Review of Epictetus: The Complete Works


68 points | by diodorus 15 days ago


  • mitchbob 13 days ago
  • JenrHywy 13 days ago
    Although this article definitely some weird "modern academic" aspects, overall I feel like many of the commenters here are being uncharitable towards the author.

    Epictetus is by far my favourite of the Stoics I've read. The Enchiridion is short, acerbic, enlightening and funny. You don't get that much in philosophy, and I think that author clearly appreciates that.

    That said, in the end I think Nietzsche is right in his criticism: Stoicism works, but it limits one's capacity for joy because to tools you use to combat negative emotion unintentionally, but necessarily, limit positive emotion.

    I practiced Stoicism pretty seriously for a few years and it definitely improved my life, but once you've used it to build a solid emotional foundation, the Stoic tactics (which essentially involve always watching yourself for deviations from the Stoic path) limit your ability to experience extremes of joy.

    There are elements of Stoicism (like negative visualisation) that are easy to integrate into life and are pretty much only positive, but for me, full-blown Stoicism is something I only bring out when I need to re-establish that solid baseline.

    • zozbot234 13 days ago
      This whole idea that Stoicism involves combating or eradicating all emotions is pretty much a caricature. The Stoic approach is closer to withdrawing one's assent to excessive or inappropriate emotions, and thus not letting them turn into harmful "passions". In Stoic philosophy, a "passion" by definition involves some sort of (perhaps implied) assent, and some subsequent action (such as weeping in distress, or withdrawing in fear); in a way, the notion is comparable to what we might also call an impulse, or a drive.
      • JenrHywy 13 days ago
        You'll notice that that's not what I (or Nietzsche) said. I agree that Stoicism isn't about eliminating emotions, but it is about not letting them overtake our rationality.

        My contention is that to experience the deepest and most profound emotions requires you to submit to them, and Stoicism (very intentionally) prevents that.

        • zozbot234 13 days ago
          The Stoic notion of rationality is perhaps a bit counterintuitive. As Stoics see it, everything in our minds is "rational" as-is, including our deepest emotions. The relevant issue when deciding whether to assent or not to some emotion and its development into a passion is whether it comports with our nature and with virtue. Of course, the modern notion of rationality in its abstract logical sense has zilch to do with this - Stoics are nowhere close to aspiring Vulcans! (This is most easily contrasted with Plato's account, in which the adult mind does have non-rational parts - the "appetite", which is inherently in need of control and restraint, and the "spirit" which like the appetite is not per se rational but it is aligned with reason and against the appetite.)
          • JenrHywy 13 days ago
            Perhaps we've just read different Stoics. I think it's clear from many scenarios in The Enchiridion that the aim is to not become fully emersed in emotion. Some examples that spring to mind:

            - going to sporting events to be socially acceptable, but not allowing yourself to care about the outcome

            - comforting a woman on the death of her child, and making the outward appearance of sympathy, not not actually sinking into sadness

            I can't think of a single example of any of the Stoics I've read recommending becoming overwhelmed by emotion or experience.

    • elliotwagner 13 days ago
      could you share some of the books that helped you?
      • JenrHywy 13 days ago
        If you're interested in Stoicism, one of the benefits is that you can read (translations of) the actual Roman Stoics. I think the main thing is to find an author the meshes with you. A lot of people love Seneca, but I found him too long-winded and self-important (a bit like Polonious in Hamlet; where the advice may be solid by the delivery distracts from it).

        My favourite by far is Epictetus. This site[0] has many translations of The Enchiridion side-by-side. I'd read a few of the options, find the one you like and just read that (personally I like Carter, and sometimes Long). It's short - 53 sections which are mostly a paragraph or two. You can knock it over in a few hours. I don't know if this is "optimal", but the approach I took was to read it all through fairly quickly, then re-read one section a day (or so) trying to really understand it.

        Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is also quite readable if you find a translation you like. It's interesting to read the diary of an emperor as he tried to apply Stoicism to his life, but it didn't teach me anything that I didn't get from The Enchiridion.

        If you want to ease in with a modern take, I think William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life is decent, though he makes the mistake of adding his own more complex, and unnecessary concepts on top.


