We have recently taken a look at Seneca from the Christian perspective, as expressed in C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. Rowe continues his analysis of Roman Stoicism with a theme-by-theme description of the philosophy of Epictetus.
I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.
It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.
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.”
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.”
I have recently summarized Frank McLynn’s take of how Marcus Aurelius got into Stoicism during his early formative years. I also mentioned that McLynn offers a highly critical and uncharitable view of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Here there is more, much more on that, from chapter 9 of his book, dealing with the Meditations and the influence of Epictetus.
“And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades? All roads are equal. But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.”
So says Epictetus in Discourses II.6.17-19, while discussing the kind of death that one does not choose, but is imposed by external events. (The reference to Hades is a concession to then popular culture of the time, since the Stoics did not believe in an afterlife.) Because death is a (dispreferred) “indifferent,” Epictetus is arguing that it doesn’t matter, really, deeply, how one dies. What makes us fearful of the event is the (inaccurate) judgment that it is a bad thing that one’s consciousness cease existing.
This is going to be short and rather self-explanatory, with no additional commentary on my part necessary at all. Here is the full transcription of Epictetus’ Discourses, II.25, a gem to keep in mind for future use: