Arrian is the true hero of this particular story. Without Arrian to preserve the teachings of Epictetus (as Plato did for Socrates), readers at large would have been deprived of the Stoic Bible and then perhaps Marcus Aurelius would have taken the spot. It is a well-known poetical aside that two of the greatest writers on Stoicism were a Roman emperor and a Greek slave but speaking for myself, there’s more resonance in the slave than the emperor. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were Stoicism for the privileged. Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 A.D.) was Stoicism for the common man. Arrian’s transcriptions are naturally direct and to the point in comparison with the more leisurely paced Meditations and of the two it is the one to get my unwavering recommendation.
The reader may question why he should read either and not content himself with the “Death of Socrates,” which towers over both in fame and drama. The casual reader needn’t pursue the matter but Socrates was practicing an extraordinary Stoicism in the face of imminent execution. Epictetus is far more applicable for anyone wishing to learn the philosophy. And, though Plato was Socrates’ student, he was not himself a Stoic – the idea had not been codified into a school yet – and as soon as he had finished immortalizing his teacher’s demise, he moved on to other things. Arrian’s recollections of Epictetus feel more earnest – broken down into sayings and fragments, likely taking fewer liberties than Plato was bound to have done through the form of long, unbroken and dramatically conclusive dialogues.
The lowdown: Epictetus was born a slave in Phrygia (a portion of Turkey). He was owned by Epaphroditos, one of Nero’s secretaries, who is said to have deliberately crippled the boy. Reports vary, and considering that Epictetus was allowed by the same man to study philosophy and get some education, it could be slander as well as truth. Epictetus was freed after Nero’s death and taught philosophy in Rome for roughly 25 years, until Emperor Domitian banished him and all others in the profession, upon which he settled in the city of Nicopolis in western Greece and founded a school. He wrote no books, whereupon Arrian entered the picture.
The Discourses were originally eight books. Four remain. Arrian also assembled the Enchiridion from Epictetus’ practical advice. How much of it is true to the man? We’ll never know. As for Epictetus personally, very little is known. He was fairly hermit-like. He wasn’t married but adopted a friend’s orphaned child in his old age and got a woman to help with that. After his death, his personal lamp sold for 3,000 drachmae to an admirer (it’s impossible to adjust that for inflation, sorry).
Being a household classic, Epictetus is easy to find in editions from Oxford, Penguin, Everyman, Loeb, and the like. I, however, am stuck with the outdated Harvard edition: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, drawn from Arrian’s Discourses and Enchiridion and translated by Hastings Crossley, M.A. Turn-of-the-Century Harvard clearly wished to inculcate piety in its students and Crossley’s selections focus on Epictetus’ relationship with [the] God[s] and how achieving Stoicism is tied up in that. At times it is very much William Penn.
However, Epictetus mostly comes across less as a man of God and more as a thoroughgoing independent – something Socrates was not, as a man always willing to “serve” the state (though his idea of service was a bit weird). Epictetus would not tolerate discontent with life. In a way, he best shows how to be Stoic by showing how absurd anything else is in the face of an uncontrollable and capricious fate. XXXV: When we are invited to a banquet we take what is set before us; and were one to call upon his host to set fish upon the table or sweet things, he would be deemed absurd. Yet in a word, we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and that, although they have given us so many things! On occasion, his rejection of childish behaviour is given in quite humourous terms. When asked by an annoying student to explain the nature of good and evil, he plays dumb: “…of what? a horse, an ox?” Or LXV: When a youth was giving himself airs in the Theatre and saying, “I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men,” Epictetus replied, “I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!”
The material acquisitions, status symbols and class distinctions that humans place such value in are only those despicable laws of the dead to a true Stoic. It is not merely a philosophy of rejection and disparagement (though those come with the turf) – Stoicism places all value in the “soul,” identified as the longest-lasting of human features. Interestingly, the soul is treated as the seat of reason, so it is reason that is actually being revered. Reason and rationality separate us from the animals and raise us towards the Gods, so they said. Socrates claimed in going to his death to be following the will of Gods and Oracles, and that doing so was obeying perfect rationality. To modern thinking, this appears incomprehensible. Not to mention the tremendous moral pitfalls of rationality: So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do. (Ben Franklin).
However, Epictetus was clearly selected for the Harvard Classics because of reverencing the voice of Reason in the soul. A careful read of the first two volumes reveals they’ve been selected almost as a self-help manual for the pre-Carnegie era, all instructions taken from the writings of wise men. They mesh together remarkably well – after all, while Franklin may not have said (on controlling anger) if you succeed in passing thirty days, sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving, his program for improving was almost identical, based in the same cultivation of self-will.
Epictetus urged caution on those seeking improvement. To learn a little Stoicism is fine, but to claim on the heels of that to be a Stoic is delusional. If you have assumed a character beyond your strength, you have both played a poor figure in that, and neglected one that is within your powers. Or put less moderately: …why mock yourselves and delude others? why stalk about tricked out in other men’s attire, thieves and robbers that you are…
Ridicule and disparagement seem to have been part and parcel of this philosophy. The Golden Sayings is crammed with insult. He addressed this: A Philosopher’s school is a Surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For him it seemed absurd that a philosopher would apply for pupils. I apply to you to come and hear that you are in evil case; that what deserves your attention is the last thing to gain it; that you know not good from evil, and are in short, a hapless wretch; a fine way to apply! He believed philosophy should attract those who need to hear it, not sell itself to the idle curious (like me, through this book).
Among those to earn Epictetus’ disdain were readers. He stated that those who read “merely” for delight or a scrap of knowledge are poor, spiritless knaves. It was lucky for him that he never wrote, avoiding the deep ungrateful hypocrisy of all writers who insult readers. Arrian’s transcription in this case may spoil the effect. Or not.
The best thing about reading Epictetus is quoting him. Several good quotes must be withheld to keep this post at a manageable length. I will conclude with my favorite (IE, the one I happen to best agree with) on the subject of meeting people as opposed to merely seeing them:
Then you will say, “Yes, I met Epictetus!”
Ay, just as you might a statue or a monument. You saw me! and that is all. But a man who meets a man is one who learns the other’s mind, and lets him see his in turn. Learn my mind – show me yours; and then go and say that you met me. Let us try each other; if I have any wrong principle, rid me of it; if you have, out with it. That is what meeting a philosopher means.
Up next: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.