Monday, June 5, 2023


From a review of a new translation of Epictetus:
The first-century Stoic philosopher and teacher Epictetus was an enslaved person who succeeded in getting an education and, eventually, his freedom. Images of freedom, slavery and self-belonging (oikoiesis) recur in his teaching. ‘A slave is always praying to be set free,’ he writes. .... Slavery powered the Roman Empire; in the first century CE, between 10 and 20 per cent of the population were enslaved at any one time. But Epictetus was not an abolitionist in a political sense. Like other ancient philosophers, he assumed that slavery was normal and would always exist. He never suggests that those who claimed to own their fellow human beings were committing a moral evil. His aim was to free others from the ‘tyrannic sway’ not of literal enslavers, but of the emotional disturbance caused by false belief. ....

.... For the Stoics...the true good is individual human excellence or virtue – aretē in Greek, or virtus in Latin. Such excellence, for the Stoics, could be attained only by aligning your own will with the universe, nature or God (the Stoics often spoke of a singular deity). The central theme in the teaching of Epictetus is that we can and must choose to stop paying attention to things we have no control over. ‘Some things are up to us and some are not,’ the Handbook begins – foreshadowing the teachings of modern recovery programmes and the Serenity Prayer, with its distinction between the things we can change and the things we cannot. ....

How useful is Epictetus’ version of Stoicism as a tool for getting through life? .... It may be helpful for coping with the annoyance, frustration and boredom of daily life. .... This is a useful principle to bear in mind if your train or plane is delayed by several hours and then cancelled. It can be soothing to remember that there is nothing unusual about such occurrences, which are beyond your control, allowing you to stay calm and align your will with that of the universe. ....

The teachings of Epictetus are rather less useful when it comes to interactions with other people. ‘If you kiss a child of yours,’ he says, ‘or your wife, tell yourself that you’re kissing a human being, because then you won’t be upset if they die.’ .... (more)
This is an interesting insight into a pagan philosophy that influenced some early Christian thinkers, useful to an extent, but far from sufficient.

Emily Wilson, "I have gorgeous hair," London Review of Books, June 1, 2023.

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