Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.13

Keith Seddon, Epictetus' Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes. Guides to Stoic Living.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2005.  Pp. xiv, 282.  ISBN 0-415-32451-3.  £60.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-415-32452-1.  £17.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael Trapp, King's College London (
Word count: 2217 words

Table of Contents

This is a book which has not fully made up its mind what it wants to be; it is correspondingly hard to be confident one is reviewing it fairly. On the one hand, it is presented as a practical aid to self-improvement and enlightenment. Keith Seddon writes as one who is himself attempting to 'embrace and practise Stoic philosophy', and offers his translation and commentary of Epictetus in the spirit of the Cynic messenger 'sent by Zeus to save human beings from their folly and show them how to flourish in a way that befits their true nature' (Preface, ix-x). But practical aims are not taken as excluding academic scholarship, just as in S.'s other text, the Tablet of Cebes, the path to True Cultivation--proper awareness and the proper application of true values--is said by the old Exegete to lie unavoidably through (but through and beyond) the False Cultivation of higher education and the liberal arts [189, Tablet 12]. The overall layout of the book is academic: there is a list of abbreviations, glossaries, a twenty-four-page bibliography, and indexes; and individual sections to the commentary on Epictetus regularly end with a solid paragraph of Harvard-style bibliographical references.

(To be more precise about the contents. Following the prefatory matter--contents-list, Preface, Acknowledgements, and Abbreviations--the main body of the book (1-200) is divided into two sections. Pp. 1-172 contain an Introduction to Epictetus's Handbook (1-29), followed by the translation, with chapter-by-chapter commentary, and an accompanying list of 'key terms' at the head of each section of the commentary (31-172). Pp. 175-200 then deal with the Tablet: Introduction (175-84) and translation, but no commentary (cf. x-xi). The end-matter comprises three Appendixes (201-15), two Glossaries (one for each text, 216-42), the Bibliography (243-66), and two Indexes (key terms in Epictetus, and general, 267-82). The Appendixes contain (1) a translation of the Myth of Er from Republic 10, (2) a set of tables and diagrams covering the Stoic analysis of the passions, variant translations of some key terms (e.g. prohairesis), the principal exponents of Stoicism, and the layout of the Tablet, and (3) a 'page from the author's Stoic notebook'.)

In putting the Handbook and the Tablet together in this way, S. is--wittingly or not--following in a long and honourable tradition. From the late sixteenth to the eighteenth century the two texts were regularly made to keep company. Often, admittedly, they did so as part of a larger cluster, along with (for example) Theophrastus's Characters and selected pseudo-Pythagorean texts; but there are at least two precedents for just the two together, and moreover in English translation: Epictetus his Manuell and Cebes his Table, published in 1610, and The Porch and Academy Open'd, or Epictetus's Manual newly turn'd into English Verse ... by J.W., late of Eton College in Oxon. To which is added, Cebes's Table, never before translated into English Verse. By a Lady, which appeared in 1707. (The translator of the 1610 volume, John Healey, also translated Augustine's City of God, along with Vives's commentary, and as steward and tutor to a recusant Catholic family was imprisoned and questioned over the Gunpowder Plot in 1606.) Similarly, in offering the two texts as practical matter, taking them seriously as workable aids to self-improvement, S. follows a trend: not only in older publishing history, but also in more recent scholarship, from Pierre Hadot to A.A. Long. But he does so with a distinctive personal twist. For the majority of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editors and commentators, the attraction of Epictetus and Cebes was that they provided sound moral guidance for the young in easy Greek, with a theological underpinning (explicit or implicit) smoothly reconcilable with Christianity. Later twentieth-century philosophical scholarship has gone back to them with a more detachedly sympathetic interest in practicability and (in most cases) without Christianizing concern. S. for his part comes to them not just as a self-confessed practising Stoic, but as a neo-pagan, who can be found lamenting that '[t]he Pagan revival is as yet in its infancy, and most Stoics will find it difficult to locate venues where they can join with others in the worship of Zeus and the other deities of the Greco-Roman pantheon' (122); and he does so from a personal past that includes not only a PhD in philosophy and a teaching career in higher education, but time as a Tarot diviner (125) and as Director of the Center for Sustained Human Development, Hawaii (cv online).

