BMCR 2002.11.03

Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life

, Epictetus : a Stoic and Socratic guide to life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. xiv, 310 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0199245568. $29.95.

Up to now scholars have not approached E[pictetus] as author, stylist, educator, and thinker, according to the eminent scholar of Stoicism Tony L[ong]. The aim of this book is to fill precisely this gap. L wants “to provide an accessible guide to reading E, both as a remarkable historical figure and as a thinker whose recipe for a free and satisfying life can engage our modern selves, in spite of our cultural distance from him” (2). This goal is met admirably. Not only does L succeed in presenting E on his own terms, but in the process, he fairly demolishes the view, held by many since Adolf Bonhöffer,1 that E is a sturdy but unoriginal moralist who basically rehashed the same ideas, with an emphasis on practical application, that were articulated in a more sophisticated, theoretically fastidious form by Chrysippus and the early Stoics.

L’s translations respect the tone and rhetoric of E’s Greek and avoid jarring literalness. Suggestions for further readings and scholarly notes are appended to the end of the introduction and each chapter. Nine chapters comprise the core of the book: 1. Epictetus in his Time and Place; 2. The Discourses; 3. The Socratic Paradigm; 4. Philosophy and Pedagogy; 5. Reading Epictetus; 6. Natures: Divine, Human, Animal; 7. From Theology to Ethics; 8. Autonomy and Integrity; 9. Appropriate Actions and Feelings. These are followed by an epilogue and two appendices non-specialists will find especially user-friendly: a glossary of over seven dozen Greek terms with translations and references to pages in the text where the terms figure prominently, and a ‘Who’s Who: Stoics and Others’. Ten pages of references, an extensive index of passages cited, and a somewhat abbreviated general index complete the volume. The jacket suggests that the book is intended for the general reader; while parts of the middle chapters will challenge non-specialists, as a whole this work is a wonderfully clear and cogent introduction to E. I will summarize each chapter and the epilogue and offer a few very minor critical remarks.

Chapter One orients the reader to E’s world: his school, his students, and the influence of his teacher Musonius Rufus. Emphasis is on E’s Socratism and his belief that human beings are equipped by nature with all the basic capacities necessary for understanding the world and correcting impediments to living well through right thinking and self-discipline. L persuasively contends that E’s focus on applied ethics and general truths about nature and his reticence about technicalities of physics plainly reflect his own judgment of the best of what Stoicism had to offer his students. The core of the chapter is an argument that the four unifying concepts of E’s thought are freedom, judgment, volition, and integrity. L observes that the freedom that interests E is entirely psychological and attitudinal. Happiness is thus freedom from impediment, turmoil, and worry. The basis for this ideal freedom is judgment. How we experience the world and ourselves depends entirely on the judgments we form. ‘Volition’ is L’s preferred translation of E’s central concept προαίρεσις. This choice carries much freight since, as L rightly notes, for E our essential selves are our prohairesis and the ‘volitions’ that issue from it. In his notes at the end of this chapter L should have flagged Dobbin (1991) ‘ Prohairesis in Epictetus’, Ancient Philosophy 11: 111-35, which does appear in the references. L uses the word ‘integrity’ to translate a cluster of Epictetan terms: shame, reverence, trustworthiness (none of which, oddly, appears in the glossary), conscience ( αἰδώς), and decency ( εὐσχημοσύνη). The choice to ground his treatment on these four pillars of freedom, judgment, volition, and integrity is exegetically sound.

Was E an original thinker? Not like Plato or Aristotle, L replies. Philosophical excellence, L believes, has more to do with clarity of expression, provocative and imaginative discourse, and bending people’s minds to reflect on their lives and the world in new and unfamiliar ways. On this score, E’s voice is palpably fresh in formulation and distinctive in emphasis. E tacitly modifies the harsh stubbornness of Chrysippus’ Stoa by advocating gentleness and tolerance toward those who err and urging his students to make what progress they can now rather than being engrossed with the distant summit of ideal sagehood. L thinks it likely that E’s characterization of ‘making correct use of phantasiai is original, but his appropriation of the discourse and methodology of Plato’s Socrates is E’s most notable originality.

