An Introduction to the Enchiridion of Epictetus

In Enchiridion of Epictetus, Essays, Philosophy, Stoicism

The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a small book, no bigger than a thin paperback. It’s a distillation of the philosophy of Epictetus, a Stoic who was born almost two thousand years ago, ca. 50 A.D.

We don’t know much about him but what we do know is quite interesting. He was lame, probably due to a broken leg, an injury he suffered in his youth while he was a slave in Rome before becoming a freedman.

I find this highly fascinating because here is a philosopher who really has suffered hardships. Philosophy is often criticized for being a rich person’s hobby, because only they have the time to sit around reading and discussing. Obviously that couldn’t be further from the truth, and I think Epictetus expressed that in his very existence.

The question about relevance could be raised. Can something written close to two thousand years ago still be applicable today? Hasn’t society and our way of life changed so much that we require a new, modern philosophy of life?

Maybe, maybe not.

Two thousand years sounds like a long time, but evolutionarily speaking, it’s a blink. As a species we haven’t changed.

Upon further inspection we can come to the realisation that the problems they had back then are not so different to the problems we have now. They were, just like we are now, afflicted by greed, envy, alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, war, pollution, disease, political upheavals and much more.

The way we do things might be different, but the things themselves haven’t changed.

The Romans may have razed Carthage to the ground by hand and the Americans razed Fallujah to the ground by aerial bombing, the result was the same.

What I aim to do in the following months, perhaps years, is to post each of the 53 “chapters” (I say “chapters” because some are just a couple of sentences long) from the Enchiridion and discuss the meaning behind the words. Some chapters are several paragraphs long, others a mere sentence, but each one offers profound insights into how we may live a more fulfilling, happy, and tranquil life. I will be taking the text from the Penguin Classics Edition which is translated by Robert Dobbin. This edition cost around £15/$15 and also includes the Discourses also other fragments.

I can also recommend the Dover Thrift Edition which is translated by the Stoic scholar George Long. I highly recommend it, it’s fairly easy to read, stays open at any page and slim and light enough to take along on journeys. You can pick it up for about £2/$3. The only reason that I’m not using this edition is that I just moved to other side of the world with just one small piece of hand-luggage and as the Penguin Classics Edition contain both the Enchiridion and the Discourses I decided to take it so I have more to read in one book instead of taking multiple books.

Alternatively:

  • You can find a PDF of the Enchiridion with a quick Google search. The translations will obviously be different, but I do not imagine there will be a great variation in the actual contents.

  • I’ve got a freely available version written on my website.

The format for the posts will be as such: I will quote the chapter in full and then discuss it and clear up any possible areas of confusion. Of course, this will be all my opinion, so read with a skeptical mind and come to your own conclusions. I will try my best to include links at the end of each essay to other discussions and viewpoints.

Let’s turn our attention back to Epictetus.

Firstly, it’s interesting to note that he didn’t actually write the Enchiridion. Just like Seneca, Epictetus didn’t write anything down. He taught by having discussions and giving lectures at his school. We are lucky enough that his teachings were recorded by his pupil, Arrian.

From Arrian’s notes two books have emerged: the Discourses and the Enchiridion. As I alluded to earlier, the Enchiridion is a distillation of Epictetus’s Stoic philosophy and so there is plenty of overlap between the Discourses and the Enchiridion.

The Enchiridion deals with Ethics, also known as moral philosophy . I like to think of as “philosophy for life”. What we should do, what we should not do and everything in-between. You will see that everything in the Enchiridion is grounded in practical advice that you can apply to your everyday life. You will not find “high-brow” (in other words – useless) philosophical problems that can never actually be resolved.

The aim of the Stoic philosophy is to achieve eudaimonia which vaguely translates into “happiness” or “flourishing”. My idea of eudaimonia is live a prolific life, doing the most to fulfil my potential as a human being, without sacrificing my tranquility, happiness and ethical framework.

To lead a happy, virtuous life, Stoicism emphasises the following:

  • Our happiness is controlled by ourselves.
  • Events are not good or bad in themselves, our reactions make them so.
  • The only thing you can control is your will. In other words, your thoughts and your actions.
  • We cannot, and must not, try to control or predict what happens in life.
  • We are not responsible for the ideas or thoughts that come to us, but we are responsible for the way we act upon them.

While Epictetus is not a household name like Plato or Aristotle, it has been suggested that he may well have been more popular in his day than Plato was in his.

Of course, Epictetus would probably have reminded us that has little, if any, importance.