Monday, March 11, 2013

Discourses by Epictetus

An inspirational text for the rationally inclined
Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, did not leave behind any writings of his own, but fortunately his lectures were transcribed by a student, Arrian, and compiled around AD 108 into the collection known as the Discourses. The Discourses consist of 95 chapters of varying length divided into four books. The chapters don’t necessarily follow each other in a sequential train of thought. Nevertheless, Arrian did a pretty good job of editing and ordering the pieces so that they do proceed in a somewhat logical progression. Of the works by ancient Stoic philosophers that have been passed down to us, the Discourses is rightly seen by many to be the most important and complete expression of the thought of this ancient philosophical school.

The Stoic philosophy, as taught by Epictetus, can be expressed in a nutshell, as follows. Some things in life are within our control, while others are not. Those which are in our control are our own will, our opinions and desires, and the actions which we assent to. Everything else is beyond our control and should be accepted rather than hated or feared. The key to happiness and tranquility is to live one’s life in accordance with the natural order of things. This is done by rejecting irrational desires, resigning oneself to providence, and forming one’s opinions to accept what the universe dispenses. Everything beyond the control of one’s will is neither good nor bad, but indifferent. By utilizing one’s faculty of reason, to want only those things which are in our control, we can live a life free of anger, fear, grief, frustration, and shame. Of course, the Discourses go into much more detail as to how this is accomplished, but these are the fundamental ideas.

Epictetus believed that philosophy was useless unless it changed people’s lives for the better. He had little tolerance for philosophy as a pointless intellectual exercise. His teachings are filled with practical concepts that his students, ancient or modern, can use to live happier and more meaningful lives. It is almost useless to highlight passages from the Discourses, because there’s hardly a sentence contained therein that’s not worthy of being singled out as a pearl of wisdom. The book’s only fault is that it is quite repetitive. The same messages are reiterated over and over, so that they become second nature to the student. For that reason, it’s most effective to read the Discourses in small chunks, and allow yourself time in between servings to digest its lessons.

Such repetition, of course, is a useful tool of all inspirational texts, and the Discourses can be seen as a sort of secular Bible, a book to turn to for advice when in need of solace or personal clarification. Epictetus uses the word “God” many times throughout the Discourses, but it is used synonymously with comparable terms like “nature,” “the gods,” “Zeus,” “fate,” or “providence,” making it clear that his idea of God is different from the Judeo-Christian sense of the word. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers’ conception of a monotheistic deity was a sort of precursor to the Christian version, and was much more Pantheistic in nature, resembling a kind of universal force that governs and guides the actions of the universe and the lives of men. This force could either be interpreted as divine direction or materialistic determinism, thus the basic teachings of Stoicism can be appreciated and utilized by readers of all beliefs, theist or atheist alike. The Discourses is really too complex to be of interest to the casual reader simply looking for self-help advice, but for anyone who takes philosophy seriously, this book will change your life.

After sampling a few of the inexpensive Kindle versions of Epictetus’s writings, I purchased a combined edition called Discourses and Enchiridion, offered by Amazon. I can’t be more specific than that, because the publisher is not named on Amazon nor in the file itself. I chose it because of its easy-to-read typography and interactive table of contents, but the file is riddled with typographic errors. It was edited by spell-check, so the typos take the form of word replacements like “be” for “he” or “the” for “they,” making it even more difficult to figure out. It claims itself to be “annotated,” but there are no notes in the Discourses, only in the Enchiridion. The translation of the Enchiridion by Elizabeth Carter is fine, but the translation of the Discourses by George Long is a clumsy read, with oddly constructed sentences and confusing terminology. I have read some passages from the translation by P.E. Matheson and found them to be a much smoother read and easier to comprehend. The generic Long edition is only worthy of two or three stars. I would recommend buying the Matheson version, even if it’s a couple bucks more.

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