Hence the academic reviewer's embarrassment. If it is most appropriate--most in tune with the author's own hopes and intentions--to take this as essentially a devotional work, then there is not much more that can properly be said, once the potential reader/purchaser has been alerted to what she is going to find. Whatever works for you. On the other hand, if the book is also aimed at an academic readership, then it invites more elaborate assessment, of a style that is likely to look pedantically irrelevant and/or unfairly supercilious to the devotee (whether author or reader). But the layout, as described above, and some features of the content do suggest academic aims. Further assessment, of an apologetically academic nature, therefore follows. I shall look first at the treatment of the Handbook--the translation, the presentation of Epictetus and Stoicism in Introduction and commentary, and the concern (or lack of it) for the Handbook as text--then, more briefly, at the presentation of the Tablet.

S.'s translation of Epictetus is in general fluent, readable, and never seriously misleading, without however rising to any particular heights of eloquence or (more seriously?) punch. 'On the one hand, there are things that are in our power, whereas other things are not in our power' is all right as a rendition of Handbook 1.1, but surely loses out to the Everyman (Carter/Hard) 'Some things are up to us and others are not.' And there are a good number of small approximations and slight smudgings of idiom. In 1.5, πρώτῳ δὲ τούτῳ καὶ μάλιστα, translated 'first (in this way especially)' really means 'first and above all in this way'. In 2.1, ἐπαγγελία means 'promise' not 'command' (E.'s point is that, when you desire something, you believe, unrealistically, that you are bound to get it--and suffer all the more intense frustration when you don't). In 7, ὁδοῦ μὲν πάρεργον means 'along the way' or 'incidentally' (as something done incidentally to your main task), not ' from the path'. In 10, ἴδῃς means 'set eyes on', not 'are attracted to'. In 15, θεῖοι means 'godlike', not 'gods'. In 16, the sentence rendered 'Do not hesitate, however, to sympathise with words, or if it so happens, to weep with them; but take care not to weep inwardly' undertranslates μέχρι λόγου and misses out two καίs: 'Do not hesitate, however, to sympathise as far as words go, or perhaps even to weep with them; but take care not to weep inwardly too'. And so on. None of this much affects the transmission of the salutary message; but it upsets the philologist. So too in 1.4, when ἄρχειν is translated 'status', and it is then explained in the commentary that this 'for Epictetus means public office, but for us may be construed in far wider terms' (34), the line between translation and exegesis seems not to have been drawn in exactly the right place.

The same sense of proselytising enthusiasm getting in the way of a more scholarly treatment also comes across from the Introduction and Commentaries. S. gives a bland, middle-of-the-road account of both Stoic doctrine as a whole, and Epictetus's own brand, avoiding both any hint of serious interpretative controversy, and any suggestion of the possibility of awkwardly hostile criticism. No sense is given, for instance, that the status of the eupatheiai as emotions, or the issue of their proper objects, might be the subject of scholarly debate; no interest is shown in enquiring whether Epictetus may be slanting and emphasizing his Stoicism differently to its earlier exponents; and the sheer dismay with which even sympathetic interpreters have reacted to the injunction in Handbook 3, to remember your children's mortality even as you kiss them, is passed over without a murmur. Overall, it is hard to see this book working very well for any reader who wants a systematic guide to Stoicism, or to Epictetus's distinctive place within it. The Introduction, though certainly clearly and engagingly written, leaves important territory untreated, above all in saying nothing directly about the links between Stoic ethics and Stoic physics/theology, nothing about oikeiôsis and the Stoic story about the moral development of the individual, and much too little about reason as a dominant Stoic value. The Commentary, besides privileging explanatory paraphrase over exploration or problematisation, becomes noticeably repetitious in its later stages. Neither Introduction nor Commentary makes any attempt to compare and contrast Epictetus with other Imperial period philosophical teachers, Stoic or otherwise (Musonius, Hierocles, Seneca, Dio, Plutarch ...).

