respectively mankind. For Pascal, only faith can stop us from contemplating our weaknesses, as Montaigne did, and only grace can allow us to realize Epictetus' "vain and presumptuous" ideals.(****) I find this little addition to the edition to be of questionable suitability.


(*) When they translated Epictetus, the monks freely made substitutions (like the disciple Paul for Socrates) and chose wording which changed the content. In fact, I have an English translation from the beginning of the 20th century which makes Epictetus sound like he wrote Christian tracts... 


(**) I see that the Oxford classics series is coming out with a new translation of Epictetus in the Spring of 2014. I'm looking forward to it, because the other translations I have read in that series have been quite good and stripped of all the veneer that was smeared onto them earlier.


(***) Stoicism has many commonalities with Buddhism. In fact, at the beginning of the 17th century the Portuguese priest Matteo Ricci translated some of Epictetus into Chinese, because he felt they would recognize some of their own views. This was designed to gain their confidence, preliminary to pressing translations of the Bible onto them.


(****) In my opinion, and to put the matter with all due decorum, Pascal can stuff himself.