Sometimes, you read books that leave you basking in the afterglow. Enchiridion of Epictetus is one such book. This little book instilled in me a sense of enlightenment. If I were asked to review this book in one sentence, I would say that it packs a wallop.
Actually I was so enthused that I decided to write three different pieces of content about it.
The book synthesizes the teachings of the Greek Stoic philosopher in byte-sized quotes. To know how this book came about and survived through twenty centuries, please read on.
Epictetus was born to a female slave. When he was young, he was sold to a Roman royalty who took him to Rome with him. There, Epictetus met Stoic philosophers of the day and was impressed with what he saw.
One Gaius Musonius Rufus took a special liking to him and decided to take Epictetus under his wings. It was the influence of Rufus that shaped Epictetus into a practitioner and not a mere teacher of Stoicism.
After he had been banished from Rome, he returned to Nicopolis (Greece) to set up his own school. His reputation began to rise and students from far regions and Rome started landing at his school.
The obedient pupil
When Epictetus was in his old age, a young Roman student named Arrion arrived at the school. The casual conversations between Epictetus and his pupils captivated Arrion a great deal.
So influenced was he that he started to transcribe the class lectures and discourses of his guru into notes to keep them for posterity.
Years later he published those notes under the title: Dissertationes (Discourses). He wrote another manuscript which was a distillation of foundational Stoic philosophy, much simpler than Discourses. This collection later became Enchiridion of Epictetus.
The time-tested book
Epictetus is one of the few ancient Stoic philosophers whose works are still extant. Others include Cicero’s De Officiis, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and Seneca’s Letters.
Evidence suggests that writings of most ancient Stoic philosophers vanished in sands of time c. 7CE. Those that did survive, disappeared from public cognizance soon after.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance period that these works resurfaced.
The two books of Epictetus – Dissertationes and Enchiridion – reappeared in circulation during the 15th century when the lost and found manuscripts were translated into vernacular languages.
The Flemish philosopher Justus Lipsius played a key role not only in the revival of Epictetus’ book but also in the resuscitation of ancient Stoicism.
Many intellectuals and philosophers of that time read Enchiridion and spoke highly of it. One of its famous evangelists was the French philosopher and the pioneer of essay writing – Michel de Montaigne.
The first English translation came soon afterward around the 16th century. After the English translation, Enchiridion of Epictetus blew up, figuratively. The ensuing period witnessed such illustrious figures as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson citing the book in their studies and lectures.
The epitome of Stoic philosophy
The practical advice in Enchiridion focuses mainly on ethics. Apparently, Arrion while taking notes didn’t pay as much attention to the other two pillars of the philosophy – Physics (cosmology) and Logic.
The book comprises of two sections. The teachings of Epictetus which Arrion distilled into an easier form appear in the first section in the form of 52 impactful sayings.
There is a second section titled Fragments that contains 178 aphorisms. Not all quotes in this section can be attributed to Epictetus though. It is said that Fragments is an amalgamation of the lost works of Epictetus and other authors.
I read the Dover Thrift Edition translated by George Lang. But I had to rely on many other resources on the Internet to decipher some of the incomprehensible quotes. I have shared some of the references at the end of this post.
The gist of Stoic philosophy can be epitomized in the following quote of Epictetus –
“The only thing we control is our will, and God has given us a will that cannot be influenced or thwarted by external events – unless we allow it.”Epictetus
Centuries later, the holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl also echoed the same sentiments in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. He wrote – “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The Enchiridion synthesizes such ideas of Epictetus in a simpler form.
The book entails recommendations ranging from the rules of social conduct to the sexual abstinence before marriage. Succinctly, a potential Stoic will find in this little book, all principles of perfection and all tenets for inculcating philosophical principles in his conduct.
No wonder, the Enchiridion became known as a manual of applied Stoicism.
Enchiridion has affected the world of modern intellect and philosophy a great deal. In the last five decades alone, the book has been edited, translated, and published many times.
Often considered the epitome of the Stoic philosophy, Enchiridion of Epictetus has had remarkable effects on its readers. This becomes more significant when you consider that it was not intended to be a philosophical treatise on Stoicism for students.
Many modern Stoics – influenced by Epictetus’ works – such as Massimo Pigliucci, Donald Robertson, William Irvine, Lawrence Becker, Ryan Holiday, and appeared on the scene in the last two decades.
Read this little yet great book. It teems with practical pieces of advice from the ancient Stoic.
You might find some quotes hard to digest and some bits of advice hard to execute, but then, there are no easy roads. Success is achieved only when you take the hard, unforeseen roads in life. There is a reason why the book survives to this day; due to its ageless, time-tested wisdom.
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