In Chapter Two L repeats the familiar idea that Arrian appeared to want to present himself as the Roman Xenophon. L reasonably rejects Theo Wirth’s view that the Discourses were the product of Arrian’s creative authorship, and defends a factual reading of Arrian’s letter to Lucius Gellius prefacing the Discourses, in which Arrian explains that he “kept notes” ( u(πομνήματα) of what E said. L also rejects Dobbin’s view that E himself wrote the discourses ‘as we have them’ as implausible (64).2 A convincing case is made that E’s discourses are not Cynic ‘diatribes’ since that generic description of his teaching style distracts attention from E’s deliberate adoption of Socratic methodology. E speaks primarily for and to his own group of students and tailors his ‘dialectical lessons’ to each discussant. L thinks it probable that E’s curriculum included the study of some Platonic dialogues and supports this claim with citations of eleven texts in the Discourses. Six different organizational headings are identified for the purpose of elucidating E’s various pedagogical goals: theoretical, methodological, polemical, psychological, social, and educational/vocational. This is followed by an insightful treatment of the protreptic, elenctic, and didactic (doctrinal) styles that E endorses. L gracefully explicates the protreptic style by exemplifying Plato’s Apology and Euthydemus and citing E’s own description of this style at Disc. 3.23.34-7. E characterizes the protreptic style in virtually the same terms as the Socratic elenchus, L maintains. I found most interesting L’s emphasis on the prominent imprint Plato’s Gorgias has on E’s methodological style and didactic message. A strong case is made that E positions himself simultaneously within three pedagogical traditions: Stoic (Zeno as the doctrinal paragon), Cynic (the reproving protreptic paragon of the ‘kingly’ Diogenes), and Socratic (combining protreptic and elenctic).

Chapter Three explains how E follows his Greek predecessors in aligning Stoic doctrines with Socrates and reminding his students of Socrates’ equanimity at his trial, imprisonment, and death. L demonstrates the strong imprint of Plato’s Gorgias on E by detailing E’s repeated endorsement of seven key Socratic ethical principles articulated in that dialogue. The reason E appropriated the Socratic elenchus is his fundamental belief that human beings are innately equipped with the motivation to seek their own good and to choose whatever means they think will promote that good. L effectively shows E’s insistence that it is the application of our innate preconceptions ( προλήψεις) that requires relentless Stoic training. E shows his students how to practice the elenchus on themselves by reflecting on their use of impressions, thus appropriating the methodology of the Socratic elenchus for his own pedagogical purposes. L portrays E as a more independent thinker and educator, who exhorts his students to know themselves, practice self-examination, and discover within themselves a source of goodness that is independent of outward contingencies and also capable of generating personal happiness and integrity. E’s emphasis and methodology is therefore in this respect more Socratic than Stoic. L makes a compelling case that E’s adaptation of the Socratic paradigm is the most creative appropriation of Socrates after the works of Plato and Xenophon.

E’s optimistic rationalism is elucidated in Chapter Four. L describes E as an empirical realist who emphatically rejected Academic Skepticism by holding that the basic concepts of value and the principles of a good life can be exhibited as self-evident. The correct understanding of nature and successfully training ourselves to base our judgments and desires single-mindedly on the true and natural path to happiness are the two necessary and sufficient conditions for leading good and happy lives. L isolates three conditions that E sees as necessary to benefit from his teaching: (a) confronting your basic wants, (b) recognizing the implications of not knowing how to satisfy those wants, and (c) acknowledging that such satisfaction requires making exceedingly demanding commitments and choices. E’s philosophy is decidedly not for the faint of heart but for those determined to become excellent persons. Three fields of study constitute his curriculum: (1) dealing with one’s own desires and aversions, (2) developing appropriate positive and negative impulses in our relationships with others, and (3) advanced logic for those alone who have already progressed in the other two more urgent fields. The first field requires limiting one’s desires and aversions exclusively to what one can actually ‘will’ and seek to carry out and thus be unimpeded and undistressed. Only such training of one’s desires and aversions equips one with the right kind of disposition to care effectively about other people. L sees recognition of the primacy of this field as key to grasping E’s ethics: self-concern must come first and foremost if we are to be enabled to properly fulfill our social roles. E’s constant use of military, athletic, and therapeutic metaphors illustrates how his students must dedicate themselves to their regimen. E’s Stoicism is an all-or-nothing practice for every waking moment of one’s life. The chapter concludes by contrasting the public reticence and self-deprecation of E with the self-promotion and false modesty of Dio Chrysostom, who L describes as “the modern equivalent of a media personality” (122).

A small complaint can be made about the discussion of E’s self-conception. L cites 1.2.29 where E says that to the command ‘Shave off your beard,’ he would reply ‘If I am a philosopher, I will not do so.’ L argues that E knows he is a philosopher and that he is so regarded (122). L distinguishes between a capital P Philosopher, who puts on displays of erudition, and a lower case p philosopher, who humbly seeks to be the Socrates of the Second Sophistic. But this distinction doesn’t really explain E’s reply. If a beard is the symbol of a Philosopher, why would a humble philosopher refuse to shave his off? L says E disclaims being a Philosopher. So how would submitting to depilation constitute an affront to his dignity? Shouldn’t E the philosopher be as indifferent to the hair on his face as he is to his alienable leg (see 161)? L sees E’s retort as an illustration of strength of character, but this falls short of explaining the cagey ‘if’, and so left this reader wanting more.

