Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.08

William O. Stephens, Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom.   London/New York:  Continuum, 2007.  Pp. xvii, 178.  ISBN 9780826496089.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Eve A. Browning, University of Minnesota Duluth (

The decision to publish a doctoral dissertation, especially one which has only been “lightly edited” (foreword, first sentence) and with a bibliography only partially updated to reflect the scholarship of the intervening years, must always seem a risky one. In this case the risk is well-taken and the resultant book is a delightful addition to our too-meager store of book-length overviews of Epictetus’ philosophy in the wider context of Stoic ethics.

Stephens maintains that “Epictetus provides us with the best available source for the spirit and content of Roman Stoicism expressed in a sincere, moving, and frank style” (xv). Seneca all too evidently failed to meet his own Stoic standard and a “disingenuous subtext” afflicts his ethical writings as a result (xv). Marcus Aurelius is too pessimistic and self-directed to stand as a model. Only in Epictetus do we find a consistent and positive exposition of Stoic ethical tenets, practical and sustainable, and deliberately designed to help others work towards happiness and freedom.

Some of today’s debates about Stoic ethics concern such questions as these: To what extent can a good Stoic care about things and people? Experience emotions about them? Mourn their loss in a human manner? To what extent can a Stoic control responses to, and even perceptions of, the passing gallimaufry of this our unpredictable world? Can a Stoic advocate for political change without betraying the characteristic stance of detachment and imperturbability?

Stephens makes provocative and mostly convincing contributions to all of these questions.

In “What Exactly is Up to Me?” (chapter 1), the themes of the controllable and the inalienable guide Stephens' treatment of the sphere of appropriate concern according to Epictetus. Externals (things and events outside the mind) cannot be controlled and can be removed; this marks them as inappropriate objects of concern. As Epictetus wrote, “But if you wish for any one of the things that are not your own, what is your own is lost. This is the nature of the matter: Nothing is done except for a price.” (14). An account of the true self in terms of prohairesis is an additional asset of this chapter. Stephens argues throughout that Epictetus is outstanding even among Stoics in placing huge weight upon judgments (dogmata), and giving much attention to instruction about the types and objects of judgments that will yield either happiness or misery. Epictetus wrote, “(Judgments) are the only things that are mine, and they cannot be taken away, and with the possession of them I am content, wherever I be and whatever I do” (25). It should be noted, as Stephens shows, that Epictetus construes judgment to include behaviors such as weeping and sighing, fault-finding, accusing, impiety, and a generic ‘foolishness’ (33).

“How Must I View the Use of Externals?” (chapter 2) answers its question in a way that places Epictetus partly in line with, and partly at odds with, previous Stoic tradition. While externals, such as wealth, family, and even health, are among things toward which one should be indifferent as a whole (per Stoic tradition), the use to which externals are put in one’s life is a matter of consequence insofar as it engages prohairesis and therefore both shows and affects the true self. One of Epictetus’ many game-analogies is clarifies things. When playing with dice, “The counters are indifferent, the dice are indifferent; how am I to know what is going to fall? But to make a careful and skillful use of what has fallen, that is now my task” (51). Stephens frankly expresses a reservation about this idea as applied to friends and family: “To think of one’s loved ones as if they were value-neutral game tokens is a chilling thought to say the least” (53). But Stephens defends Epictetus, at least on the grounds of consistency: only my true self, as revealed in my judgments, belongs to me and is thus a proper or primary object of concern. Thus Epictetus writes: “There is but one way to serenity (keep this thought ready for use at dawn, and by day, and at night), and that is to yield up all claim to the non-volitional things, to regard nothing as your own possession; to surrender everything to the deity, to fortune” (54). Whatever happens to externals, we are to maintain “an attitude of gratitude” (63).

In case one is experiencing the customary skepticism and distaste for such Stoic detachment, Stephens cites the examples of Vietnam POW Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale and of Viktor Frankl, both of whom used explicitly Stoic reflections about what was within their power to stay sane and centered in horrific conditions of captivity. (Stockdale’s 1978 article “The World of Epictetus: Reflections on Survival and Leadership”, from the Atlantic Monthly, is an important source of quite effective examples for Stephens, and references to Stockdale’s genuinely and consciously Stoic behavior in captivity recur .)