It is of a piece that S. shows very little interest in the textual status of the Handbook, and its rhetorical form and strategies. He acknowledges, briefly, the fact of Arrian's authorship, and the consequent difficulty of being sure how close to a real, historical Epictetus the Handbook takes us (6-7); and he sketches the relationship in content between the Handbook and the Discourses. But he has nothing to say about the pedagogic strategy that might lie behind the boiling down of the latter into the former (perhaps because this might mean talking about the often elided Arrian rather than about Epictetus), and nothing about literary-pedagogic parallels that might help contextualize the whole venture. He says nothing about the overall structure of the Handbook, apart from a fleeting hint in the Preface that he now thinks it to be systematic rather than random (x); and nothing about the argumentative/rhetorical organization and communicative strategies of the individual sections. He seems happily unaware of the rich background to Epictetus's (Arrian's) philosophical imagery, and ill at ease with metaphor and allegory as expository devices--at least, to judge from the heavy weather made of the image of the voyage in 7 (56-7), and the banquet in 15 (75-7).

With the Tablet, as already indicated, S. is much briefer: short introduction, no commentary, a glossary of key terms, two diagrams and a drawing to clarify its allegorical topography, and Plato's Myth of Er in an Appendix to show something of its literary-formal ancestry. He presents the Tablet as a 'fundamentally Stoic work', but on a deliberately simplified level: 'a distillation of the essential elements of Stoic ethics, cutting out everything but the most crucial parts--and doing so ... in a wonderfully graphic fashion which was surely intended by the author to make the account not just easy to remember, but memorable in the sense of worth remembering' (184).

It is good to see another modern English translation of the Tablet put into circulation (the last--Fitzgerald's and White's--came out over twenty years ago, and is not all that easy to find); and good too to see it done with such affectionate enthusiasm. The inclusion of the diagrams and drawing once again sets S.'s work in a long tradition of attempts to depict the tablet's contents (reconverting verbal ecphrasis into visual image). But as with the Handbook, the beginner will need to be wary of some features of the presentation.

S.'s translation is of the same overall quality as before: fluent, never seriously inaccurate, but casual over details. His categorisation of the Tablet as essentially Stoic is understandable (not least in the light of the decision to pair it with Epictetus), but overstated. It is certainly a text created in a milieu in which Stoic moral theory had done much to set the terms of reference. But it omits so much that distinguishes Stoicism from other moral theorizing in the Socratic tradition, and is in any case so unconcerned with formal sectarian issues, that use of any such categorical label seems misplaced.

The reconstruction plans and drawing offered in Appendix 2 nicely supplement and extend older attempts to visualise the Tablet--the hint of a Venn diagram is new to the repertoire. I happily endorse the depiction of the enclosures of Luxury and False Culture as separate rather than concentric; but I doubt whether the wording of Tablet 15-16 really warrants showing a saddle (for the 'easy path') between the 'great rock' and the enclosure of True Culture, rather than a continuous upward slope. (Readers puzzled by this little disagreement will just have to consult the Tablet for themselves.)

The inclusion of the Myth of Er is a useful touch, but one that looks a trifle stranded on its own. Er is indeed an important literary ancestor to the (Tablet, but so too are the Republic's allegory of the Cave, and Prodicus's myth of the Choice of Heracles, as retold by Xenophon in Memorabilia 2.1. All three together would have demonstrated the Tablet's pedigree much more effectively--though not, indeed, the moral message that is S.'s chief concern.

In sum, this is an engaging volume which is sure to do some good. Courses on practical ethics in antiquity could well find it illuminating as a demonstration of what happens when Epictetan Stoicism is seized hold of by a modern enthusiast. But it is not a front-line teaching or research resource.

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