Epictetus' Philosophy

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Source: The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. A Translation from the Greek based on that of Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1865).


ELIZABETH CARTER’S version of Epictetus has outlived every English prose translation of its day, and has admirably held its ground with readers. While Marcus Aurelius has had a series of English versions, the complete works of Epictetus have had but this one, reproduced in four different editions. Even of the “Enchiridion,” or Manual, of which there had been at least five different versions in England, before her time, — two of which had passed respectively through six editions, — I am not aware that any later translation has there been printed. And the main reason unquestionably is, that there was absolutely no work done, at that date, of so good a quality.

Thomas Taylor indeed grudgingly says that this translation “is as good as a person ignorant of philosophy can be supposed to make.”* But the philosophy of Epictetus was altogether of the practical sort, and quite unlike those cloudy regions of Proclus and Plotinus in which Thomas Taylor loved to wander. Whatever it was, Elizabeth Carter understood it, and rendered it almost too technically; and if she knew less of philosophy than “the Platonist,” she knew Greek a great deal better. There is no reason to doubt that she was, as her friend Dr. Johnson declared, the best Greek scholar in England of her day. She certainly surpassed the contemporary Latin translator, Upton, whose edition of Epictetus was deservedly the standard one, until that of Schweighäuser; and I have rarely examined a point disputed between her and Schweighäuser, without siding with her at last. After saying this, it is no great stretch of humility to admit my own inferiority, and to claim only the advantage of writing more than a century later, and hence with more side-lights and a more modern style.

I hesitated for some time, whether to call this book simply a revision of Elizabeth Carter’s translation, or a new one based on hers. The latter alternative was finally chosen, less in order to claim for myself any credit of hers, than to save her from sharing any discredit of mine. The enterprise was begun simply as a revision. But to revise any translation made a century ago, is like underrunning a telegraphic cable: one may inspect a good deal of it, and find but trifling repairs needful; and then one may come to a point where a wholly new piece must go in. These substitutions multiplied so rapidly, — and even where the changes were slight, they touched words and phrases so vital, — that the name I have chosen is really the least dishonest that could be given. After all, it shows the thoroughness of Elizabeth Carter’s work, that this process of “underrunning” was practicable at all. With the loose, dashing, piquant school of translators who preceded her in that century, as L’Estrange and Collier, such an attempt would have been absurdity. They are very racy reading, — indeed, a capital study for coarse, colloquial English, — but there is no foundation of accuracy in them. Yet the style of Epictetus has a concise and even delicate precision which no language but Greek could perhaps attain; and to do justice to this without loss of popular intelligibility requires all Elizabeth Carter’s faithfulness, combined with an amount of purely literary effort which she did not always make. She apologizes, in her letters, for “the uncouthness, in many places, of a version pretty strictly literal.” If she erred on this side, perhaps I have erred in allowing myself a terminology, not more diffuse than hers, but more pliant and varied. But after all, unless a new English version is to be popularized, there seems no use in making it at all.

Epictetus limits himself strictly to giving a code of practical ethics. Not ignoring metaphysics in their proper place, he directs his aims elsewhere. His essential principles are very simple. All things (he holds) receive their character from our judgment concerning them; all objects, all events, are merely semblances or phenomena, to be interpreted according to the laws which nature gives us. An obvious classification at once occurs; all things are either controllable by will, or uncontrollable. If controllable, we may properly exert towards them our desire or aversion, though always guardedly and moderately. If uncontrollable, they are nothing to us, and we are merely to acquiesce, not with resignation alone, but joyously, knowing that an all-wise Father rules the whole.* All success comes, according to Epictetus, from obedience to this rule; all failure proceeds from putting a false estimate on the phenomena of existence, from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. “Two rules we should have always ready, — that there is nothing good or evil save in the Will; and, that we are not to lead events, but to follow them.” (p. 221.) This last is singularly identical with the wise Quaker motto, on which Elizabeth Fry based her remarkable practical successes, “to follow, not force, Providence.”

These simple principles are developed pithily in the “Enchiridion” or Manual, and more elaborately in the Discourses. Neither work was written by Epictetus, but both were taken down from his lips. The “Enchiridion” was made the subject, in the sixth century, of an elaborate Greek Commentary by Simplicius, which was translated into English by Stanhope, and was again made the text for a commentary longer than itself by Milton’s adversary, Salmasius.