L’s sensitivity to the nuances of E’s tone and technique is displayed in Chapter Five. The way E’s tone and method shift registers — professorial then peremptory, hyperbolic then ironic, satirical then amused, encouraging then polemical — is deftly demonstrated. The changing rhetorical styles of discourses 1.20 ‘On how rationality is capable of studying itself’ and 4.9 ‘On lapsing from integrity’ are meticulously analyzed.

Chapter Six is splendid. From the perspective of orthodox Stoicism, what makes E’s theology most distinctive, L suggests, is how it serves as the explicit foundation for his moral psychology, and its warmly and urgently personalist tone. L explains how Stoic philosophers could accommodate gods in the plural since the Stoic divinity is ubiquitous, how E’s divinity is the maker of the best of all possible worlds, and how E gives no attention to theodicy since all badness pertains solely to human deficiencies. The Stoics identify God with rational perfection and nature, and so God is entirely immanent. No act of grace or redemption is needed since human beings are innately equipped by God to perfect themselves and eliminate the qualitative difference between the ideal human, the Sage, and the divine. E asserts God’s presence throughout nature as a universal mind, emphasizing theism over pantheism, and so L suggests labeling him a ‘panentheist’. E’s reticence concerning esoteric Stoic cosmology is contrasted with his interest in emphasizing our nature as social beings within a providentially managed world. L again sees Socrates’ imprint on E, citing two passages from Xenophon’s Memorabilia (1.1.11-16 and 4.3.2-18). E’s theology is distinctive within the Stoic tradition because he defends divine providence in the face of our bodily and external vulnerability, and he emphasizes the divine gift of our mental autonomy. When E speaks of a personal δαίμων, L sees this as the normative self and the voice of correct reason, equivalent to God, that is available to everyone. Here again we hear the echo of Socrates and his ‘divine sign.’ And just as Zeus does the best he can with the materials at hand, he models for us how we can display the same virtues by drawing on our mental and moral resources to make the best possible use of the materials that come our way. L’s discussion of E’s theology is easily the best exposition of its kind I have read.

The argument that E’s recourse to theology is not a betrayal of his Stoic rationalism and Socratic dialectic occupies Chapter Seven. L maintains that E saw theology as the best way to authorize the truth of Stoicism’s hardest doctrine — that human flourishing depends entirely on excellence of mind and character. The early Stoics’ ‘bottom-up’ approach — from the observable behavior of all animals to the divine laws that reason compels us to obey — is contrasted with E’s ‘top-down’ approach — where the concept of oikeiosis does not play a major role in justifying his main doctrines. The moral point of view is a God-given part of our nature from the outset, but due to our mistaken opinion that happiness results from acquiring material advantages, the moral point of view fails to develop. Epictetan happiness, L explains, is an achievement, not a mere psychological reaction, that we must compete long and hard for by training ourselves to make the best, virtuous use of every circumstance. A minor complaint is L’s omission of two works on the theory of οἰκείωσις in the notes to this chapter.3

Chapter Eight addresses two key, closely related concepts: autonomy and integrity. L observes that E is the only Stoic we know of who made προαίρεσις a key term in his philosophy. L suggests we take prohairesis in E to refer to just those mental capacities or dispositions that are completely ‘up to us’ and free from external constraint. Since we do not exercise total autonomy over the occurrence of our sense impressions, the prohairesis is distinct from the ἡγεμονικόν. L identifies three traces of Aristotle’s use of this term in E’s thought: (a) the idea that practical reason integrates thought and desire, (b) the restriction of this faculty to what is ‘up to us’, and (c) the link between prohairesis and moral character. E’s chief motivation for adopting this term, L contends, is the fact that our judgments and interpretations of the world are the critical factor in how we fare, and that they depend on nothing that is not ‘up to us.’ Unlike previous translators L prefers to translate prohairesis as ‘volition’ because this term best conveys E’s view that the essence of the self is our decision-making, purposive, and evaluative disposition. While complete autonomy is the proper condition of prohairesis, L thinks ‘volition’ has the advantage of not begging the question concerning the mind’s autonomy. For E, a free will is not a birthright but rather requires the arduous project of mastering Stoic philosophy. Furthermore, L thinks that in E’s philosophy volition has an essential monitoring aspect that manifests itself in people’s innate propensity to feel shame, respect others, and conform to social norms. L also departs from tradition in arguing that in E words like αἰδώς, πίστος, and γένναιος should be translated ‘integrity’, because what E urges his students to cultivate when he uses these terms is innate moral sensibility.

