Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Discourses and Enchiridon

Discourses and Enchiridon, Epictetus
© 1967, translated W.A. Oldfather

Stoicism might be introduced to the lay reader as Buddhism for the west. Students of Stoicism often take inspiration from Buddhist philosophy, given the common emphasis on mindfulness and freedom from desire. The original teachings of Stoicism have been lost to history, but modern students may rely on the works of its later students -- particularly, Roman authors like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus.  Aurelius and Epictetus are our greatest sources for Stoic thought, but despite the fact that I've been a student of Stoicism since 2008, I've never given his works a proper reading beyond Sharon Lebell's interpretation of his Handbook (Enchiridon), The Art of Living.

The Discourses are more substantial than the Meditations of Aurelius or Lebell's handbook: while those two are collections of short aphorisms, sayings, and thoughts,  the Discourses consist of lectures and dialogues collected one of his students. In addition to lecturing on detachment, self-discipline, and the pursuit of virtue, Epictetus also works through basic logic with his students. Someone completely new to Stoicism might be better off reading William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life, which introduces the philosophy to modern audiences, but it's still accessible to newcomers. Epictetus' central idea is that there's essentially two types of things in life: that which we control, and that which we can't. We can't control what happens (either around us or to us), or what other people do -- but we can control our reaction, and  this is the important matter. To the Stoics, the only good is virtue: it is its own reward as well as its own mandate, meaning that virtuous behavior is wise behavior and wise behavior recommends itself.  Epictetus' emphasis on detachment is notable: for him, the body is literally just a vessel which his spirit is being carried around in, and it matters not to him whether that vessel is broken or burned. It gives him self-assurance in the face of threats of physical violence. He is very much the teacher, constantly advising his students to train their will, and often making allusions to physical training. In this translation Epictetus comes off as a sarcastic old cuss with a no-nonsense attitude who emphasizes the importance of putting philosophy into practice, not just studying it.

Epictetus' voice has been a sobering source of strength in the past few weeks as I read through it, and I recommend this collection to students of philosophy.

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