Discourses/Encheiridion Analysis

Epictetus

Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

As far as is known, Epictetus left no philosophical writings. The Discourses is a transcription of some of his lectures made by a pupil, Arrian. Originally there were eight books, of which only four are known to modern scholars. The Encheiridion, a condensed selection from the Discourses, was also composed by Arrian. The Encheiridion is a good summary of Epictetus’s main doctrines, but the Discourses is rewarding for the vivid picture it calls up of Epictetus as a teacher. It catches the vigor and warmth of a wise and witty man in the act of informally expounding his philosophy. He wore his technical equipment lightly as he answered questions concerning practical difficulties, pointed out dangers in contemporary customs, and delivered short homilies suggested by current events.

For Epictetus, the goal of philosophy was not so much to understand the world as to achieve the good life, which, for him, consisted of inner tranquillity. The Stoics, of whom he was a representative, had a well-developed philosophy of nature, based on the Heraclitean doctrine that Logos, or Reason, governs all change. They were also competent logicians. However, their chief interest lay in personal ethics, to which they applied a knowledge of physics and logic. Inner serenity, they held, consists of conforming to nature (following reason) or discovering and living by the truth. Epictetus alluded to logic from time to time but rarely mentioned philosophy of nature. When he spoke of philosophy, he meant “philosophy of life.” In his view, the philosopher is the wise person.

Epictetus noted three stages in the achievement of the good life. The first concerns mastering one’s desires; the second, performing one’s duties; and the third, thinking correctly concerning one’s self and the world. He complained that students are prone to neglect the first two, which are the most important, and to overvalue the third because they are less concerned with achieving moral excellence than with gaining a reputation as disputants. As a result, the world is flooded with vain, passionate, fault-finding people who have so little self-mastery that a mouse can frighten them to death; yet they boast the name of philosopher.