Long on Epictetus, part II

City wall and gymnasium at Hierapolis
City wall and gymnasium at Hierapolis

I have recently commented on Anthony Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, focusing on the first chapter of the book, which ends up summarizing four basic themes recurring throughout the Discourses and the Manual: freedom, judgment, volition, and integrity. As I have already mentioned, the full book is well worth a reading, but I’m going to conclude this commentary by taking a look at the epilogue, on “the afterlife of Epictetus.”

Long begins with an explanation of why Epictetus’ work has been so enduring: “the authenticity of his voice, even when he presents theological and psychological ideas that we cannot endorse, is palpable. His moral seriousness and sharp observations transcend history. They are the principal reason why his work has been a real presence throughout the nineteen centuries of its existence.”

Stoicism as a living philosophy, Long tells us, survived Epictetus by about a century or so. But its traces can be found throughout the Middle Ages, into the Renaissaince, and finally in modern times.

The early Christians had — naturally enough — a critical attitude toward all Greco-Roman philosophies, but they recognized Stoicism, and Epictetus in particular, as worthy of admiration and even imitation: “Origen [early III century CE] … drew a striking contrast between Plato and Epictetus. Whereas Plato, he writes, ‘is only in the hands of those reputed to be scholars, Epictetus is admired by ordinary people who have the urge to be benefited, and who perceive improvement from his words.'”

In the 6th century CE, Simplicius wrote that the target readership of the Manual are not professional philosophers, but rather “those who want to be genuine human beings, eager to regain the nobility of their ancestry, with which God has graced humans beyond the non-rational animals — persons who are eager for their rational soul to live as it is by nature, ruling the body and transcending it, using it not as a coordinate part but as an instrument. It is to such persons that ethical and political virtues, the virtues promoted by these statements, belong.”

During the Renaissance, Angelo Poliziano undertook the first modern translation of the Manual, dedicating it to Lorenzo il Magnifico of Florence. Soon afterwords, the book was translated in German, French, and English. A Jesuit missionary realized its parallels with Confucianism and curated a translation in Chinese. The first modern edition of the Discourses was done by Trincavelli in Venice, in 1535.

Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) is famously associated with the neo-Stoic movement that attempted to revive Stoicism and reconcile it with Christianity. He used as inspiration Seneca and “the divine Epictetus.”

According to Long, Epictetus was at the height of his philosophical renown during the first half of the 17th century. He is cited by Pascal, for instance, who criticizes the Stoics for their “arrogant” idea of the perfectibility of humanity, which of course would make the whole point of Christianity — salvation through the selfless sacrifice of a God — moot.

Descartes, a contemporary of Pascal, was highly influenced by Stoicism, and by Epictetus in particular. Consider this bit, from his famous Discourse on Method:

“My third maxim was to try always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believe that there is nothing entirely within our power but our own thoughts. … In the same way, making what is called a virtue out of a necessity, we should no more desire to be well if ill, or free, if in prison, than we now do to have our bodies formed of a substance as little corruptible as diamonds, or to have wings to fly with like birds. … I believe that it is principally in this that is to be found the secret of those philosophers who, in ancient times, were able to free themselves from the empire of fortune, or, despite suffering or poverty, to rival their gods in their happiness.”

This is nothing but vintage Epictetus!

In the 18th century it is Joseph Butler who draws on Epictetus in defense of his articulation of the faculty of “conscience, moral reason, moral sense, or divine reason.” And Butler himself was anticipated in his appreciation of Epictetus by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who conceived of human beings as naturally benevolent as well as self-interested, just like the sage from Hierapolis had taught.

In the United States, both Emerson and Thoreau appreciated Epictetus’ non-conformist individualism. John Harvard left his copy of the Manual to the university he founded, and Thomas Jefferson ordered the full works of Epictetus in Greek for his newly established University of Virginia.

The poet Walt Whitman was not a Stoic, and yet said in 1891 that the Stoics “are especially needed in a rich and luxurious, and even scientific age.”

In more recent times, one of the major characters of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1998) turns to Stoicism, and Wolfe was influenced by the real life exploits of Admiral James (Bond) Stockdale.

Long ends with an excerpt from the Manual which, he says, needs no commentary:

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary. From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”

5 thoughts on “Long on Epictetus, part II

  1. “…make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside.”

    Is this Epictetus being somewhat ecumenical? This brief passage sounds like Irvine’s suggestion in his Guide to the Good Life that having a philosophy of life is important, whatever that philosophy may be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel Whitman’s Me Imperturbe shows a bit of a Stoic attitude toward misfortune–although he clearly had a different idea of living according to nature!

    “O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.”


  3. “He is cited by Pascal, for instance, who criticizes the Stoics for their “arrogant” idea of the perfectibility of humanity, which of course would make the whole point of Christianity — salvation through the selfless sacrifice of a God — moot”

    Original Sin, in its lower or anthropological sense, is truer to human nature, than any “idea of the perfectibility of humanity”. I think this is a necessary view as we take evolution seriously. Human characteristics are somehow emergent properties of evolution. Real properties I think those on this site would say, even as we acknowledge how difficult they may be to define. I think Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist Guide to Reality is something of a mish-mash.


  4. Robin,

    Interesting point, but I don’t see how the concept of original sin is congruent with evolution. We didn’t fall from grace, we evolved from simpler life forms.

    As for the Stoic concept of perfectibility, it just means that we can improve, not that we can become perfect (whatever that means). In other words, for the Stoics we don’t need deities to come in and “save” us. It’s a very modern, humanistic concept.

    Finally, the Stoics were thoroughgoing naturalists, and even proposed a developmental theory of virtue, which today can easily be reconciled with what we know of the complexities of nature-nurture.

    As for Rosenberg, I don’t think much of his book, I’m afraid: http://philpapers.org/archive/PIGISA

    Liked by 2 people

Comments are closed.