Epictetus, a bit of an anti-intellectual?

Epictetus-2I have commented before that Epictetus seems to be one of the most Cynic-leaning of the Stoics, and indeed it sounds like at times that tendency leads him almost to what by today standards would qualify as anti-intellectualism.

This is particularly evident in Book IV, section 4 of the Discourses, which begins:

“Remember, it isn’t just desire for power and money that makes a man humble and deferential towards others, but also desire for the opposite – for a life of peace and quiet, of travel and scholarship. It is a general rule that externals of any kind, if we attach importance to them, make us subject to somebody.”

Fair enough, as far as it goes, but once again Epictetus fails to make the distinction between preferred and dispreferred indifferents, treating everything outside of virtue in the same manner. Just imagine Seneca writing something like this!

It gets worse. A few sentences later Epictetus becomes more explicit:

“Why do you want to read anyway – for the sake of amusement or mere erudition? Those are poor, fatuous pretexts. Reading should serve the goal of attaining peace; if it doesn’t make you peaceful, what good is it?”

This reveals a rather overly narrow view of human life, and moreover it isn’t very useful: what if I find peace by reading good literature, for instance (which I do)? And how am I supposed to study physics and logic — the other two pillars of the Stoic curriculum outside of ethics — without reading? And what, exactly, is wrong with amusement, as long as one doesn’t think it is conducive to virtue?

“‘Isn’t reading a kind of preparation for life?’ But life is composed of things other than books.”

No kidding. And yet here I am, trying to absorb the wisdom of Epictetus and attempting to deploy it in my own life, by, you guessed it, reading about it!

“Or it’s as if, in the matter of assent, when faced with impressions, instead of distinguishing which ones are convincing and which are not, we prefer to read a book entitled On Comprehensive Impressions.”

Again, Epictetus seems to go too far: it is one thing to say that reading or studying by themselves will  not make one virtuous and eudaimonic. But it is downright anti-intellectual and contra to the very spirit of philosophy to suggest that one can simply practice without the aid of theory. Take the theory away, and there is no such thing as Stoicism.

“And rather than reckon, as we are used to doing, ‘How many lines I read, or wrote, today,’ we would pass in review how ‘I applied impulse today the way the philosophers recommend, how I desisted from desire, and practised aversion only on matters that are under my control.”

We don’t need to do one rather than the other! That’s a false dichotomy. Theory and practice continuously feed into each other, with the theory setting up why certain practices are good or wise to begin with, and practice in turn modifying theory according to what does and does not work.

Later on Epictetus seems to mollify his attitude a bit, though:

“I cannot call somebody ‘hard-working’ knowing only that they read and write. Even if ‘all night long’ is added, I cannot say it – not until I know the focus of all this energy.”

This is much more in synch with what I think of as Stoic doctrine: the entire philosophy, even the theoretical parts, is aimed at making human life better, so it makes sense that “working hard” on books only doesn’t really count, and indeed misses the point entirely. (But so, again, would “working hard” at practice only, with no theoretical guidance.)

The above is relevant because one of the attractive features (to me, at least) of Stoic philosophy is precisely that it seeks to strike a middle ground between the more esoteric “academic” (i.e., Platonist) approach, mostly interested in pure theory, and the Cynical one, which wants nothing to do with theory and is all about practice (even though this is, of course, strictly speaking impossible for anything that still wants to qualify itself as a “philosophy”).

10 thoughts on “Epictetus, a bit of an anti-intellectual?

