BMCR 2001.08.41

The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English Translation

, , The ethics of the stoic Epictetus : an English translation. Revisioning philosophy ; vol. 2. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. xix, 335 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0820430277 $56.95.

This is an English translation of Adolf Bonhöffer’s landmark work, Die Ethik des Stoiker Epictet ( ESE). It includes an informative biography of the author by schoolmate Constantine Ritter, five excursuses, a Greek Subject Index, Index of Names, and a List of Authors Cited. William O. Stephens’ translation is a welcome contribution to the expanding corpus of secondary literarature on the Stoic philosopher Epictetus available in English.

ESE is actually the second volume of (B)onhöffer’s study of the philosophy of Epictetus. The first volume, Epictetus und die Stoa (1890), remains untranslated and is difficult to find. Although B intended that the ESE could be read profitably on its own, the work makes many references and appeals to “volume one.” It is not clear why volume two was chosen for this project over volume one. Oddly (S)tephens did not include a preface in which the reader is informed as to the motivation or rationale for the project. Will the first volume be forthcoming? Are there any intentions to translate B’s final work on Stoicism, Epiktet und das Neue Testament (1911)?

The decision to resurrect a 19th-century monograph in an English translation on the eve of the 21st century requires justification. There are at least three obvious motives for such an undertaking: (1) the work transcends its era and is valuable as a continuing contribution to the ongoing philosophical and philological discussion; (2) the work is historically so significant in phrasing the questions and defining the issues that subsequent scholars will profit from returning to the source of so much of the controversy; (3) the work continues to fill a gap in the scholarly debate. B’s work justifies a new translation on the basis of all three considerations.

It is hard to imagine 20th-century scholarship on ancient Stoicism without B; few 19th-century studies in this field have remained so timely. Most 19th- and early 20th-century works, perhaps with the exception of Otto Rieth’s Grundbegriffe der stoischen Ethik (1933), are riddled with problems and portrayals of Stoicism which few scholars today could accept. The ESE remains valuable and provocative for the very same reasons that Epictetus remains timely. The central questions of how to live and how to avoid misery and cope with the vicissitudes of life remain germane to both scholars and the lay public. Indeed, the ESE has a strong “devotional” aspect. Had the practical concerns been the exclusive focus, it is doubtful that the book would have gained such note. Fortunately, the work constitutes a serious scholarly contribution and defines a specific interpretive position which remains a point of controversy: namely the orthodox (or neo-orthodox) character of Epictetus’ philosophy.

Jackson Hershbell in his excellent review of 20th-century literature on Epictetus states that despite many excellent contributions to the field, B’s writings remain “all but definitive” (2159).1 Dobbins in his new critical edition of the Discourses (Book 1) agrees that the modern view of Epictetus’ philosophy was established by B and adds that B’s works “continue to be valuable, because his method was mainly sound” (xiv). However Dobbins challenges B’s main claim of Epictetus’ orthodoxy. Dobbins argues that the views of heterodox Stoics such as Posidonius and Panaetius were in fact more influential on Epictetus than B concedes.2

B’s significance then is clear. His mastery of the surviving corpus is equally transparent, for the work is heavily peppered with citations and references. One gets the impression of having read the Discourses while reading the ESE. In addition to passages from Epictetus, B liberally cites Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, and fragments from the older scholarchs.

The objective of the ESE is to show that Epictetus is (in most cases) consistent with the teaching of the early Stoa, without being simply a reporter or proselytizer. B defends the orthodoxy of Epictetus by examining the nature of virtue in the surviving texts. Ironically, Epictetus seldom uses the term “virtue” and rarely speaks of the cardinal virtues so central to the older Stoics. This does not seem to be a fortunate beginning to B’s thesis. B, however, uses this point to identify one of the characteristic features of Epictetus: Epictetus frequently breaks with the language of his predecessors without fundamentally changing the content. Although the language and emphasis are different, the philosophical position in most points is consistent with that of Chrysippus.