There is no stain upon the consistent nobleness of these Discourses. One can point out some omissions, some points where our subtle human organization eludes the simple system of Epictetus. But all which is here is noble. All the common complaints against the Stoic philosophy, — all charges of arrogance, uncharitableness, cold isolation, approval of suicide, — are refuted altogether by his clear statements. “What is the first business of one who studies philosophy? To part with self-conceit.” (p. 148.) “That we ought not to be angry with the erring,” forms the subject of a special chapter. (p. 54.) “All is full of beloved ones . . . . by nature endeared to each other.” (p. 266.) “Who is there whom bright and agreeable children do not attract to play and creep and prattle with them?” (p. 185.) The philosopher, “when beaten, must love those who beat him.” (p. 250.) As to suicide, there is a special argument against it. (p. 30.) In other places he alludes to it ironically, in a sort of contempt; or vindicates Providence by showing that we are not coerced even into living on earth, if we do not desire, but even in this last resort, our will is free. He also implies, more than once, that suicide, which is the cowardice of a moment, is after all less blasphemous than the settled habit of faithless complaint. For this querulousness is what rouses beyond all things his indignation.

In his practical examples, he constantly recurs to the noblest traits of his famous predecessors, — as Socrates, Diogenes, and Zeno; and he also gives us glimpses of the finest characters, whose names are else unfamiliar, — as Rufus and Euphrates. Indeed, all his standards are practical; he denounces, satirizes, and riddles through and through all pretenders to philosophy, all mere logicians or rhapsodists; and brings all to the test of practical righteousness. Indeed, it is a favorite suggestion of his, that no man should ever profess to be a philosopher, but that each should leave this character to be inferred from his actions. “It is not reasonings that are wanted now,” he says, “for there are books stuffed full of stoical reasonings. What is wanted, then? The man who shall apply them; whose actions may bear testimony to his doctrines. Assume this character for me, that we may no longer make use in the schools of the examples of the ancients, but may have some examples of our own.” (p. 90.)

So far as the scanty record goes, and the testimony of contemporaries, Epictetus was himself such a man. He was probably born at Hierapolis in Phrygia, and he lived at Rome, in the first century of our era, as the slave of Epaphroditus, a freedman of Nero. Origen preserves an anecdote of Epictetus, that when his master once put his leg in the torture, his philosophic slave quietly remarked, “You will break my leg”; and when this presently happened, he added, in the same tone, “Did I not tell you so?” He afterwards became free, and lived very frugally at Rome, teaching philosophy. Simplicius says that the whole furniture of his house consisted of a bed, a cooking-vessel, and an earthen lamp; and Lucian ridicules a man who bought the latter, after his death, in hopes to become a philosopher by using it.

When Domitian banished the philosophers from Rome, Epictetus retired to Nicopolis, a city of Epirus, where he taught as before. He still lived in the same frugal way, his only companions being a young child, whom he adopted, in the later years of his life, because its parents abandoned it, and a woman whom he employed as its nurse. He suffered from extreme lameness, and, according to his contemporary, Aulus Gellius, composed a couplet to proclaim his gratitude to the Gods, in spite of these misfortunes. “Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, an Irus in poverty, and favored by the Immortals.”* After Hadrian became Emperor ( 117), Epictetus was treated with favor, but probably did not return to Rome. In these later years of his life, his discourses were written down by his disciple Arrian, a man of the highest character, both as a philosopher and as an historian. But four of the original eight books remain. The date of Epictetus’s death is entirely unknown.

Marcus Aurelius ranked this philosopher with Socrates, and Origen thought that his writings had done more good than those of Plato. In modern times, Niebuhr has said of him. “Epictetus’s greatness cannot be questioned, and it is impossible for any person of sound mind not to be charmed by his works.” I am acquainted with no book more replete with high conceptions of the Deity, and noble aims for man; nor do I know any in which the inevitable laws of retribution are more grandly stated, with less of merely childish bribery or threatening. It is pathetic to see good Mrs. Carter apologizing for this elevation of thought as if it were a weakness, and to find Merivale censuring it as “a low and popular view” to represent vice as its own punishment and virtue as its own reward. It is not, however, my object to vindicate these plain principles, but to let them speak for themselves, with as much as possible of their original clearness.

