Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
Epictetus’s Encheiridion is an example of practical philosophy in the broadest meaning of the term: learning how to live a right and good life. “Philosophy” here is more like popular psychology or counseling than an academic discipline. The Greek term enkheiridion (meaning “knife” or “dagger”) later came to signify a manual or handbook (that is, something carried in the hands). The book was recorded by Epictetus’s follower Arrian (ca. 125 CE). Structurally, it was originally organized quite loosely, but in the sixth century, Simplicius divided it into four parts, thus giving the book its final form and thematic composition.
Though a Stoic himself, Epictetus differs from the early Stoics in that he aims his moral handbook at situations of daily routine, giving practical counsel rather than picturing an absolute image of a wise man. His instruction is addressed to unsophisticated learners who are far from the public arena from which he calls his readers to depart and to lead a quite and unnoticeable life.
Two ideas that are significant for the later ethics are clearly seen in Encheiridion. First, the idea of vocation, which is presented by means of the image of an actor:
Remember that thou art an actor in a play of such a kind as the teacher (author) may choose; if short, of a short one; if long, of a long one: if he wishes you to act the part of a poor man, see that you act the part naturally; if the part of a lame man, of a magistrate, of a private person, (do the same). For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part, belongs to another.
Hence, the second idea: the world is a theater. However, there is one important divergence from the Renaissance function of this image. In the context of the Renaissance, the key is a possibility of the change of the masks. We are actors, and thus we perform in various roles. We are not identical to the parts we play. As for Epictetus, however, the issue is choosing oneself, identifying with the role, and becoming the role itself:
Immediately prescribe some character and some form to yourself, which you shall observe both when you are alone and when you meet with men.
The idea of the theater here means that we have no control over the performance or the will of the stage manager. We are just actors who are destined to play our own respective parts. The only question is how we are going to play them.
By accepting the boundaries delineated by nature, Epictetus refrains from crossing them. This accounts for the almost complete absence of metaphysics in Encheiridion. On the other hand, a pronounced theistic approach is evident in the way the author handles his subject.
This, in turn, explains why many people of faith have been attracted to this relatively small book. For example, Saint Augustine must have been familiar with it, as he was critically engaged with Stoicism. He himself wrote a treatise, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, which betrays some of the structural features common to Epictetus’s book.