The book is divided into three parts: I. The basis and end of virtue; II. The content of virtue; III. The acquisition of virtue. B’s analysis of the nature of virtue begins by challenging the categories of autonomous versus heteronomous basis for moral action. The autonomous moral self underlies moral activity in any moral system. Thus the foundations of Epictetus’ ethical system cannot be defined as exclusively autonomous, heteronomous, or theonomous. In fact these three are hardly exclusive, and any monolithic reduction would miss the complexity and maturity of Stoic ethics. B carefully distinguishes eudaimonism from egoism.

Epictetus’ ethics are both intellectualist and eudaimonist. This can be seen in an analysis of the Stoic telos formulae. Epictetus does not present a fixed and monolithic version of the telos formula. B must extract Epictetus’ conception of the moral telos from direct and oblique statements. B also feels it is necessary to place E’s conception of the moral telos in the evolution of the telos formulae through the history of the Stoa. This problem is directly addressed in the first excursus in the appendix. In short B concludes that Epictetus agrees with the tone and message of the early Stoic telos formulae but cannot be pinned down to any one formula. B states: “This is really the signature of his philosophizing, that he operates in total connection with the Stoic terminology, yet at the same time he expresses himself very freely and independently, indeed creatively, in the arrangement of material and in the formulation of his thoughts” (23). In addition E discusses the importance of our kinship with the divine, importance of identity and role [ πρόσωπον ], one’s personal daimon (which is closer to reason than conscience) and other intellectualist elements. The outcome is a highly practical, idealistic, and optimistic moral system.

The second major section of the ESE concerns itself with “The content of virtue.” B breaks down the content of virtue into three topoi: (1) the rational outlook; (2) fulfillment of duty; (3) moral judgment. By rational outlook B means the basic desires [ ὄρεξις ] and motivations to act. For those familiar with Epictetus, developing the correct mental outlook is all-important. Epictetus calls this “holding the correct dogmata,” inculcating “training in perception.” Proper ethical action rests on having the right attitudes and opinions toward our own well-being (happiness); we must recognize the nature of evil as a moral response and not a condition of the world. We must see death as something to be spurned, and suicide something to be sought in specific contexts. Finally we should have proper emotional responses, which include both a sense of joy toward life and an apathy toward externals. B is most illuminating here in his analysis of suicide and positive emotions [ εὐπάθεια ]. A short appendix on the employment of the mantic is not out of place.

The second of the three topoi is action, which is correlated to the Greek term impulse [ ὁρμή ]. A discussion of the actual day-to-day practices and duties occupies much of the book. B’s work is unique insofar as he focused on issues and topics that were important to Roman Stoics but often ignored in contemporary discussions. For example B discusses the importance of bodily cleanliness to the Stoic life. In addition to the duties to oneself, B examines our social duties (including marriage, familial duty, religious obligation, and political participation) and duties to humanity at large.

The final topos is that of moral judgment or assent. Although one might expect a discussion of Epictetus’ theory of action, based on the threefold topoi [ ὄρεξις, ὁρμή, συγκατάθεσις ], B instead examines the role of theory in Epictetus’ ethics. Here we see the importance of logic, physics, history and myth. Again, Epictetus does not reject Chrysippean logic or physics, but rather downplays their importance, especially when they interfere with developing one’s moral good.

