Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.20

Theodore Scaltsas, Andrew S. Mason (ed.), The Philosophy of Epictetus.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. 181.  ISBN 978-0-19-923307-6.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Thornton Lockwood, Boston University (
Word count: 2306 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Epictetus, a former slave who lived in Rome during Nero's reign but was exiled (along with all those who practiced philosophy in Rome) to Greece by Domitian's decree in 93 CE, espoused an austere ethical philosophy which aimed at happiness (eudaimonia), or tranquility (ataraxia), through the delimitation of valuation to things within one's control. Although Epictetus never set to writing his beliefs, his disciple Arrian recorded eight books of his sayings (entitled Discourses [διατριβαί] of which only four books survive) and edited a compendium entitled the Handbook (Ἐγχειρίδιον). In his preface to the volume under review, editor Theodore Scaltsas writes that "there is no message that would be of greater value in the face of today's threats to society than Epictetus' 'bear and forbear.'" (1) Although Epictetus' "forbearance" is not exactly the philosophy of hope much in vogue in contemporary politics, there is no doubt that Epictetus offers a perennial source of strength and self-reliance.

The present volume derives from a conference held in 2001 devoted to the further understanding of Epictetus and his philosophy. Although the contributors are major scholars in ancient philosophy, most of the contributions are relatively brief examinations of select problems within Epictetus' philosophy. (The papers by Algra and Dragona-Monachou are each over twenty-five pages long, but all the remaining papers are under sixteen pages long and five of the papers are twelve pages long or shorter.) Although quantity obviously does not determine quality, at times it felt as though the length of the papers delimited their scope and argumentation. Although the essays are accessible to non-specialists, the volume lacks a general introduction to the philosophy of Epictetus, and Andrew Mason's eight page introduction to the volume is primarily concerned with summarizing the individual papers in the volume. The conference at which the papers were delivered antedated the publication of A.A. Long's Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford, 2002), which stands as the most important and best general introduction to the philosophy of Epictetus; most (but not all) of the authors situate their theses against the claims of Long's volume since the edited collection now postdates it. The volume includes a bibliography of works cited by the individual essays and a short index, but no index locorum.

Several of the essays naturally fit together. As Mason's introduction notes, the essays by Cooper and Crivelli address the question of the overall methodology of Epictetus, including its relationship to the study of logic; the essays by Algra, Ierodiakonou, and Schofield address aspects of Epicurus' theology; the essays by Sorabji, Erler, and Dragona-Monachou examine questions related to Epictetus' notion of the self; and the essays by Annas and Frede take up the relationship between personhood, the "roles" or "offices" which humans play, and the duties or obligations which derive from such roles. Let me survey the problems in each of these four clusters.

A glance at Epictetus' writings shows that his philosophical interests were predominantly in ethical or practical questions. Whereas one finds in the imperial Stoicism of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius rhetorical appeals to moral improvement, in classical and Hellenistic Stoicism of Zeno and Chrysippus, one finds logic and physics as foundations of ethical theorizing. When one turns to Epictetus, there appears by contrast a profound concern with moral practice in a non-rhetorical fashion yet without a detailed elaboration of its relationship to more theoretical foundations. Cooper's essay addresses the relationship between moral theory and practice in Epictetus and Crivelli takes up the place of logic within Epictetus' general philosophy. Following Jonathan Barnes' Logic and the Imperial Stoa (Brill, 1997), Crivelli argues, through the explication of several passages in the Discourses concerning the role of logic, that Epictetus' ambivalence is misleading and that he had a positive if ultimately ancillary role for logic within his overall philosophy. Cooper argues that determining Epictetus' overall methodology--including the relationship of moral theory to moral practice--is complicated by the nature of the evidence, since the Discourses consist largely of admonitions and protreptics addressed to students rather than the formal course of instruction in Epictetus' school. Cooper concludes that what Epictetus seeks in a student is "one who will read Chrysippus' treatises with care and retention, and will put into effect in their daily lives the lessons Chrysippus has to teach" (15).

