Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.03.33

Barbara Wehner, Die Funktion der Dialogstruktur in Epiktets Diatriben. Philosophie der Antike, Bd. 13.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2000.  Pp. 301.  ISBN 3-515-07434-1.  DM 124.00.  

Reviewed by Han Baltussen, University of Adelaide, Australia (
Word count: 2656 words

[The author apologizes for the delay in publishing this review owing to job change and relocation.]

The Diatribai 'Discourses' are a quite neglected work of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher from late 1st and the early 2nd c. AD.1 Epictetus made it his major goal to convince people what in life is under their control and what isn't, making his teaching a distinctly practical one. The discourses were preserved by Arrian, one of his students, as the result of teaching sessions in Nicopolis. Epictetus is of course better known for his Manual or Encheiridion, the ethical guide to conduct that influence Marcus Aurelius, Christian circles and much later thinkers, with a remarkable modern echo in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full (1998).2

Wehner's learned and detailed study (a slightly revised dissertation from Freiburg 1998/9) tackles for the first time a peculiar aspect of the diatribes, its dialogic structure, and tries to establish what role this method plays in the work. It is not light reading, as it still has all the marks of a doctoral thesis very much in the tradition of German scholarship (the attempt to be comprehensive, the extensive footnotes, the excessive structure). The central theme certainly deserves focused study, yet one wonders whether it yields sufficiently robust results beyond the individual analyses. It is really too bad that a study of dialogic modes of presentation aimed at engaging the reader has itself adopted little of its subject's attractive character -- something which might have given it a wider appeal. Now it will be accessible only to specialists (and perhaps advanced students) in the field.

The book has an introduction (ch. 1, "Forschungsüberblick"), surveying the scholarship, next a set of short chapters on its aims and method (ch. 2), Arrian's role (ch. 3), the dialogic nature of the discourses (ch. 4), Epictetus and his interlocutor (ch. 5), before the bulk of the book, which deals with the role of the dialogue in the discussions (ch. 6, pp. 79-248!). A short chapter comparing the dialogue structures in the Encheiridion (ch. 7) and a 'Results' section (ch. 8 "Ergebnisse") form the closing part. An extensive bibliography, and two indices are added (cited passages; index of names and topics).

The first chapter (9-21) presents the obligatory survey, in which there is little analysis by W., as she merely gives (non-committal) summaries of the research of the last 150 years. Here one finds mention of studies of the influence on Epictetus of Plato, Aristotle and early Stoics (1.1); analyses of his linguistic peculiarities, the genre of 'diatribe' and its connection with Cynicism (1.2); authenticity (1.3) and Epictetus' 'school' (1.4 "Epiktets Schulbetrieb"). Of interest is the evolution in the interpretation of the term 'diatribe' (sketched briefly on pp. 14-18), in which the older view of diatribe as sermon-like admonitions is contrasted to a more 'interactive' (my term) model of psychagogia, "Seelenführung", in the light of work by Ilsetraut and Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum. There seems to be a tension between the statement that 'there is no comprehensive analysis of the form of Epictetus' diatribes, which has been regarded as merely a reflection of the "diatribe" genre' (my paraphrase of first sentence on p.14) and the conclusion of (and repeated references to) Halbauer's study (1911) that "[H.] ... geht speziell auf den Epiktets Diatriben ein und kommt zu dem Ergebnis, dass der grösste Teil von ihnen seine Wurzeln im sokratischen Dialog hat" (ibid.). But W. indicates that Halbauer's work (apparently with an emphasis on rhetorical aspects) is very useful for further study.

Chapter 2 (under three pages) sets out the aims and method. I would have preferred this be placed at the start of the work, but, apart from that, the aims are presented in a sufficiently clear way, despite some odd distinctions in her perfunctory criticism of her predecessors (they are said to be superficial in their analysis, while she herself implies she is improving on them by looking at the dialogue structure -- without clarifying how this goes beyond the superficial). Epictetus' aim was to lead people to the best (τὰ βέλτιστα), which W. rightly interprets as a practical motto, ensuring that the theoretical positions are tested and applied within the context of real life. W. next claims that the dialogue structure will give insight into Epictetus' didactic method, without really clarifying how this would work.

Chapter 3 tries to establish what Arrian's role is in the transmission of Epictetus' words, given that Epictetus himself (like Socrates) did not leave any written works behind. The starting-point is a surviving letter in which Arrian seems to set out his working method. This account presents us with issues such as what the purpose of the notes was (for personal use?), what the method was of taking them down (tachygraphic system?), and how literal he was in reproducing Epictetus' words. W. polemicises against older views (esp. Wirth Museum Helveticum 1967) that Arrian's modest claim about publishing the notes is fictional, while putting it to the test. This section is very detailed, surveying the different diatribes and indicating where agreement with and disagreement from Wirth is called for, as one would expect from a PhD thesis. The final verdict (45) is that some reworking of the text is accepted but that not all are the product of 'fictional embellishment' (my term).