The final section of the book addresses the acquisition of virtue. Here B takes on the problem of sin [ ἁμαρτία ] and that of moral progress. S’s decision to translate the German “Sünde” with the religiously charged term “sin” is appropriate in spite of, no, rather because of, its connotations. Two voices are constantly behind B’s commentary: the voice of Immanuel Kant and the voice of the New Testament. B is ever comparing, contrasting, and evaluating Epictetus in terms of both. Similarities are as important as differences. Thus the Stoic theory of sin can and must be distinguished from the Christian model in two basic elements: that for the Stoics there is no conflict between inclination and will, and that the Stoics find sin problematic as an error but fail to show the moral and aesthetic indignation characteristic of Christian thought. This, B argues, is the most serious failure of Stoicism and the major reason for the superiority of Christian ethics. In a similar fashion, moral progress is compared to conversion. The absence of a satisfactory eschatology, however, in connection with the extreme position that either one is a sage or a fool (and there don’t seem to be many sages around) creates a difficulty for the sympathetic Christian interpreter (such as B). The implications of this for moral progress are treated in excursus three and are not satisfactorily resolved.

The five excursuses constitute almost one-third of the work. This is by far the most detailed and scholarly element of the book, but they lack the clarity and unity of the work’s central argument. Most important are the excursuses on the telos formulae and the role of καθῆκον and κατ. The arguments tend to ramble, and consequently these essays have not had the influence one might expect given the force of several of the claims and complexity of analysis.

A few words should be said about the translation itself. For the most part Stephens’ translation of ESE is a literal though rather stilted translation of the German text. The translator is cautious, willing to make only minor alterations of the syntax. Such an approach can be a virtue. Richmond Lattimore in his introduction to his translation of the Greek New Testament chose to stay faithful to the original syntax often at the cost of ease of style.3 His justification is that he wished to maintain the particular stylistic differences between the various authors of the gospels. Mark’s gospel should read as crabbed since the Greek is frequently so (ix). However the literalness in S’s translation fails to preserve the tenor of the German, and the often tortuous syntax sometimes makes the reading unnecessarily awkward. Nevertheless, the translation is consistent and accurate.

Also the translator has chosen to translate only the German and not the primary sources. Hence Greek and Latin terms and passages pervade the work. In the main body of the text the technical terms are initially translated or are contextually clear. However, extended passages in Greek and Latin without translation pervade the footnotes and the five excursuses. Another oddity of the work is that references to primary and secondary material have not been updated to contemporary stylistic conventions. Citations are often to out-of-date editions and do not always follow conventional chapter and section headings. The abbreviations for ancient authors follow B’s idiosyncratic conventions. Contemporary abbreviations for primary sources and updating references would have been a great service to those with more limited libraries. This raises the question of who is this translation for? It seems to be intended for someone who has a solid grasp of Greek and Latin but cannot easily read German. The footnotes and excursuses are unintelligible to readers without Greek and Latin. Its ideal audience would seem to be graduate students and scholars who have solid Greek and Latin, access to an extensive research library, but with limited German skills. If this is the case, it certainly is an odd target audience.

The merit of S’s approach on the other hand is that the work remains essentially B’s. The translator is for the most part invisible. There is little fear of contemporary concerns or issues having “contaminated” the ESE. It remains visibly a late 19th-century work of scholarship, and many readers will be grateful for S’s resistance to tampering. No translation will please all readers, and a brief preface explaining S’s aim and approach to the translation would have been valuable. The reader is more likely to have questions than complaints with the translation.

In close, this reviewer is grateful to S for bringing B back into the spotlight. The translation of and fresh access to B in English will certainly bring new readers to B and be a shot in the arm for Epictetean studies. In spite of some of the more awkward and dense arguments (especially excursuses one and three) most readers should find the work insightful and interesting.


1. J. Hershbell, ‘The Stoicism of Epictetus: Twentieth Century Perspectives’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt II.36.3 (1989) 2148-63.

2. R. Dobbins, Epictetus Discourses Book 1 (Oxford, 1998). Dobbins overstates the case when he suggests that B denies originality to Epictetus. Originality need not be deviation from orthodoxy; it may be the reformulation and shift of emphasis within the scope of orthodoxy. B is clear that Epictetus’ interest lay in a different direction than Chrysippus and the early Stoics.

3. Richmond Lattimore (trans.), The New Testament, (North Point Press, 1966, reprint of the 1979 edition).