“How Does the Stoic Love?” (chapter 3). Here I am afraid the answer is: ardently, into a mirror. A Stoic in Epictetus’ style may choose to give alms to the poor or help the suffering, but only out of concern for self. Stephens writes, “(T)he philanthropic behavior we show others is motivated completely internally by concern for our own psuchē and its healthy (virtuous) condition.” (86) Even more oddly, a Stoic mother may choose to rescue her drowning child, "not because her child’s life is a good that demands her protection, but because the protection of one’s child is one of the proper functions of a parent, and the performance of one’s proper functions is necessary for preserving the right condition of one’s volition and being happy” (87). Stephens addresses the potentially horrified reaction of readers by once again referring to Epictetus’ ruthless consistency about what matters: one’s true self. Stephens does not divert onto this interesting theoretical by-road: What ought a Stoic consistently do for others, in light of the fact that the Stoic is convinced that externals such as food and children don’t ultimately matter? In other words, what is real Stoic philanthropy and what is real Stoic caring behavior? Is it the path of true philanthropy, or true parental care, to keep supplying people with distracting non-necessities such as food and shelter and rescue from drowning? Epictetus himself is doing perhaps the only truly legitimate philanthropy he leaves unquestioned: proselytizing about Stoicism.

Stephens’s chapter 4, “Happiness as Freedom”, provides such textually rich and clear explanations of key concepts (Nature, oikeiōsis, becoming godlike, etc.) that I might have wished it placed first in the book. Readers who have been struggling with the notoriously elusive oikeiōsis for all the preceding pages will now see that is almost unrenderable in English and there is no substantial agreement among scholars as to its full meaning. Stephens himself therefore decides to transliterate it, but he also defends a lovely argument of Gisela Striker’s which uses the concept to link natural feelings for one’s children to the adult sense of justice (129).

In this final chapter Stephens for the first time stresses the difficulty and statistical improbability of anyone’s becoming a Stoic sage on Epictetus’ terms. Epictetus himself was apparently quite skeptical about the prospect: “Show me someone who though sick is happy, though in danger is happy, though dying is happy…Show him! By the gods, I would fain see a Stoic!” (114). Here too we see the extreme difficulty of the Stoic project and the constant and almost paranoiac self-vigilance it requires: “He goes about like an invalid….He has put away from himself his every desire…in a word, he keeps guard against himself as though he were his own enemy lying in wait” (116, quoting Epictetus). In face of this demanding formula Stephens reminds us that “yet progress is possible” (121).

The book ends with a summation of Epictetus’s philosophical shortcomings and strengths. Stephens points out that Epictetus’ dualism, the strict separation of mind and body, mental and physical, in terms of their moral worth is untenable and hampered him; yet it also allowed him to escape the enervating toils of previous Stoics’ hard determinism. Another flaw for Stephens is Epictetus’ view of non-human animals as strictly useable commodities for human purposes; Stephens notes that a number of ancient philosophers had laid down a tradition of concern for animals as sentient, so that Epictetus might have done better here. Finally, the quietism of Epictetus’ political outlook would hamper efforts to improve the human condition (which efforts might actually raise the odds of more people becoming Stoic sages, although Stephens does not claim this).

For Stephens the Stoic strengths clearly outweigh these weaknesses. He applauds Epictetus’ commitment to the position that "we should manage the things within our power as best we can, and accept what is beyond our control” (153), since this belief conduces to “coping tenaciously”. Stephens also praises the notion that happiness is ‘up to us’ and not dependent upon luck or chance (154). Strangely, in light of the self-oriented form of love that chapter 3 presents, Stephens also lauds Epictetus for “the idea that one can love another without making that love conditional upon its always, or ever, being reciprocated” (154). I suppose this is true if by ‘love’ one means that essentially self-reflecting and other-negating attitude with which the Stoic protects the True Self.

Overall the book is a fresh and valuable overview of Stoic ethical themes as presented in Epictetus’s writings. Its own writing is graceful, the examples are fascinating, and careful and thorough attention to the texts of Epictetus brings to light many bits of Epictetus which will be unfamiliar to those who have read only the Encheiridion. I would add that Stephens uses feminine pronouns throughout to refer to the Stoic sage, even when this produces the oddity of a Roman female Stoic soldier holding her position on the battlefield. In sisterhood, I had hoped that this female Stoic would not turn out to be the insufferable prig about her own virtue that chapter 3, alas, left me contemplating: that mother who rescues her child only after a hasty consultation of the parental job-description rulebook. Nevertheless such gender play is still capable of teaching us a lot about what we do and do not expect in philosophical thinking and writing.

The price ($120) is high for its length. The book is well worth recommending for library purchase. It makes an important contribution to our understanding of Roman Stoics’ mighty struggle to find happiness in a turbulent and uncontrollable world which is, in those respects, much like our own.

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