The dialogic structure of the Discourses is announced as the focus of chapter 4. A lively style combined with different modes of presentation (e.g. prayer, monologue, fictitious dialogue, quotations from poets and philosophers) make Epictetus' work engaging and diverse. W. sees Epictetus switch continuously between an declamatory and dialogic level of presentation. She methodically proceeds to describe some ways of address (4.1), and Q & A (4.2). These are well-illustrated with examples, but it remains somewhat unclear how the modes mentioned earlier relate to these two categories. Subsequent chapters deal with these, but again her method of subdividing the material is not helpful, as chapter 5 looks at exchanges between Epictetus and a single person ('Einzelperson'), and it's only in chapter 6 -- the longest and most significant -- that inserted dialogic parts ('in die Lehrgespräche eingeführte Dialogpartien') are dealt with. Such a form of analysis tends to fragment the text unnecessarily, making the reader lose sight of the integrated, complex and diverse way in which Epictetus pursues his goal of admonishing the immediate and potential audience.

Chapter 6 launches into an exhaustive and often polemical discussion of the 'Dialogpartien'. This is the core section and the most useful one. W. starts with 'das Selbstgespräch', probably best translated as '(interior) monologue', which is meant to represent a dialogue with oneself (80) and to facilitate the acquisition of self-knowledge (81). Here we come to the real meat of the treatise. Modes such as 'interior monologue', moral exercises, prayer, dialogue proper (especially with men of power), objections with various motivations, and quotations are systematically discussed, and there is much to learn from the detailed analyses. In a footnote we find that the verbs μελετᾶν and γυμνάζεσθαι relate to ἀσκήσις, and that the Latin equivalent is meditari (83 n. 16). There is an interesting comment on the role of writing in meditation (84 n. 17). Epictetus follows certain existing strategies of the cynic diatribe, such as the assumption that things and situations put questions to us (86), and uses concrete situations (περιστάσεις) to clarify and illustrate his point (88). Self-testing is another aspect of the monologue (93ff.), and habituation and exercise are very much a part of the approach here. The separate description and discussion of diatribes is too long to go through here. One feels that W. uses too many categories, which may lead to trivial distinctions which will not always aid the reader to better understand the nature of Epictetus' work (diatribes for positive and negative role models are part of one species). But the interesting side effect of the treatment is that it does bring out the diversity in Epictetus, and a summary of this section sums up well the main points.

Ch. 6.2 deals with prayer and fictitious address of gods to men. Here the personal image of god used by Epictetus and prepared by Kleanthes' Zeus Hymn is rightly emphasized (107). Prayers can express a willingness and preparedness for whatever the god(s) throw at us, which ties in with the canonical position that we should focus on what is up to us, leading to the paradox that full dependence on Zeus will guarantee the freedom of mankind (110). Their often rhetorical form makes dialogues persuasive tools for leading the student's soul in the right direction (but W. might have asked to what extent the rhetorical form is Epictetus' or Arrian's. Compare p. 251 where she speaks of "nachträgliche Strukturierung durch Arrian" in the Enchiridion). It is striking that questions to the god are often answered by the speaker himself (116), that the hymn is given a special place as form of prayer (120, 123f.), and that gods addressing men has to do with the position of mankind in the world, and its influence vis-à-vis the gods (significantly Diatribe 1,1 with its programmatic position is discussed here).

I give here a short outline of other themes in chapter 6 (pp. 136-247).

(6.3) Epictetus' relation to men in power is an important element in his work, and a considerable number of diatribes present fictitious dialogues with such 'Machthabern'. Here power is evaluated in its different guises, showing that the basic parameters of human life are not dependent upon political power but upon the ability to deal with life's contingencies and death. Political power is debunked in the famous passage in which Epictetus responds to a ruler by saying: "you can shackle my legs, but my will not even Zeus can conquer" (1,1,23f.). There are echoes of Plato's Phaedo here in the distinction between body and 'self' (see 137 n. 173), and it is an intriguing testimony to the emerging sense of individuality and awareness of self linked to personal freedom. This is also clear in the position that tyrants are not instilling fear, but our views about them are (141). W. concludes (156) that the results more or less confirm Geffcken's conclusion (Hermes 45, 1910) but adds some comments: one can distinguish between two kinds of fictitious dialogue with rulers, the one reflecting an actual encounter, the other not so. But more importantly, she emphasizes Epictetus' point that rulers, even though they possess power over life and death, have no influence on the self-determination of their subjects.

(6.4) Epictetus also makes use of heroes known from the Homeric epics and classical tragedies. They are not simply role models, according to W., but are put before the audience's mental eye as a means of bringing them to life, thus increasing immediacy (157). The conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon is given ample attention, showing that Epictetus gains in a lively style by re-enacting the dialogue between the two in a debate about right and wrong.