The question of theology in Epictetus' writings arises at several levels. Often Epictetus invokes the will of god in his writings, but what is the nature of that god? Like Socrates in the Apology, Epictetus speaks of philosophy as a divine mission, but in what sense does he see the life of philosophy as a divine command? Is Epictetus' god -- which is often described in quasi personal terms, including as an object of prayer -- consistent with the god of earlier Stoicism? The essays by Algra, Ierodiakonou, and Schofield touch upon facets of these questions. Algra's essay is the most expansive and helpfully situates the question of Epictetus' theology within scholarly debates of the last century. Algra argues that determining whether Epictetus' theology is heterodox within Stoicism first requires clarification of the contested concepts of pantheism and theism. The overall thrust of her argument is "that early Stoicism was not as exclusively pantheistic as it is often supposed to be, whereas on the other hand the kind of personalistic theism that we may attribute to Epictetus does not appear to have been all that radical or unheard of after all" (36). As Algra points out, the relationship between god and man in early Stoicism is like that between sages -- with the qualification that such a god, as perfect rationality, is an ideal or limit to which humans can aspire. The remainder of Algra's essay shows how Epictetus' "personalized" concept of god is more a difference in emphasis than a departure from Stoic orthodoxy; moreover, the literary style of the Discourses and Epictetus' Socratic spirit can account for such differences.

Ierodiakonou's and Schofield's essays help unpack Epictetus' idiosyncratic spirit concerning his claim that the role of the philosopher is one assigned by God as a divine mission. The trope occurs in several places in the Discourses (which Ierodiakonou aptly surveys), including Discourses III.22 (which is the focus of Schofield's essay), wherein Epictetus claims that the true philosopher (in the case under discussion, a Cynic) has been sent by Zeus as a messenger (ἄγγελος) and scout (κατάσκοπος) for humanity. For Ierodiakonou, Discourses III.22 (with several other passages) illustrates how Epictetus generally conceives of the philosopher as one who is to scout out the enemies of humanity (namely, those things which really harm humans) and to announce the god's will in everyday life, both in discourses and by means of example. At the same time -- echoing details in Algra's essay -- she shows how such a messenger (and his announcements about conversion and salvation) is solely secular and different from the "messengers" (or angels) of Christianity. For Schofield, Discourses III.22 serves as a rare text for unpacking Diogenes the Cynic's actual practice as philosophy. Whereas Ierodiakonou sheds light on how Epictetus views philosophy as a divine vocation, Schofield sheds light on how a philosopher who had pondered the paradoxes and practices of Diogenes interpreted that lifestyle. The two essays together thus illume the broader and more narrow nuances of Discourses III.22.

The third cluster of essays--those by Sorabji, Erler, and Dragona-Monachou--are loosely united insofar as they touch upon topics related to the notion of "self" in Epictetus' philosophy. All three essays are also comparative: Sorabji juxtaposes Epictetus' account of proairesis with that found in Aristotle (and to a lesser degree, Neoplatonic philosophy); Erler juxtaposes Epictetus' account of how to respond to the fear of death with that given by Socrates in the Phaedo; and Dragona-Monachou traces parallels she finds between Epictetus and Wittgenstein on the notion of freedom. Sorabji's eleven page essay lays out the terrain of the problem by showing that Epictetus makes use of several different senses of "self" in his writings (including one sense in which he identifies the self with a sense of proairesis or "rational decision). Erler's essay argues that the metaphor of "the child in man" -- the irrational element within the self that wrongly fears death, even though it is beyond one's control -- which Epictetus uses in Discourses II.1 likely derives from the Socratic metaphor used in the Phaedo (77e; see also Crito 46c) and illustrates the preparatory training Epictetus directs towards the young men who seek to follow him. Finally, Dragona-Morgana situates Epictetus within the scholarly debate concerning the origins of the "free will problem" in classical philosophy and argues that Epictetus' notion of freedom is one based primarily on autonomy or self-mastery (or in Suzanne Bobzien's words--with which Dragona-Morgana concurs--"freedom through self-restriction" 1).

