Monday, April 29, 2013

Enchiridion by Epictetus

Stoic philosophy in a nutshell
Epictetus, despite being born a slave in Greece, went on to become an influential philosopher of ancient Rome. Today he is considered one of the foremost thinkers of the Stoic school of thought. His teachings were oral; he wrote no books himself. In AD 108, however, a student of his, Arrian, transcribed and collected his lectures into a multi-volume work known as the Discourses. About two decades later, shortly before the death of Epictetus, Arrian compiled another, briefer work know as the Enchiridion (a.k.a. Manual or Handbook), the purpose of which was an attempt to popularize Epictetus’s teachings and gain a wider audience for Stoic thought.

The Enchiridion is divided into 52 chapters or sections, most of which are less than a page long. Some are little more than aphorisms. Each section is filled with helpful pearls of wisdom applicable to facing the trials of everyday life. Stoicism advocates living one’s life in accordance with nature. The only things we really have control of in life are our judgments, opinions, and desires. All else is beyond our control, and handed to us by the universe. The key to tranquility and happiness is to resign ourselves to fate and form our opinions such that we cease desiring or fearing those things which are beyond our control. It is in man’s nature to be a rational animal, and it is only by using our faculty of reason that we can live up to our potential as human beings and live a life free of anger, fear, grief, frustration, and shame. The Enchiridion essentially offers a code of conduct which, when practiced, can allow us to live such a life. Modern readers can still find much use for the ethical code of living that Epictetus prescribed almost two millennia ago.

As good as the Enchiridion is, it is by no means a substitute for reading the Discourses, which are the truly authoritative compendium of Epictetus’s thought. The Enchiridion can be useful to two main types of readers. The first type is the reader who is curious about Stoicism, but not ready to invest the time and energy into tackling the Discourses. For this reader, the Enchiridion offers an accessible introduction to Stoic concepts. The brevity of the Enchiridion, however, requires a much more dogmatic tone—“You must do this. You must not do that.”—that may be off-putting to the newcomer. It lacks the nuance and detail that the Discourses provide in explaining these lofty goals and instructing the student in how to achieve them.

The second type of reader for whom the Enchiridion will prove useful is one who has already read the Discourses. For this reader, the Enchiridion serves as a cheat sheet or crib notes to the Discourses’ complicated contents. Each brief passage provides a reminder of the lessons that were more fully covered in the more extensive work. The Enchiridion can be utilized as an inspirational text for the disciple of reason, a simplified encapsulation of Stoic thought that can easily and frequently be consulted for ethical guidance.

Regardless of your reasons for approaching the Enchiridion, you really can’t go wrong in reading this brief but powerful work. For a minimal investment of your time, it just might change your life.

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