(6.5) An interesting and quite long section deals with the handling of fictitious objections. These are of course closely connected to the school context: any teacher will enliven the discourse by stating possible objections, sometimes to open up a particular line of argument or to switch perspective. W. claims there are indications to establish the difference between purely fictitious objections and those based on audience responses (176). Her argument is speculative in places ("Ferner wird es wohl kaum ein Schüler gewagt haben ..."), but in combination with suggestions from others, mostly plausible. She then launches into a long discussion of several types of objections, some of which again belong typically to the traditional diatribe (see esp. the notes to 177ff.). The types are (178-206): personal involvement (including fear for the future, for getting rid of certain habits); dissatisfaction (with one's fate, or one's current situation); comprehension questions; pertaining to theoretical discussion. This is followed by a critique of Schenkl's position about real and fictitious objections (206-16).

(6.6) Quotations and anecdotes compose the final part of ch. 6. In keeping with Stoic procedure Epictetus quotes liberally from Homer and the poets, but he also cites many short sayings and apothegms from philosophers. These may be given different functions over and above being rhetorical embellishment: they can be placed in a new context (221), underpin the argument (222-3), exemplify role models (226-7), replace his narrative as authoritative statements ('Ersatz für eigene Darlegungen', 237f.), and be mottos for life (238f.). Often quotations are left to speak for themselves. Anecdotes may also shore up the argument (243ff.), their exhortatory role (esp. of exemplary behavior) being dominant here.

This chapter is certainly the most rewarding, as it tackles the important aspects closest to the main theme. It illustrates well the lively, diverse and interactive nature of Epictetus' teaching. The interactive aspect is a surprising element in such a meditative enterprise and worth our attention, given that it seems to represent a fundamentally human wish to communicate about philosophical topics, a strongly Socratic element no doubt. Philosophy is often considered a solitary activity, but Epictetus tends to warn about how hard and lonely the exercises can be in order to acquire moral perfection, so it is not as if he wasn't aware of this. One imagines he was a lively teacher, who by 'role play' and concrete examples was able to catch and keep the attention of his students, while at the same time providing the tools and instilling in them the ambition to work on being a well-balanced and morally good person.

Two short chapters (7-8) bring the different results together. Ch. 7 draws a contrast with the Encheiridion (no reason given for doing it here) which is less connected to a dialogic context (teaching environment), gives quotations only in the last section merely as mottos, and in general is more apodictic than dialogic. Here Arrian is made responsible for the nature of the Encheiridion and W. asks why certain features found in the Discourses (e.g. dialogues with rulers) are absent from the Encheiridion. One is puzzled by such a question, since the differences would seem to flow naturally from the objectives of each work.

In ch. 8 a methodical summary of results is presented, listing in sequence the issues discussed in earlier sections: authenticity (undecided), dialogue structure and its varied forms (distinctions between "I", "you", "we"); Epictetus' superior role in one-to-one exchanges; modes of discourse as exhaustive range of means; the practical nature of instruction; the didactic imperative; the interactive and polemical nature. An overall characterisation of the role of the dialogue structure (instead of just listing the partial results) would have been a more powerful ending to the conclusion. W. does not fully realize her intention of focussing on the nature of the Discourses in order to determine whether they deserve to be labeled "Diatribes" in the traditional sense, though she ends up viewing the work as diatribe in a traditional sense, with the qualification that Epictetus has adapted it to more practical purposes from a Stoic perspective.

All in all, this is a learned and thorough study, which presents much of interest on the stylistic and structural features of Epictetus' diatribes and their modus operandi, but it is seriously hampered by its structure and mode of presentation, which make for a tough and sometimes frustrating read (esp. the bulky footnotes with many trivial points, too much polemic, and the imbalance in chapter division, which suggest the publisher should have recommended revision). That is really a shame, because it will probably not entice readers to delve into it, unless one is after some detailed analyses of certain parts of the Discourses (the elaborate index locorum will certainly help with this). Tom Wolfe's novel and Tony Long's recent treatment of Epictetus (see n. 1) are no doubt a better place to start (and, for most, to stay).

[[For a response to this review by Anthony A. Long, please see BMCR 2004.03.41.]]


1.   But see Robert Dobbin's translation, Epictetus. Discourses. Book 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 (not listed in W.) and the recent study of Epictetus and his thought by A.A. Long, Epictetus. A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford 2002), a very accessible book with a penetrating analysis of Epictetus' philosophical method and teachings (cf. the review by P. Adamson in Mind, 112 [2003] 363-366).
2.   See e.g. the (Neo)platonic commentary by Simplicius (approx. 530 AD) on it now available in translation by T. Brennan and C. Brittain in the Commentators on Aristotle series (Duckworth 2002, 2 vols), and G. Boter, The Encheiridion of Epictetus and its Three Christian Adaptations: Transmission and Critical Editions (Brill, Leiden 1999). A.A. Long (above n.1) states that Wolfe's novel got him back to reading Epictetus again.

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