Review: Epictetus

Discourses and Selected Writings

Epictetus (trans. Robert Dobbin) (Penguin)

Epictetus. Freed slave, logician, and stoic, is one of the many classical writers more often referenced than read. Epictetus’s name is bandied frequently when the subject of stoicism comes up. His writings were extremely influential on Marcus Aurealius (some of the writing attributed to Epictetus exists only in quotation in the Meditations) and that which influenced the great Marcus gets remembered.

This volume is made up of two works, the “popular” Enchiridon and the longer, more rigorous, Discourses. I read this, bizarrely, after having it recommended on a running blog. Unlike much of modern philosophy, the book is accessible and wonderfully funny. I do not read Greek, so I do not know if this is because Epictetus himself was funny, or if the translator, Robert Dobbin, took liberties with the text.

Now, before we go any further it should be noted that I don’t know jack shit about ancient philosophy, but that doesn’t stop me from writing about it fairly regularly. The rest of this review may read like undergraduate essays, but whatever.

I you are a new student of Stoicism like me, I’d recommend tackling the Enchiridon first. I would actually recommend reading it before the Meditations. It is short and accessible but not as poetic as the Meditations. Building from simple logistic formulas, the Enchiridon lays out the basic ideas underlying Stoicism.

Those ideas, put simply, are that there is that which we can control, and that which we cannot control. Identify which is which and live accordingly. Our emotions and actions are controllable; the actions of others and the ways in which others perceive us are not controllable. Make your emotions and actions coincide with your ethics, and don’t worry what others think of you. Pretty simple, right? Not exactly. Controlling ones desires line them up with ones ethics is no easy task; neither is not caring about what the emperor thinks of you. Much of this book is taken up with addressing just how one goes about living such a life.

Stoicism, and its obsession with self-discipline, could only have come about in a society of surplus. Those struggling to find enough food to eat don’t worry about whether their fine robes are making them soft. The enduring appeal of the school is tied to the enduring desire to rise above the pettiness of our everyday lives through control over ourselves. It isn’t an easy way to live, but it is one I find appealing. In moments of weakness, I imagine I will return to it for inspiration.

– Sean

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