BMCR 1999.11.21

Epictetus, Discourses Book 1

Epictetus., Robert F. Dobbin, Discourses. Book I. Clarendon later ancient philosophers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. 1 online resource (xxiv, 256 pages).. ISBN 0191585963 $70.00.

This work is the latest contribution to the Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers series edited by Jonathan Barnes and A. A. Long. As with the earlier volumes (John Dillon’s Alcinous, The Handbook of Platonism, R. J. Hankinson’s Galen, On the Therapeutic Method Books I and II, Richard Bett’s Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists, and D. L. Blank’s Sextus Empiricus, Against the Grammarians), D(obbin) provides an introduction, an English translation, and a critical commentary predominantly focused on the philosophical content of the text of an author from the period ranging from the first century BC to the fifth century AD. A bibliography of a dozen earlier editions of E(pictetus), a painstaking bibliography of secondary literature, an index nominum, a generous index locorum, and a brief subject index are also included. Overall this edition maintains the high standards characteristic of the CLAP series.

In the introduction D. presents a concise biography of E., which is perforce sketchy due to the paucity of evidence on the details of E.’s life. D.’s choice of AD c. 110 for E.’s floruit seems rather late, but not untenably so. D. suggests that the physical force represented by the Roman emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian both shaped E.’s doctrine that prohairesis is the only thing within our power and helps account for ‘the embattled nature of his philosophy’ (xiii). In addition to the considerable influence E. exerted on Marcus Aurelius, D. observes that Galen wrote a book defending E. against criticisms by Favorinus. Moreover, Aulus Gellius reported that the cultural benefactor Herodes Atticus (c. 101-77) considered E. ‘the greatest of the Stoics’, and Origen, who cites E. six times by name, described him as more popular in his day than Plato. D. admits that he makes occasional use of Simplicius’ sixth century AD commentary on E.’s Enchiridion. E.’s influence on thinkers after Simplicius is not mentioned, which is somewhat disappointing but understandable given D.’s choice to focus on antiquity.

D.’s main contention is that while Adolph Bonhöffer’s two books1 “continue to be valuable, because his method was mainly sound” (xiv), Bonhöffer went too far in trying to make E.’s thought conform in all respects to that of Zeno and Chrysippus. E.’s teacher Musonius Rufus, Cynicism, and Panaetius’ emphasis on social roles also shaped E.’s philosophy, D. contends, but not as pervasively as Plato and Socrates. D. also sees E. attacking both Sceptics and neo-Aristotelians by appropriating concepts from their philosophies and putting them to use in his own polemics. This indirect strategy of attacking opponents of Stoicism is especially exemplified by E.’s use of prohairesis, a term D. holds2 was borrowed from Aristotle’s ethical works. D. rightly observes that E.’s thought is also sometimes original. All these points are well supported in D.’s commentary. D. concludes that though he is eclectic like Seneca and Marcus, E. stands apart as the sole representative of ‘neo-orthodoxy’ (xviii). Only in E.’s case, D. argues, is there never any question about his stalwart allegiance to and creative defense of the Stoic tradition, while at the same time being free from the Platonizing psychology of a Posidonius.

D. overstates, however, in claiming that “a detailed commentary on [Book 1] can serve almost as a complete guide to E.’s thought” (xix) since in his view Book 1 is philosophically the richest of the four. This can certainly be contested. I cannot agree with D.’s claim that “to comment on all four books … would be too long and repetitive” (xix). An ample variety of topics, arguments, practical exhortations, creative pedagogical examples, and conceptual analyses reside in the rest of the Discourses for robust commentary on each of the three remaining books. Nevertheless, D.’s edition does serve as a fine introduction to E.’s thought.

The most controversial part of the introduction is D.’s discussion of authorship. He begins by presenting a translation of the first half of Lucius Flavianus Arrianus Xenophon’s letter addressed to Lucius Gellius that prefaces the Discourses. In this portion of the letter Arrian explains that he did not really ‘compose’ the Discourses, but rather tried as best he could to transcribe in E.’s own words whatever he heard E. say in order to preserve for himself E.’s teachings in the future. D. then offers reasons for not taking Arrian at his word on this score. Ultimately, D. sides with Stellwag3 in holding that E. wrote the Discourses, and not Arrian. But many of D.’s reasons for doubting Arrian’s authorship can be challenged.

