Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Encheiridion, or “manual,” is a collection of short essays representing the principal teachings of the Greek philosopher Epictetus. Born as a slave in Phrygia (now Turkey), Epictetus was brought to Rome by his master, who was an influential freedman of the Roman emperor Nero. Epictetus was permitted to study under the famous philosopher Musonius Rufus. After he obtained his freedom, he began to lecture informally on philosophy at Rome, where, however, he found few followers. Later, when Greek philosophers were exiled from Rome by Emperor Domitian, Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis in Greece and established a school that attracted large numbers of students. Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote nothing himself, but a devoted student, Flavius Arrian, transcribed his brilliant lectures and gave them the title Discourses; a considerable portion of this work survives. Arrian made a short selection of these lectures and published them separately as the Encheiridion. These two works, the only surviving examples of academic teaching by a Stoic philosopher, had enormous influence on the later development of this school of philosophy. Moreover, the Encheiridion, with its convenient distillation of the philosopher’s powerful ethical message, left its mark on the thought of a wide range of later readers who include Marcus Aurelius, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Matthew Arnold, and Adam Smith.
Epictetus propounded the philosophy of Stoicism, which is named for the stoa or portico in ancient Athens where the earliest representatives of this school congregated. A chief objective of Stoicism is to secure happiness by overcoming the confusion caused by the emotions and to demonstrate the liberating powers of reason. The earlier Stoics also frequently engaged in academic disputes about physics, logic, and epistemology. By contrast, Epictetus cultivated a kind of popular philosophical sermon called the diatribe. His message was directed primarily not at specialists but at students of philosophy, though in fact most of these students were, like Arrian, from aristocratic families. Accordingly, the Encheiridion in its fifty-three short chapters seeks to encourage, to exhort, even to convert readers to the philosopher’s life. Some scholars have emphasized Epictetus’s beginnings as a slave and the influence of that experience on his teaching. Indeed, while the Encheiridion’s emphasis on the liberating power of reason is consistent with the writings of other Stoics, the personal style of the diatribe frequently suggests that the author was familiar with the realities of enslavement. Another striking difference between Epictetus and earlier Stoics is the religious tone in his work. Because he viewed reason as an aspect of the universe and of the divine, Epictetus demands a virtual conversion to philosophy. He goes far beyond philosophical predecessors in expecting his readers not merely to study philosophy but to ensure that each step taken in life is in harmony with divine reason.
The Encheiridion opens with a discussion of this important theme of the liberating power of reason, which allows people to differentiate between those aspects of life that can and those that cannot be controlled. Human attitudes, choices, desires, and aversions can be controlled through the exercise of reason; possessions, bodies, and lives cannot. True happiness can be secured only by abandoning the frustrating pursuit of or flight from the uncontrollable things. Control of desire and of aversion is key to the philosophy of Epictetus. Reason will tell people, for example, that if a piece of pottery they admire breaks, that pottery was merely something subject to breakage. Similarly, if a beloved child or spouse dies, reason will remind individuals that the loved ones were mortal and were subject to death. People seek to avoid what they think is harmful, but reason reveals that this perception actually resides in the human being, not in the thing itself. Epictetus applies the same analysis to the petty annoyances of life as to the fear of death: Whatever cannot be controlled should not be seen as dreadful. A famous dictum of Epictetus offers a summation of his teaching: “It is not things that disturb human beings, but their attitudes toward things.”
The Encheiridion cites numerous everyday...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Arnold, E. V. Roman Stoicism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A valuable work on the development of Stoicism during the Roman Empire. Notable for its careful choice of citations in recounting Epictetus’s philosophy.
Epictetus. The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments. Edited and translated by W. S. Oldfather. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925-1928. Standard edition of the complete works with Greek text and facing translation. Translation is very literal and therefore useful to consult for difficult passages. Contains a somewhat dated but still important introduction, as well as extensive English indexes.
_______. Epictetus’ “Handbook” and the “Tablet of Cebes”: Guides to Stoic Living. Edited and translated by Keith Seddon. New York: Routledge, 2005. A new translation of Encheiridion with extensive commentary on the work, as well as a lengthy introduction providing information on Epictetus’s life and writings, Stoicism, and the key concepts in his philosophy. Includes a glossary of key Greek and English terms.
Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. Chapter 4 provides background absolutely essential to understanding the philosophy of Epictetus. Provides an accurate sketch of the main tenets of Greek Stoicism that were modified by Epictetus.
Scaltsas, Theodore, and Andrew S. Mason, eds. The Philosophy of Epictetus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Collection of essays examining various aspects of Epictetus’s philosophy, including his Stoicism and ideas about cynicism, the self, and morality.
Stadter, Philip A. Arrian of Nicomedia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. An interesting study of Arrian, who edited Epictetus’s works but was also a biographer of Alexander the Great. Deals with problems of the transcription of Epictetus’s lectures and provides insights into the period in which he lived.
Stephens, William O. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. London: Continuum, 2007. A study of Epictetus’s moral philosophy, focusing on his conception of happiness.