      • RamblingCTO 13 days ago
        Not the commenter, but you can read Epictetus directly, very easy. Otherwise How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci. Don't read any of that garbage from Ryan Holiday.
        • marginalia_nu 13 days ago
          Yeah. I too recommend it. Discourses is a very pleasant read. Epictetus comes off a bit as the "Dr House" of philosophy. He has a very unique tone.
  • bikingbismuth 13 days ago
    I’m not a professionally trained philosopher, but I have read and taken a lot of value from ancient stoic writers (Seneca in particular). I remember reading Seneca’s letters and feeling frustrated that he almost seems to get close to a denouncement of slavery, but the argument turns into more of a cosmopolitan one (in the stoic sense of the word).

    Having grown up poor (but checking some privilege boxes), when I first discovered stoicism it really helped me comes to grips with an unjust world. As I have climbed the social ladder, I find that the more things/privileges I have the harder it is to be stoic. I suppose this is why I like Seneca so much. He feels like a rich dude (I’m not rich but comparatively well off) who is working on not being a bad person. A lot of what I have taken from stoicism and Buddhism are lessons on how to develop a compassionate and just mindset.

    I’m fairly skeptical of reading ancient philosophy through a modern lens. This critique had a weird tone and it seems the author might be have an issue with modern proponents of pop-stoicism and a lack of impetus for collective action. I have seen a couple similar arguments going on in Buddhism around the idea of “big-tent” Buddhism and the question of whether or not Buddhism advocates for activism.

  • seizethecheese 14 days ago
    Reading Epictetus’ Discourses has had a profoundly positive impact on my life.

    One note, the authors claims Arrian wrote The Discourses over four books, but in reality it was eight and only four survive. This calls into question the scholarship here.

    • acabal 13 days ago
      That, and her characterization of Marcus Aurelius as a "misanthropic, warmongering emperor" and his Meditations as having been written "for his own edification" as if it were some kind of selfish or self-aggrandizing work worthy of dismissal.

      As far as I was aware, Marcus Aurelius had a reputation as a wise and temperate philosopher king in his lifetime, and was later considered the last of the "five good emperors". If he was a warmonger then let us remind ourselves that even in the modern day our leaders have spent the last hundred years waging war somewhere or another in order to maintain a sphere of power too. And Meditations was in reality his private diary - like any regular person would routinely keep - and was not intended to ever be published. Characterizing it like she did is uncharitable at best and misleading at worst.

      (Meditations is also an excellent read for those interested in Stoic philosophy.)

      • Viliam1234 13 days ago
        > the last of the "five good emperors"

        This is less of a compliment than it may sound like, because it is his own fault that he was the last.

        The previous good emperors each selected their own equally good successors (by adopting them, so that they technically became their "heirs"). Marcus ignored this tradition and left the empire to his crazy biological son, who immediately ruined it.

        • vondur 13 days ago
          I don't think Marcus Aurelius had much of a choice in the matter. If he didn't leave his son as heir, a civil war would have broken out. He probably looked at the example of the year of the four emperors and decided that was a worse choice...
      • nverno 13 days ago
        That line stuck in my craw as well. I can't reconcile her characterization of the man or what I've read from Meditations- it seems almost polar opposite to how I would describe it. In my mind he was about as ideal a leader one could hope for (judging from his writings alone).
    • ycombinete 13 days ago
      The great thing about the lrb is that their authors are usually subject matter experts, but so are many of their readers! Both can be quite opinionated.

      You can look forward to some acerbic letters about this article in the next edition (and maybe even a response from Willis too).

    • readthenotes1 14 days ago
      Epictetus has a lot of good things to pass on.
    • cocacola1 13 days ago
      > One note, the authors claims Arrian wrote The Discourses over four books, but in reality it was eight and only four survive. This calls into question the scholarship here.

      So four books? Seems to be a bit of a distinction without a difference.

  • seneca 13 days ago
    > This is the kind of problem that Epictetus’ version of Stoicism is designed to address: a privileged man is disturbed by the idea that he does not have complete control over every element of his existence.

    The gall of a modern academic to downplay the teachings of one of the greatest philosophers in history, himself a former slave, in these childish terms really shouldn't surprise me, but it still does. One of the most privileged and spoiled classes of people in history, and they just can't seem to help themselves but to attack those that actually accomplished things.

    • syntheweave 13 days ago
      It's a certain axe to grind that the post-Enlightenment academy has had from the beginning with virtue ethics: if we are to be utilitarian, or act according to the Categorical Imperative, then our duty is to attain omniscient knowledge for our own good. Acting within norms to attain virtue, as Epictetus would have it, is out. The way in which it's out changes according to which norms we want to critique, but the rhetoric of the article follows from there, and it's easy to turn that against the article itself by criticizing the norms it prefers(broadly, post-structural feminism) as a virtue signal.