The fourth cluster of papers--those by Annas and the late Michael Frede--strike me as the richest contributions of the volume, and thus fittingly its conclusion. Both are concerned with the ways in which Epictetus views ethical obligations as situational--for instance, that my obligations are determined by the roles that I play, such as whether I am a parent, an employer, a spouse, etc.--and yet nonetheless derived from a single unified rational "person" who is more than just the sum of his roles. Annas addresses the relationship between our situational roles and personhood by juxtaposing Epictetus' account with modern ways around the problem. From a modern perspective, there appears to be at least potentially a conflict between one's obligations as a rational being and those related to a person's embeddedness in specific roles: what reason commands me to do impartially seems quite likely to conflict with the loyalty a sibling might require of me. But the practical nature of Epictetus' (and, for Annas, most ancient ethical theory) obviates this conflict. As Annas puts it at one point, "given that our aim as Stoics is to achieve the good by becoming virtuous, this is to be found not in running away from our commitments, or by abstracting from our socially embedded roles and relationships. Rather, we seek the good from within those relationships, in a way best captured by what can be called aspiring to the Stoic ideal in our everyday life" (148). Annas considers criticisms against such a view but sets it out as a plausible, defensible ethical theory.

Whereas Annas goes at the question in a sense from the side of our embedded commitments, Frede explores the question from the perspective of the unified "person" (or for Epictetus, πρόσωπον). Frede unpacks the notion of "person" in Epictetus' writings, separating it both from modern, post Lockean notions of a person (for instance, the sense that a person is "a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection" [Essay on Human Understanding, II.27.11]) and from the different senses of person in Cicero, Seneca, and Panaetius. (As Frede intriguingly notes, "It is an obvious fact, but one little attention has been paid to, that down to the end of the fourth century BC nobody in extant Greek literature talks of human beings as 'humans.' Neither Plato nor Aristotle in their voluminous works ever speaks of human beings as 'persons' in any sense of the word" (157).) Epictetus' distinctive contribution to the notion of person comes out most clearly in his reflection on the Roman senator Helvidius Priscus who faced persecution from Emperor Vespasian (Discourses I.2.19-21). Given that Helvidius Priscus is "the person who he is, " as long as he is on the rolls of the senate he has an obligation to attend the Senate regardless of whether he is threatened; but, were he removed from the rolls, no longer does his "person" include duties towards the senate (at least qua senator). Thus, for Epictetus, person means "the sort of person somebody is," that is, personhood integrates the various roles--senator, parent, sibling, spouse--one "plays." (Theatrical language is appropriate in part because this notion of πρόσωπον picks up on a secondary meaning of the term as "mask.") With respect to moral obligations, Frede's analysis explains one of the more challenging issues in Epictetus' ethical thought concerning the place of moral rules. Since every "person" is different (common characteristics like reason notwithstanding), it follows that "living a good life, acting as you ought to act, does not amount to the same thing for everybody. It is relative to the sort of person you are. There is not a single set of rules which define, let along decide, how one should act, which hold for everybody." (163)

As noted at the outset, evaluation of the volume is complicated because of the brevity of some of its offerings. Frede's essay stands out as one which will be of interest not only to scholars of ancient philosophy, but also to those interested in the idea of personhood and that concept's history. Specialists in ancient Greek philosophy will find the essays by Algra and Annas especially worthy of examination independent of interest in Stoic ethics or theology. The pieces by Schofield and Sorabji display the erudition and insight one expects from their authors, although the brevity of their pieces limits the scope of their contributions. The remaining essays are all carefully crafted pieces which will be of interest primarily to scholars working within the philosophy of Stoicism.

1. The Relevance of Moral Theory to Moral Improvement in Epictetus (John M. Cooper)
2. Epictetus and Logic (Paolo Crivelli)
3. Epictetus and Stoic Theology (Keimpe Algra)
4. The Philosopher as God's Messenger (Katerina Ierodiakonou)
5. Epictetus on Cynicism (Malcolm Schofield)
6. Epictetus on proairesis and Self (Richard Sorabji)
7. Death is a Bugbear: Socratic 'Epode' and Epictetus' Philosophy of the Self (Michael Erler)
8. Epictetus on Freedom: Parallels between Epictetus and Wittgenstein (Myrto Dragona-Monachou)
9. Epictetus on Moral Perspectives (Julia Annas)
10. A Notion of a Person in Epictetus (Michael Frede)


1.   See S. Bobzien, "Stoic Conceptions of Freedom and their Relaton to Ethics," in R. Sorabji, ed., Aristotle and After. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Supplement 68 (1997): 79.

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