  1. David White

    I think of Epictetus (from a single reading of the discources) as one of those charismatic teachers who delight in anecdotes and over the top phrases. So I imagine him lecturing his students, walking up and down with a lot of arm waving, and glaring periodically: “why are you wasting your time with those books boy – you should be listening to me!!” I think there would always be a twinkle in his eye.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    Ah, then again, just now going over my notes about earlier sections of the Discourses, I found this:

    “You say the speculative topics are useless. Useless to whom? Only to people who don’t use them as they should. I mean, salves and ointments are not useless to people who apply them when and how they’re supposed to; weights are not useless in themselves, they’re useful to some people, worthless to others.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 21, 20)


  3. Douglass Smith

    Re. “Why do you want to read anyway – for the sake of amusement or mere erudition? Those are poor, fatuous pretexts. Reading should serve the goal of attaining peace; if it doesn’t make you peaceful, what good is it?”

    You say you gain peace by reading good literature, and imply that you gain peace by reading about Stoic theory. To me therefore it sounds as though you are agreeing with the spirit of Epictetus in this passage.

    Perhaps I am reading it out of context, but I read him here as saying, “IF you read for the sake of amusement or mere erudition THEN you are not aiming at the right goal.” That is, amusement and erudition are not in themselves proper ends. They are proper ends insofar as they lead to peace, but not otherwise. Hence if your reading (or your amusement or erudition) does lead to peace, it is good. Otherwise not.

    If this is what Epictetus is saying (and I am no expert on Stoicism!), it strikes me as wise and quite in the spirit of early Buddhism in fact.

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Doug, good point. It could also be something along the lines of what David wrote above. And the two interpretations aren’t even necessarily incompatible…

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  5. Douglass Smith

    One question would be then whether literature (or artwork generally) that stirred up emotions and therefore did not bring peace was worthwhile. There is an interesting passage where the Buddha basically condemns actors who intoxicate us by arousing desire, hatred, or delusion. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.2). We may be able to formulate ways that such works are at times morally worthwhile, even morally exemplary, but I think it’s too quick simply to dismiss the charge out of hand.

    Also as regards erudition, I think it is probably anachronistic to talk about the ways that erudition for its own sake has enabled us to improve life through basic science. Nevertheless perhaps the point can be made nowadays that some mere erudition may be worthwhile under certain circumstances. I would not want to take that too far because mere erudition may become a kind of delusion, diverting one from the goal of attaining wisdom. It also all too often manifests as a form of intellectual greed, piling up facts for their own sake like piling up dollars in the bank, becoming a crutch for egoism.


  6. Michael Baranowski

    Another possible interpretation might be that Epictetus was attempting to correct the tendency among his students – and, one might argue, among philosophers up to this day – to over-intellectualize and live inside their heads. As such, he may have felt that a strong corrective was necessary. Epictetus wasn’t writing this himself, but rather speaking, which we may be important in this context. Perhaps if we consider this a rhetorical strategy it makes more sense than if we evaluate it as a text.

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  7. sethleon2015

    I agree with Douglass and Michael. In my reading of these quotes from Epictetus I don’t see any where that he advocates elimination of theory or reading. I see him as guarding against the traps of falling into too much attachment to abstraction, and cautioning how this can separate one from the goal of virtuous action and behavior.

    This seems very appropriate to me for any teacher of a virtue ethics based philosophy since the nature of their occupation/position puts them in a position of transferring abstract ideas to students. The tendency of most students I think is to become overly attached to their teachers ideas. The ideas are important, but only to the extent that they ultimately lead to virtuous behavior, and finding peace/equanimity precedes virtuous acts. Douglas finds this close to early Buddhist teachings, I again find it very close to what Zhuangzi advocates.


  8. Massimo Post author

    Douglass, Michael, Seth,

    all very good points. I’ll keep them in mind while re-reading more Epictetus and the other Stoics. This is what I appreciate in this forum: we are here to exchange ideas and learn, not to show others how smart we are and how wrong they are.

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  9. Pingback: Epictetus’ Fragments | How to Be a Stoic

  10. Gabriel Lucatero

    Hey! Whoever you are. Today I was reading one of Epictetus’ books (previously I read Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) and like you, I realized Epictetus sounds too much of a Cynic.
    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for writing this article; you made me realize I’m not crazy.


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