First, while D. is correct that stenography was primitive and (generally?) the skill of certain civil servants in E.’s age, it is an exaggeration to claim that “it would have been virtually impossible for [Arrian] to transcribe E.’s statements with the degree of fidelity he claims for them” (xx). D. overlooks Arrian’s qualification that he did the best he could in transcribing E.’s discourses: ἐπειράθην αὐτοῖς ὀνόμασιν ὡς οἷόν τε ἦν. D. also complains that the ostensible setting of discourse 1. 11, for example, is a conversation between E. and a Roman official, but that “Arrian would not have had access to this type of private interview” (xxi). Yet we have no external evidence that such encounters were as private as D. assumes. For all we know, some of his students could very well have been within earshot when E. conversed with visitors to his school. A third dubious reason D. has for doubting Arrian’s authorship is that Plato and Xenophon refer to themselves in the third person in Apol. 34a and Mem. 1. 3 respectively, so it is no serious objection to his view, D. believes, that E. is always referred to in the third person in the Discourses. Yet Plato and Xenophon are very minor, peripheral characters in their dialogues, whereas Epictetus is always the central figure throughout the Discourses. So in this respect D.’s suggested parallel suffers from considerable disanalogy. Fourth, D. holds that the discourses are too polished to be the impromptu discussions that Arrian purports they are, but this, I think, underestimates E.’s ability to improvise in his classroom. Indeed, by choosing to include only the first half of Arrian’s letter and then contesting Arrian’s authorship reported therein, D. rather deceptively downplays the image of E. the teacher in order to pump up his portrayal of E. the writer.

In the second half of the letter Arrian explains that he is not concerned if he is thought to be incapable of writing a proper book, and that E. would not care at all if anyone viewed his discourses with disdain. This is because, Arrian writes, at the time E. was actually delivering his discourses, it was obvious that his sole aim was to move the minds of his listeners towards what is best. Arrian adds that when E. lectured, his listener was induced to feel exactly what E. wanted him to feel. Omission of this part of the letter skews the picture of Arrian’s relationship to E. because it leaves the reader unable to fully appreciate the depth and forcefulness of E.’s pedagogical mastery — at least in so far as it moved Arrian. D. remarks on E.’s pedagogical talents a few times in the commentary (118, 128-129, 130), but this does not compensate for the absence of the second half of Arrian’s letter in the introduction.

D. contends that E. composed the Discourses and “tried to preserve the dramatic context from which they probably developed” (xxii), adducing as near parallels Seneca’s Letters and Marcus’ Meditations. But no ‘fake’ prefatory letters written by a student of Seneca or a student of Marcus accompany their writings. So D. is grasping in his attempt to find ‘near parallels’ to support his view. D. concludes: “I suspect that E. committed his thoughts to writing, in the form of diatribes, in a like effort to reach an audience beyond his immediate time and place. Arrian’s foreword played its part in putting this slight deception across” (xxii). Yet we should hesitate to assume that Arrian’s authorial skills were not up to the task of reproducing in the text E.’s pedagogical flair and philosophical sophistication. In the end D. offers no explanation of what Arrian’s motive for writing a deceptive prefatory letter would be. Why should Arrian want to deceive E.’s intended audience at all? So strenuous are D.’s efforts to discount Arrian’s letter as credible evidence of who authored the Discourses that one wonders whether it would have been simpler for D. to suggest that E. himself actually wrote a bogus letter from Arrian to Lucius Gellius.

In his translation D. by and large succeeds as he “tries to steer a middle course between literalness and fluency” (xxiv). D.’s translation generally has the accuracy and directness of Oldfather’s,4 but without his archaic expressions, while being at least as readable as Hard’s5 and often truer to the Greek. For example, at 1. 2. 25 for ἐγκαρτερήσας ἀπέθανεν D.’s ‘steeled himself and died’ is a bit less literal but perhaps a tad more readable than Oldfather’s ‘hardened his heart and died’; both are better than Hard’s ‘awaited his death with courage’. At 1. 2. 32 D.’s choice of ‘heroic’ for γενναῖος is perhaps too loose. I like D.’s ‘sorriest of the lot’ for ἀτυχήματα in 1. 3. 7 and his ‘pitiful creatures’ for ἀτυχημάτων in 1. 3. 9 is acceptable, but he loses this sense by rendering ἀτυχέεστερον‘less dignified’ in 1. 3. 8. D.’s choice of ‘I have conned’ for ἔπραξα (1. 29. 23) is more pleasantly colloquial than ‘I have studied’ (Oldfather and Hard). D. often borrows from previous translations in order to come up with his own version that on the whole succeeds in combining the strengths of each.

The commentary is generally excellent. But despite the dust jacket’s claim to the contrary, it frequently assumes knowledge of Greek and Latin (and sometimes French) and would be difficult for the average undergraduate to use. (Since the intended audience is clearly classical scholars and philosophers, why not just print the Greek on p. 171, third paragraph, instead of presenting the tedious transliteration?) Each comment contains preliminary remarks on the chapter, a summary of its structure, and detailed explication. D. situates E.’s doctrines, concepts, and examples within Stoic theory in general and in comparison with individual Stoics (Seneca, Panaetius, Chrysippus, et al.). D. also regularly draws connections to other schools and authors, including Plato, Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, Cicero, and Epicurus. D. is especially sensitive to the influence of Aristotle (e.g. 76, 92, 138) and the Sceptics (169-170, 188, 192). Plenty of cross references to related passages in the Discourses are consistently helpful. (Absent, however, are references to 2. 5. 1-3, 15-20 and 4. 7. 5, 19 in D.’s list of E.’s game analogy examples (204).) Citations of the apposite scholarship in French, German, Italian, Dutch, and English are copious. To his remarks on αἰδώς (88, 226) a reference can be added to a paper published after D.’s book went to press.6

Nonetheless some complaints can be raised. Although the analysis of chapter 11, ‘Of Family Affection’, is one of the most detailed in the book, it is surprising that there is no reference to a study7 pertinent to E.’s views on philostorgia (134). The reference is also absent from D.’s comments on parental love in chapter 23 (197). This omission is particularly odd since D.’s bibliography of the secondary literature is otherwise comprehensive, and since the missed article was in fact published by D.’s publisher.