      Wilson has also translated and critiqued Seneca, according to her wiki article. So I would see this writing as the next entry in a career-making exercise.

    • marcusverus 13 days ago
      Yeah a lot of her commentary seemed… off. Marcus Aurelius (who constantly urges the reader not to turn away from his fellow man, nor even to hold a man’s foibles against him!) is a misanthrope. Epictetus (who instructs the reader not to shed a tear in the event of a child’s death) is oh-so-kind!
    • emmelaich 13 days ago
      Did you misread that? She's not saying Epictetus is privileged.

      As a lauded translator of the Odyssey, (and soon the Iliad) I'm inclined towards a very good faith reading of her article.

      • Aidevah 13 days ago
        >lauded translator of the Odyssey

        For comparison, here is the opening snippet of the Odyssey done by several translators:

        Richmond Lattimore (1967):

          Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
          far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
          Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
          many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
          struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
          Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
          he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
          fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
          and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
          here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.
        Robert Fagles (1996):

          Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
          driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
          the hallowed heights of Troy.
          Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
          many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
          fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
          But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove —
          the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
          the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
          and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
          Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
          start from where you will —sing for our time too.
        Emily Wilson (2017):

          Tell me about a complicated man.
          Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
          when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
          and where he went, and who he met, the pain
          he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
          he worked to save his life and bring his men
          back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
          they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
          kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
          tell the old story for our modern times.
          Find the beginning.
        Peter Green (2018):

          The man, Muse—tell me about that resourceful man, who wandered
          far and wide, when he’d sacked Troy’s sacred citadel:
          many men’s townships he saw, and learned their ways of thinking,
          many the griefs he suffered at heart on the open sea,
          battling for his own life and his comrades’ homecoming. Yet
          no way could he save his comrades, much though he longed to—
          it was through their own blind recklessness that they perished,
          the fools, for they slaughtered the cattle of Hēlios the sun god
          and ate them: for that he took from them their day of returning.
          Tell us this tale, goddess, child of Zeus; start anywhere in it!
        • watwut 13 days ago
          Willsons is better, simple as that.
          • sparks1970 13 days ago
            Maybe it's a small thing, but Wilson uses the adjective "wrecked" where the other translators use "sacked" or "plundered".

            If that kind of loss of fidelity/nuance is typical of the translation then it's not for me. Maybe I misunderstood and this translation is intended as an easy-reading introduction for readers with reduced vocabularies?

            • theoldlove 12 days ago
              I agree I don’t like wrecked. The Greek is the verb πέρθω, which is used exclusively in Homer for destroying/plundering/sacking towns.[0]. Wrecked sounds like I got into an unintended accident and ruined my car — not at all the same connotations to my ear.


            • watwut 13 days ago
              No, it is meant to be accurate one to one line translation.

              The translator doing slightly different choices, often more accurate to original does not make it worst.

              And yes, it sounds better because it is translation to actual English. There is no loss of nuance here anyway.

              • davidivadavid 13 days ago
                I had the misfortune of coming across a bunch of tweets lamenting how "inferior" that translation is supposed to be — unfortunately, it seems to invariably come from people who can't read Ancient Greek, don't understand poetry, and don't even know what constraints Wilson adopted for her translation.

                As a (once) professional translator with some familiarity with the language, I'd like to reassure potential readers that it's a fine translation with a unique parti pris. It's in spirit probably closer to the original than some translations that may be more canonical, e.g. Pope's, but that have been criticized just as harshly (or more) in the past.

                • Amezarak 12 days ago
                  Nobody thinks Pope is “canonical”, they look at Pope as essentially a retelling or adaption. Wilson’s “translation” falls in the same category, except she doesn’t have the genius of Pope. I suppose this is what you mean by “parti pris”, but what’s tiresome is people acting like it is some work of art or “real English” as someone in this thread said.

                  I’ve not heard of Peter Green before but that translation doesn’t look to be great either, if the sample is representative. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that, translating Homer was a schoolboy/girl exercise for centuries but only a very rare talent ever got something beyond serviceable. Again, the tiresome part is people celebrating workmanlike translations for social reasons.

