Friends, this is a ‘precursor post’ to my book review of Enchiridion of Epictetus – an extant piece of literature written centuries ago by the eponymous Stoic philosopher. I am so impressed with the little book that I have decided to devote three different pieces of content to it. This is the first post in the series.
Let us start from the begining.
Around 330 BCE, Zeno, a wealthy merchant from Citium (modern-day Cyprus) laid the foundations of the Stoic school of philosophy. Zeno of Citium, as he later came to be known, lived the life of a recluse despite all the riches. It is said that Xenophon’s book Memorabilia had a deep impact on him and proved pivotal in altering his life trajectory.
The name Stoic came originally from the Greek phrase stoa poikilê which means a painted porch in English. It is said that Zeno used to deliver his lectures under one such painted porch in Athens.
Over the next three centuries, Stoicism expanded to become the most influential doctrine besides Plato’s school of thought in Greece and all over the Roman Empire.
Zeno’s successors Cleanthes and Chrysippus, especially Chrysippus, later powered the Stoic school to greater heights.
Around 155 BCE, different Greek schools were invited to Rome to take part in diplomatic parleys. The Stoic philosophers, in particular, made a great impression on the Romans. The event turned out to be pivotal in shifting of philosophy from Athens to Rome later.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is not just an intellectual philosophy, but a way of life. As a philosophical system, it focuses mostly on practical wisdom.
The cornerstone of Stoicism philosophy is that virtue is the highest good and is adequate for our happiness. It also teaches that wise people are indifferent to the transitions of fortune and pleasure and pain.
The phrase Stoic calm aptly captures the essence of these claims.
Modern-day Stoic Massimo Pigliucci describes the philosophy in a more comprehensive way. He states, “The general theory of Stoicism is that we can, and indeed, ought to live our lives with structure and coherence. Life is like an ongoing project aiming at an ideal (though likely unachievable) set of targets or aspirations.”
So if you were to ask – what would keep a Stoic up all night? The answer is the process or the means of achieving goals, not so much the goals themselves.
It is the means to achieve goals that excite them. So, if you like writing, you should exhaust all the options to become the best writer in the world. You may not get there, but you won’t have any regrets either that you did not give what you loved your best shot.
In short, the pursuit of moral and intellectual perfection is central to Stoicism.
The Central Tenet of Stoicism
One of the central tenets of the Stoic philosophy underlines that you should attune yourself to desire what the universe allows and not to run after what it does not allow.
Simply put, focus on the events you can control (your own behavior and actions) and stop sweating over the ones that lie outside your control.
Epictetus shares an interesting metaphor, that of a dog leashed to a moving cart. The dog can either fight the cart’s movement at every inch, thus hurting himself and ending up miserable, or he can decide to gingerly go along with the ride and enjoy the panorama.
In short, control the controllable and accept the outcome with equanimity.
Epictetus – The Teacher
Epictetus was born a slave in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) around 55 CE. When he was young, he was sold to a Roman councilor. It was in Rome that he came into his own. After gaining his freedom, he started teaching on street corners like many other philosophers plying their trade. I surmise that’s how the phrase ‘Street corner philosopher’ also came about.
He eventually returned to Nicopolis (Western Greece) to start his own school and became an eminent Stoic figure.
The Stoicism philosophy was divided into three areas of inquiry:
- Logic – the study of formal logic, dialectics (the art of discourse), and a theory of knowledge.
- Physics – the study of natural sciences and metaphysics.
- Ethics – the study of virtues and how to achieve a eudaimonic (blissful) life.
The triumvirate of Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius formed the most influential group of Stoics of the time. However, Epictetus is unique in a way that he was first and foremost a teacher.
Unlike Marcus Aurelius, who used Stoic philosophy to help his own cause, the Greek Stoic used it to transform the lives of his students.
As a teacher, he demanded his students not to just study philosophy but to practice it, and to demonstrate the progress they have made through their actions.
In short, he was a demanding teacher.
“The philosopher’s lecture room is a hospital: you ought not to walk out of it in a state of pleasure, but in pain—for you are not in good condition when you arrive!”Epictetus
Books of Epictetus
Prof John Sellars, a University of London professor claims in his book Stoicism that most ancient philosophical schools had ceased to exist by 529 CE. A large part of the Stoic texts was also lost around the same time. The ensuing medieval period saw Stoicism relegated to the backburner.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance period when the surviving manuscripts of Epictetus were widely read and published that Stoic philosophy started to spring back to life.
The first translation of the Enchiridion of Epictetus also happened around the same time.
Epictetus is one of the few Stoics of his time whose major works – Dissertationes and Enchiridion – survive until this day. Others being Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Dissertationes or discourses comprises the informal conversations between Epictetus and his students whom he used to prepared for the intricate business and political realities of the time.
Enchiridion or a handbook distills the central ideas found in the Dissertationes into a simpler form. It also contains a number of aphorisms, called fragments. It is said that these aphorisms are from the lost books of other Stoics.
Legend also has it that Epictetus himself did not write these books. Instead, he tasked one of his pupils Lucius Flavianus Arrianus aka Arrion with keeping the records of all his oral teachings. Arrion’s modern-day equivalent would be Blake Masters.
In recent decades, the study of ancient Stoic philosophy as a craft that was not just studied but also practiced has become increasingly popular. As a result, Enchiridion has been cited, edited, and translated many times.
What are the best books to read on Stoicism?
You must read the original works of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius if you wish to go down the path of Stoicism. Many prominent researchers have also delved into this field and published a lot of literature that sets things up in the modern-day context. Compared to the originals, these articulations are more comprehensive and accessible –
- The Stoic Challenge by William Baxtor Irvine
- Stoicism by John Sellars
- The Art of Living by John Sellars
- A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker
- How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
- The Obstance is the Way by Ryan Holiday
If you think that capping the S in Stoic is not required, then, you are wrong, it is. Otherwise, you may confuse Stoic with more prevalent English word stoic.
Both carry different meanings, though there are certain overlappings as well. The latter indicates a tough mental state where you become numb to pain. However, stoic is a subset of philosophical Stoic, and the two should be kept distinct.
To know more in this regard, I suggest you read Donald Robertson’s magnificent blog post on why it’s important to distinguish clearly between stoicism (small s) and Stoicism (capital S).
Candidly, I had no intent to write this article. I only wanted to publish a book review of Epictetus’ book Enchiridion which I just finished. But then, something spurred me to explore more about this school of thought and here I am. What follows in the next few days is my review of Enchiridion and my interpretations of some of the sayings from the book.
I hope you liked this exploratory article about Stoicism philosophy and one of its most influential proponents, Epictetus. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.