Anthony Long is one of the best modern writers on Stoicism, and we have already encountered him when I wrote about his essay on Spinoza and Stoicism. In this and the next post I will comment on Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. While the entire book is well worth reading, I will focus here on chapter 1, “Epictetus in his time and place,” and next time on the epilogue, “The afterlife of Epictetus.”
Long sets the stage by inviting us to imagine the school founded by Epictetus after his exile from Rome, situated in Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece. It is there that his student Arrian took the copious notes that eventually became the Discourses and the Handbook (the latter of which, Long reminds us, never went out of print).
Epictetus’ “philosophy is not so much expounded as lived, made urgent and even disturbing by his remarkable personality and powers of expression.” As a teacher, “to engage their attention, he intersperses quiet reflections with histrionic wit, hyperbole, and Swiftian pungency.”
Long helps the reader understand Epictetus by writing about his life, the cultural context in which the philosopher operated, especially the philosophical battles being waged among Stoics, Epicureans, Aristotelians and Skeptical Platonists, as well as the influence that his teacher Musonius Rufus had on him.
Of Epictetus himself, Long says that his philosophy was principally Socratic, with evident Cynical influence; that he was a down to earth rationalist; and that he talked of God in a way that reflected a combination of his personal experience and Socratic piety (adding that there is no reason to think he was influenced by the then nascent Christian sect).
Next, Long goes into a more in-depth presentation of Stoicism as a dominant Hellenistic philosophy, into its structure as a theoretical curriculum, it’s value as a practical guidance for life, and its differences with rival schools. I will not comment further on that section of the chapter because this entire blog is essentially devoted to its subject matter, but Long’s summary is very clear and useful, both for the initiated and the novice.
The most interesting part of the chapter introduces what Long thinks are four unifying concepts that characterized Epictetian philosophy, and which he then explores throughout the rest of the book.
1. Freedom. “The freedom that interests Epictetus is entirely psychological and attitudinal. It is freedom from being constrained or impeded by any external circumstance or emotional reaction. … This freedom, Epictetus proposes, is available to all human beings who are willing to understand certain facts about nature and their own identity and cultivate a corresponding character and outlook.”
2. Judgment. “Epictetus regards all mental states, including emotions, as conditioned by judgements. … How we experience the world, and how we experience ourselves, depends through and through on the judgements we form … The crucial idea is that we do not experience the world without the mediation of our own assessments. … By intruding evaluative judgements onto events, people make essentially neutral or indifferent circumstances bad or good.”
3. Volition. “The crucial idea is that volition is what persons are in terms of their mental faculties, consciousness, character, judgements, goals, and desires: volition is the self, what each of us is, as abstracted from the body. … We, our essential selves, are our volitions. In that domain, and only in that domain, we have the possibility of freedom. … What is required of anyone who wants genuine freedom is to transfer all wants, values, and attachments away from externals and situate them within the scope of one’s volition. … Everything that falls outside the individual’s volition, including family, status, country, the condition of one’s body, material prosperity — all of these are inessential to its perfection and the freedom or happiness that this perfection constitutes.”
4. Integrity. “A cluster of terms Epictetus repeatedly uses that can be rendered by such words as shame, reverence, trustworthiness, conscience, decency. … Integrity bridges the gap for Epictetus between egoism and altruism; or, better, it closes the gap. … Integrity involves honouring all of one’s ties to kin, social roles, and other acquired relationships.
The above summaries are definitely worth keeping in mind whenever we wish to go back to Epictetus, and they also encapsulate the main ways in which the sage from Hierapolis departed from Stoic canonical precepts, for instance in a more Cynic-like de-emphasizing of externals, or what Stoics usually refer to as “preferred indifferents,” like health, wealth, and education.
Long concludes the chapter with some additional interesting notes on Epictetus in the broader context of Stoicism in particular, and ancient philosophy more generally. He agrees that Epictetus was not the kind of original thinker that, say, Plato and Aristotle had been. Then again, that sort of innovation comes only once in a long while in philosophy. But there is another aspect to philosophizing that is at the least equally important, if not more so: “Philosophical excellence probably has less to do with [Plato’s and Aristotle’s] kind of originality than with clarity of exposition, provocative and imaginative discourse, getting people to twist their minds in unfamiliar directions so that they rethink their beliefs and become open to what reason can offer them as alternative models of construing the world and their own lives. Epictetus’ voice in all these respects is palpably his own. … His philosophy [has] a distinctively ‘existentialist’ dimension because of the role it ascribes to individual responsibility, selfownership, and self-determination.”
Finally, Epictetus is gentle and tolerant of human error, significantly more so, arguably, then previous Stoics, as evidenced from the following quote, from Discourses 4.12.19, with which I’m going to close this first commentary on Long’s book: “It is impossible to be free from error. What is possible is to be constantly on the alert with a view to not erring; for we should be content if we avoid a few errors by never relaxing our attention to this objective.”