It has not seemed to me strange, but very natural, to pass from camp life to the study of Epictetus. Where should a student find contentment in enforced withdrawal from active service, if not in “the still air of delightful studies”? There seemed a special appropriateness, also, in coming to this work from a camp of colored soldiers, whose great exemplar, Toussaint l’Ouverture, made the works of this his fellow-slave a favorite manual. Moreover, the return of peace seems a fitting time to call anew the public attention to those eternal principles on which alone true prosperity is based; and, in a period of increasing religious toleration, to revive the voice of one who bore witness to the highest spiritual truths, ere the present sects were born.

T. W. H.


[For the Complete Works.]

1. Epicteti quæ supersunt Dissertationes ab Arriano collectæ, . . . . illustravit Joannes Uptonus, Præbend. Rossensis. Londini, 1741. 2 vols. 8vo.

2. Epicteti Dissertationum libri iv. . . . . post J. Uptoni aliorumque curas, edidit J. Schweighäuser. Lipsiæ, 1799, 1800. 5 vols. in 6. 8vo.

3. The Works of Epictetus, . . . . translated from the original Greek, by Mrs. Elizabeth Carter. . . . . London, 1758. 4to. [2d ed., 2 vols., 12mo, 1759. 3d ed., 2 vols., 12mo, 1768. 4th ed., 2 vols., 8vo, 1804.]

4. . . . . Epicteti Dissertationes ab Arriani literis mandatæ. . . . . [Didot, Bib. Græc.] Parisiis, 1840. 8vo.

[For the Enchiridion.]

5. Simplicii Commentarius in Enchiridion Epicteti, . . . . cum versione Hier. Wolfii et Cl. Salmasii animadversionibus. . . . . Lugduni Batavorum, 1640. 4to.

6. The most excellent Morals of Epictetus made English in a Poetical Paraphrase, by Ellis Walker, M. A. London, 1692. 12mo. [Also, London, 1697, 1701, 1709, 1716, 1732; Boston, Mass., 1863, from the edition of 1716. The two latter are those which I have seen.]

7. Epictetus, his Morals, with Simplicius, his Commentary. Made English from the Greek by George Stanhope. . . . . London, 1694. 12mo. [Also, London, 1700, 1704, 1721, 1741, 1750.]

8. Epicteti Manuale. . . . . Græce et Latine in usum tyronum accommodati. . . . . illustravit Joseph Simpson. Editio Quarts. Londini, 1758. 8vo.

9. Epicteti Enchiridion Græce et Latine . . . . curavit Chr. Gottl. Heyne. Altera Editio. Varsaviæ, 1776. 18mo. [A previous edition at Dresden, 1756.]

10. Manuale di Epicteto . . . . secondo la Versione del Rev. Padre Pagnini. [Opere di G. D. Romagnosi. Vol. I. Part 2.] Milano, 1844. 8vo.

[The following English versions I find mentioned in Adam Clarke’s “Account of English Translations of Greek and Roman Classics.” London, 1806; — but I have not met with them.

1. The Manual of Epictetus, translated out of Greek into French, and now into English, compared with two Latin translations, . . . . by Jas. Sandford. London, 1567. 8vo.

2. The Life and Philosophy of Epictetus . . . . rendered into English by John Davies. London, 1670. 8vo.

3. The Manual of Epictetus the Philosopher, translated from the original Greek by Wm. Bond. London, 1730. 12mo.

Ellis Walker, in his preliminary life of Epictetus, speaks of still another English translation, by Healey; also of French versions by Du Vair and Boileau. There is also a critical edition of the Enchiridion, by Coray, with a French translation (Paris, 1826), which I have not seen.]

[* ]See his translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, B. III. c. 3, note.

[* ]Compare pages 12, 22, 29, 40, 44, 147, 255, 265, 288, etc.

[* ]Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticæ, B. II. c. 18. Salmasius, however, doubts the genuineness of this passage. (Com., ed. 1640, p. 3.) The same epigram has been attributed to Leonidas of Tarentum.