          • zozbot234 13 days ago
        • emmelaich 13 days ago
          They're all good.
      • Amezarak 13 days ago
        Wilson’s a “lauded” translator only because of the clique she’s in. In 50 years her mediocre translation will be forgotten in the dustbin of history.
    • aloneindecember 13 days ago
      I agree, and your username is hilarious and appropriate given this subject matter.
    • laratied 13 days ago
      I think it comes from a place of guilt exactly because of that level of privilege but over time it has morphed into a type of intellectual fetish.

      Like the person so involved in the BDSM community that everything relates back somehow to bondage or nipple clamps.

  • amelius 13 days ago
    I wonder what our emotions would be like from an evolutionary perspective if all our ancestors practiced stoicism from an early age.

    Would we be reasonable people?

    • Viliam1234 13 days ago
      From evolutionary perspective, merely "doing things for generations" has no direct impact on genes. (Otherwise, Jewish boys would be born without the foreskin.) However, it can have an indirect impact, if doing things is also associated with rewarding the people who do the things, and/or punishing the people who don't. For example, people living in a civilization have "domesticated" themselves by killing the criminals, i.e. the people who were least capable/willing to follow the rules of the society.

      So the answer depends on whether our hypothetical stoic ancestors in the alternative universe also rewarded each other for being stoic, and or punished those who failed to be sufficiently stoic. Because there would always be a few exceptions to the rule, for example people with new mutations.

      If the stoic ancestors consistently rewarded the people who demonstrated stoic virtues, for example by considering the virtues necessary for holding an important office or inheriting family property -- so that their more stoic kids would on average have better jobs, higher status, more money, and more kids that survived to adulthood (regardless of how much they would proclaim that things such as jobs, status, money, and kids don't really matter), and their less stoic kids on average ended up poor and childless -- then today, most of us would be genetically selected to be highly stoical. (Or perhaps, highly stoical until we safely get to the positions of power, and then corrupted by it.)

      However, being more stoic wouldn't necessarily make us reasonable -- perhaps the stoic civilization would develop their own unreasonable behaviors. For example, I could imagine a stoic society that opposed science and progress because "meh, we don't need all that fancy new stuff; the true philosophers are content with whatever they have". Or they wouldn't develop medicine and cure diseases because "the only important thing is whether in your mind you are free"; etc.

      On the other hand, if the stoic ancestors were like "eh, I don't care if that guy wants to be a king; I am okay with being a slave as long as my mind is free", then the stoics would be quickly outcompeted by... whoever showed up for the race.

      • amelius 13 days ago
        I mean choosing a partner to mate with partially based on emotional grounds has (over the course of evolution) turned us into who we are. Of course, practicing stoicism will change how we think and how we select our partners, and thus will affect our offspring, and thus who we are (after sufficient number of generations).
  • dash2 13 days ago
    I want to put some other commenters' discomfort with this article in a clearer form.

    It's an interesting piece, it tells you a lot, and clearly Emily Wilson has a warm appreciation for Epictetus.

    But the overall framing seems to be guilty of the condescension of posterity. Specifically, the tone is: "isn't it a shame that Epictetus, despite his wisdom, wrote for other male slave-owners?"

    There is probably a ton to say about the exact nature of slavery in Ancient Rome, how bad it was, etc. I'm not an expert but for sure everyone can agree that by modern standards slavery was not an acceptable employment institution. Set that to one side.

    Essentially nobody in Rome believed slavery could be abolished. And everybody in Rome wrote for privileged men. (Maybe because being able to read was, like owning a private jet today, a very expensive privilege.)

    So if you criticize someone for that, you have to explain why everyone else had the same blinkers. One answer is "of course that's because they were all privileged themselves!" Except Epictetus wasn't! And Romans did challenge slavery, but in different ways. St Paul doesn't say "let us have a revolution to abolish slavery" but he does say that in Christ there is neither slave nor free.

    It seems pretty likely that a Roman analogue of the Communist Manifesto - a call for the political reorganization of society - simply could not have been written. Perhaps Roman society was not centralized in the way that 19th century capitalism was, and so simply wasn't amenable to top-down regime change in the way modern societies may be. Or perhaps the intellectual resources of modern social science simply weren't available that would enable people to think in this register.

    If so, complaining that Romans didn't write the Communist Manifesto seems ahistorical, and kind of silly.

  • watwut 13 days ago
    The comparison of actual article and comments from apparently insulted HN commenter is weird. It is as if they read different article. Or as if HN really took offense on even praising articles if they are not literally fawning in every single sentence.