BMCR 2021.12.42

Epictetus and laypeople: a Stoic stance toward non-Stoics

, Epictetus and laypeople: a Stoic stance toward non-Stoics. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020. Pp. 192. ISBN 9781793618238. $100.00.


The topic of this book, as its captivating title suggests, is the attitude of the Stoics, especially Epictetus, “toward a group that would have constituted the largest segment of the society that surrounded them” (p. xi): laypeople, i.e., “individuals who lacked philosophical training” (p. xi), though this initial definition gets enriched afterwards. The author aims to highlight the value of this question and to present the complexity of the Stoic stance towards non-philosophers: their distinction between the two groups of people, their identification of the requirements for and obstacles to the transition from one group to the other, their discernment of the people capable of becoming philosophers, their reconstruction of the anthropological origin of vice and virtue, their account of the psychological basis of the human capability to progress, their assessment of educational resources other than philosophy, and their development of didactic strategies suitable for laypeople.

These different facets make up the core of the seven chapters of the book under review, following a short introduction, which presents the topic and the figure of Epictetus, gives an outline of the book, comments on the sources taken into account, discusses the Greek lexicon of ‘laity’, and explains the author’ translation choices.

The first chapter is devoted to the distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers in classical antiquity, a question that is considered in particular through the evidence of Epictetus. The author reflects on the criteria for granting someone the title of philosopher and on the negative portrayal of the layperson. The next chapter explores the three factors that, according to Epictetus and more generally in the Stoic perspective, make moral progress difficult. These include embodiment itself, habits of inappropriate behaviour starting from one’s childhood, and the lack of leisure time. To these one must add that the Stoics think that not everybody is able to profit from a philosophical training, an issue that is the subject of the third chapter. Here the author finds in Epictetus the opinion, on the one hand, that individuals must have certain qualities to become philosophers, and the recognition, on the other, of the difficulty (or rather the futility) of disseminating philosophical ideas to laypeople publicly, when one has not previously ensured that the listeners are able to grasp one’s teaching and, if they can, to profit from them.

The author then turns, in the fourth chapter, to the anthropological basis of the human tendency to vice and to tools for progress other than philosophical training. These are treated, respectively, in light of the Stoics’ theories about the origin and development of humanity and of their conception of their doctrines as conduits for natural law. The topic of the origin of vice then flows, in Chapter 5, into a study of the Stoic notion of prolepsis (‘preconception’), which assigns to all human beings a predisposition to virtue and responsibility over their own progress. The sixth chapter is centred on the concession by the Stoics, and in particular by Epictetus, that there are means of moral progress other than the traditional route through philosophical education. The two considered here are civic religion in its various forms (including divination and mantic) and civic law.

The final chapter concerns the use of exempla, in which the author recognizes one of the most useful didactic tools for giving laypeople a philosophical education. As in the other parts of the book, the author focuses specifically on Epictetus’ reflection on, and use of, exempla, including the different kinds of people around which Epictetus builds these exempla.

The book ends with a brief conclusion, in which the outcomes of the research are recapitulated, and themes and research paths for future enquiries are suggested. The book is equipped, lastly, with a general index (including references to ancient and modern names, and to some key concepts) and with a rich bibliography (to which one should probably add at least two studies offering important insights into the topic of this book by Colardeau and D’Jeranian).[1]

 In my opinion, the book under review has several merits, that can be summed up by saying that it offers, in a well-documented, clear, and systematic way, an original point of view on a topic that has not been much studied. The account of Epictetus’ reflections on exempla, which fills a void in the existing scholarship, deserves special note; but so does the study of the moralizing function that Epictetus attributes to civic religion and law (although this is not such a new topic in the scholarship).[2]

Moreover, the author employs the evidence for Epictetus in a convincing manner, and the pairing of this evidence with other Stoic testimonies supports the author’s claim that, in several ways, Epictetus’ thought follows a longer school tradition.

Not only does the book engage extensively with existing secondary literature, but it is written in language that is accessible and precise, and the various chapters are linked together in a logical way and according to a scheme carefully presented in the introduction and summarized in the conclusion.

However, this book cannot be appreciated unconditionally. In the first place, although we are given the original Greek and Latin for passages translated in the book, they are often affected by typos – the quotation on p. 103 provides a striking example, but the typos are extremely frequent; also, we are not given information about the critical editions on which quotations are based.

Apart from this, from a conceptual point of view the most serious issue is that the selection of topics relevant to the question at hand seems tendentious. The first chapter, dealing with the distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers in antiquity, lays foundations for a characterization of laypeople that seems to be determined by the what the author thinks of the Greek term ἰδιώτης. But later on, the author focuses rather on questions about what makes it hard to get from being a layperson to a philosopher. This turns the discussion in a direction that may not be completely in line with the readers’ expectations: from the initial discussion, we would rather expect a reconstruction of the situation of laypeople as it emerges from the discourses Epictetus addresses to them, from the way he treats them, and, in a word, from their characterization in Epictetus’ corpus. In this context it could have been helpful to think about how laypeople interact with Epictetus in the Discourses, what features Arrian or Epictetus himself ascribe to them, and the interests that brought them to the philosopher’s school. Knowing something more about these people, what they expect from their meeting with Epictetus, and what he thinks about them would have enhanced the treatment of the topic of Chapter 3, which deals with the testing of people’s ability to profit from a philosophical training and with the selection that the Stoics, and specifically Epictetus, make of their pupils.

The link between Chapter 3 and what follows, and the connection between the last four chapters are not completely compelling. The fourth chapter, “Nonscholastic instruction and primitive humanity”, efficiently introduces the two following chapters, but does little to connect them to the first three. The transition from (a) the Stoics’ negative attitude towards the possibility of laypeople profitably receiving a philosophical training to (b) their “more positive sentiments” (181) regarding the possibility for laypeople to morally progress appears abrupt, and the less justified because the topic of the first part of the book is not exhaustively treated. A similar problem affects Chapter 5, on preconceptions: these do indeed form a cornerstone of the human capability to progress, but not the only one (one might talk about the seeds of virtue, the doctrine of oikeiôsis and so on). The final chapter, on exempla, although extremely engaging, leaves the reader with the same impression of inconclusiveness: one understands well its relevance to the author’s research, but it is not quite well integrated as a final reflection on Epictetus’ stance toward laypeople.

In the end, this book, whose prose is smooth and a pleasure to read, and which does not demand previous in-depth knowledge of Stoic philosophy or of Epictetus’ thinking, allows for a good approach to a fascinating subject that is not much studied. But the book is not – and does not present itself as – an exhaustive study, completely satisfying the reader’s curiosity.


[1] T. Colardeau, Étude sur Épictète, Paris, Thorin, 1903 ; O. D’Jeranian, ‘Sur l’école d’Épictète’, Cahiers Philosophique, 151 (2017), p. 91-104.

[2] See for example, on Epictetus’ theism, K. Algra, ‘Epictetus and Stoic theology’, in A. Mason & T. Scaltsas (eds.), The philosophy of Epictetus, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 32-55; on the relationship, in Epictetus’ thought, between one’s identity as citizen and their duty to respect civic laws: see B. E. Johnson, The role ethics of Epictetus. Stoicism in ordinary life, Plymouth, Lexington, 2014.