D. misses E.’s point when, in commenting on 1. 12. 11-12, he writes that “it can hardly be shameful for things to happen in accordance with one’s every wish, just unlikely” (142). E.’s point is rather that it is only for god that things happen in accordance with his every wish, i.e. as rationally ordained in every detail. Consequently, E. sees it as shameful for a human being to have the hubris to believe that he knows better than god does how each event ought to unfold, and to suppose he has such great wisdom that his every wish should steer the universe; cf. 1. 14. 11.

D. has some trouble interpreting E.’s story about the theft of his iron lamp and the “somewhat cryptic” remark that ‘a man loses what he has’ (1. 18. 15-16). D. thinks that the first of two ways of reading this text is to take it “to suggest that we should jettison worldly goods, since they only involve us in difficulty” (171). But E. is not advocating the abandonment of external goods, he is only offering the vital reminder that they are not essential to happiness, and so he is urging deliberately avoiding dependency on them — a point that neatly picks up on the previous section 11-14. As D. recognizes in commenting on 17-19, this interpretation is compatible with D.’s second reading of 15-16: that we should consider ourselves lucky to have such (unnecessary) possessions in the first place.

Calling E.’s position at 1. 19. 11-15 “a kind of selfishness” (176) is misleading. It would be more accurate to label it a form of self-interest. As D.’s translation itself brings out at 1. 19. 15, E. characterizes the pursuit of one’s own proper interest as not excluding the interest of others (true selfishness), but rather contributing to the common interest. Moreover, D.’s strange comment that in satisfying man’s needs “Zeus is compensated with the esteem he craves” (178) looks difficult to reconcile with his observation that for the Stoics, “it seemed to detract from god’s dignity to suggest that he stood in any need of man’s attention” (181). So compared to the explication of other chapters, the commentary on chapter 19 is less discerning.

When commenting on the significance of the beard in 1. 16. 9-14, D. cites Chrysippus (Athenaeus 13. 565) as a Stoic opposed to shaving (160), but fails to mention Musonius Rufus xxi. D. asserts that the reasoning in 1. 17. 1-3 is faulty because E. introduces varieties of reason. But E. does no such thing, so D. fails to show that “E.’s logic is flawed” (162). D. wrongly athetizes 1. 26. 11-12 (213); it fits and makes good sense in context. Moreover, his attribution of 1. 27. 15-16 to an interlocutor hardly improves the sense of the passage (217). But he rightly corrects Oldfather’s translation of ἐκεῖὥδε at 1. 27. 18 from ‘that place … this’ to ‘your mouth … my own’ (52).

Only a few blemishes eluded editing. Twice there is infelicitous redundancy: Origen cited E. six times (xiii and 73); Marcus refers to E.’s Discourses several times in the Meditations (xii and xiii). Transliteration vacillates: sympatheia vs. sumpatheia (148). Misprints are minimal: “af[t]er (136); “on [to] how to behave” (166); “be” dropped from 205, “if” from 207; “It helps explain[s]” (215). So are misreferences: 4. 12 for 4. 12. 12 (116); 16 for 6 (158); 1. 29. 21-5 for 1. 29. 5-8? (176); 3. 23. 36-7 for 2. 23. 36-7 (203); 439B-E for 493B-E (225).

Both novice readers and scholars of E. will welcome this volume. They can hope, perhaps, that eventually commentaries of comparable quality will be written on the other three books of the Discourses.


1. Epictet und die Stoa (Stuttgart, 1890) and Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet (Stuttgart, 1894).

2. R. Dobbin, ‘ Προαίρεσις in Epictetus’, Ancient Philosophy 11 (1991): 111-135.

3. H. W. F. Stellwag, Epictetus: Het Eerste Boek der Diatriben (Amsterdam, 1933) 7-16.

4. W. A. Oldfather, Epictetus: The Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments (2 vols., London and Cambridge, Mass., 1925-1928).

5. R. Hard, Epictetus: The Discourses, ed. with an introduction and notes by C. Gill (London and Rutland, Vt., 1995).

6. R. Kamtekar, ‘AIDWS in Epictetus’, Classical Philology 93, no. 2 (April 1998): 136-160.

7. W. O. Stephens, ‘Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14 (1996): 193-210.