I 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”).