Chapter Nine addresses the second of E’s three fields of study identified in Chapter Four — appropriate actions and feelings in our relationships with others. L emphasizes that E does not urge his students to be emotionally numb in their social relations, but rather that his insistence that what is appropriate is not being unmoved ( ἀπαθής) like a statue is unparalleled in other Stoic authors. L explains how E appeals to a normative conception of what human beings are in order to advance his argument that our social roles determine how we ought to behave in relation to others, whereas how they behave in relation to us is ‘not up to us’ and so irrelevant. The moral benefits that accrue to us, for example, in being considerate to our parents, siblings, fellow citizens, etc. vastly outweigh the value of any material items we concede to them. Each role a person finds himself occupying provides a setting for him to distinguish himself in. We should respect others for who they are, rather than pity them for their difficult material circumstances. Nor should we lose sight of the vulnerability to injury and death of our loved ones. E again follows Socrates in tracing the source of wrongdoing to error: when the wrongdoer errs — Medea, for example — she does not do what she would want to do if she correctly understood that the goodness on which happiness depends is excellence of character. Consequently, E contends that we are no more justified in being angry with or harsh toward wrongdoers for their misdeeds than we are for being annoyed with the blind for what they fail to see. What of the person in the grips of grief and suffering? E maintains the Stoic will comfort the distraught person by showing her sympathy without feeling that person’s pain; the latter, after all, does no one any good.

The irony of the title of the epilogue, “The Afterlife of Epictetus,” lies in the fact that, with all Stoics, E did not believe in a continued existence of a person’s soul after the death of the body. The epilogue shows how this pagan philosopher’s “moral seriousness and sharp observations” (259) gripped so many subsequent prominent thinkers. These include the Alexandrian Christians Clement and Origen, the Neoplatonist commentator Simplicius, Justus Lipsius in the Netherlands, Guillaume du Vair in France, and many other Europeans who read frequently published translations of E’s Manual throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Admiring texts from Pascal and especially Descartes support L’s judgment that the peak of E’s influence was in the first half of the seventeenth century. E’s Stoic imprint is also evident in Anthony Ashley Cooper (the third Earl of Shaftesbury) and Bishop Joseph Butler. I would add Adam Smith, Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, to L’s list of E’s fans.4 L remarks that Pascal, Elizabeth Carter, whose first English translation of the Discourses in 1758 remained the standard for almost two-hundred years, and Mathew Arnold in the nineteenth-century, found E’s philosophy (not his character) lacking in Christian warmth and humility. In North America, on the other hand, E’s emphasis on autonomy and freedom won him fans like John Harvard, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, and most of all, Walt Whitman. Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full represents just the most recent instance of what L has ably shown to be E’s long and celebrated ‘afterlife’.

I found few printing errors: “of of” (104); “appoach” (120); “to to” (135); “agreeement” (152); “a a” (188). I did not find “Carter 1910” (261-2) among the references. L has done a marvelous job of showing both that and, in detail, how the main focus of E’s teaching is not on perfection, but on improving the mindset of ordinary persons. Fittingly, then, L’s book, like E’s philosophy itself, is not for the ideal Sage, but for us.


1. Epictet und die Stoa. Stuttgart: Frommann Verlag, 1890; Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet. Frommann Verlag, 1894.

2. See my review of Robert F. Dobbin (trans.) Epictetus. Discourses Book 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 ( BMCR 1999.11.21).

3. Troels Engberg-Pedersen, The Stoic theory of oikeiosis. Aarhus University Press, 1990, and Mary Whitlock Blundell, “Parental Nature and Stoic οἰκείωσις,” Ancient Philosophy 10, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 221-242.

4. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by D. D. Raphael & A. L. MacFie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976. Smith quotes or paraphrases E several times: Disc. 2.5.10-14 (59n-60n and 276-277), 2.5.24-26 (275), 1.25.18-21 (280), 1.25.15-17 (280), and Ench. 26 (141). Smith mentions E alongside Zeno and Chrysippus (143) and contrasts him, as the “independent and spirited, but often harsh” apostle of the fundamental Stoic doctrine of contempt of life and death, with “the mild, the humane, the benevolent” Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who is the apostle of the other fundamental Stoic doctrine, “the most entire submission to the order of Providence” (288).