Book Review

Hand-Held Device

The Stoics are having a moment—more than a moment. Stoicism never really went away, but in these years of high anxiety, when the level of unease seems to be constantly ratcheting up, we need Stoicism, with its message of freedom from anxiety, more than ever.

Accordingly, A. A. Long’s How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life is one of a batch of books.[1] As Long acknowledges, numerous translations of Epictetus exist, from Elizabeth Carter’s in the eighteenth century to the 1995 Everyman edition. Not included in Long’s scholarly bibliography are two books which are not translations but which begin­ners might find at least as helpful as How to Be Free: Sharon Lebell’s little A Manual for Living (1994), which is essentially Epictetus’ Encheiridion in modern dress, and William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2008). More on Irvine later.

What does Long offer that is new? Epictetus’ Greek, for one thing (though we could presumably go to the Loeb for that—or indeed, to the elegant little bilingual edition put out by Aiora Press [2017], which I bought that same year on the island of Aigina); a bold and helpful title; and a lengthy and useful introduction, which both locates Epictetus (AD 55–135) within the context of Stoicism and places Stoicism in its philosophical context as an “inward turn” from the concerns of Plato and Aristotle. Finally, How to Be Free includes, in addition to Epictetus’ best-known work, the Encheiridion, nine excerpts from the four surviving books of Epictetus’ Discourses, based on the notes taken by Epictetus’ student Arrian.

It’s also to Arrian that we owe the more frequently translated summary of his teacher’s lectures. This summary is known as the Encheiridion, literally (as Long points out) “a little thing for carrying in the hand.” The Encheiridion can of course be thought of as a manual or handbook. But Long is not alone among translators in preferring to keep the Greek title, which “in its earliest usage . . . refers to a hand-knife or dagger. Arrian may have wished to suggest that connotation of the work’s defensive or protective function.” A small portable weapon, then? At any rate, a portable something. A refrigerator magnet I was recently given as a holiday gift proudly proclaims Books: The Original Hand-Held Device. Whether held in the hand or in the head, the Encheiridion is useful indeed.

Perhaps more than his fellow Stoic writers, Epictetus is perennially useful and relevant not only in his guidance toward a life free of anxiety, fear, or anger, but in the practicality of his applications and illustrations. Many of his tropes remain fresh and compelling. To cite only a few: any situation has two handles by which it can be grasped; treat life as a banquet where you shouldn’t be greedy, or as a play where you didn’t control the casting but must act your part as well as you can; don’t stray too far from the ship, even if you’re picking up pretty shells, for the captain may call at any moment. “Captain” is glossed by Long as “Metaphor for the Stoics’ providential divinity,” but surely part of the beauty of metaphors is that they allow some leeway of interpretation. Each of us has his or her own captain.

A sensible piece of advice is drily humorous: “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”

These vivid and often wry nuggets come across clearly in Long; and it’s admittedly useful to be able to consult the crisp, brisk Greek on the left-hand side of each page, if you know Greek. But it’s safe to say that many of Epictetus’ numerous readers in the past few centuries have not known Greek. And one conclusion reading Long leads to is that it isn’t necessary to read the Greek; nor, indeed, does translation seem to make much difference. As with the Parables and the Four Noble Truths, the insights aren’t dependent on phrasing. Translators disagree about the precise meaning of dukkha, but we get the gist of the Buddha’s message. Similarly, whether phantasia is rendered as “impression” or “appearance,” we get the drift.

Long seems to contradict himself a bit when it comes to the ease or difficulty of understanding Epictetus if we read him, as it were, in modern dress. He writes: “Epictetus’s message of freedom, when reduced to succinct modern terms, might seem to fit such homely advice as ‘Get real,’ ‘Grow up,’ ‘Show what you are made of,’ ‘Let it go,’ ‘Mind your own business.’ You can find more or less exact equivalents to these slogans in some of this book’s translated materials.” Yet on the next page he claims that “‘Get real’ and so forth, as we use these watchwords today, have lost touch with their ancient Stoic underpinnings. As employed by Epictetus, they are advice on how persons can best organize their lives according to the Stoic understanding of nature, psychology, and human values. Although Epictetus’s voice is homely and informal, he was not himself a sloganeer.” Nevertheless, the advice proffered by the Encheiridion lends itself to slogan-like memes, one reason (though only one) for the philosopher’s durable appeal. You might say that even the famously obscure pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (clarus ob obscuram linguam, as Lucretius quipped) was something of a sloganeer.

Unlike the Encheiridion, Epictetus’ Discourses were new to me; Long does a service in excerpting them here. But another conclusion to which How to Be Free pointed me is that there’s a good reason that the handbook (or dagger) is better known than the conversations. Not only is the Encheiridion more succinct and complete, but also, as a creator of dialogue, Epictetus (or Arrian) will never put Plato out of business. Besides, a few trenchant passages in the Encheiridion already contain embedded passages of dialogue, where the philosopher harangues the hapless student, if only by way of rhetorical questions: “Do you want to win at the Olympics? I do too, of course, because it’s a splendid thing. But examine the project from start to finish, and only go in for it after that . . .” Looking through the Discourses, the most memorable passage I discovered was the comparison of the body to “a little overloaded donkey,” a simile where one hears the characteristically humble, even earthy note of Epictetus’ voice. But most of the rest of the Discourses cover ground more succinctly treated in the Encheiridion.

In his Introduction, Long mentions Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161–180), whose Meditations record the Emperor’s private struggle to apply Stoic precepts to the challenging business not only of living one’s life but also of ruling an empire. But Long nowhere quotes Marcus Aurelius, and he cites Seneca only once. A broader overview of the Stoics as guides to living is provided in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which repeatedly refers to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus, as well as providing a useful summary of Stoic precepts. For anyone reading Irvine’s book and tempted to learn more about the Stoic texts, then, How to Be Free will be a useful companion—as indeed would a number of other translations of the Encheiridion. But Irvine, who writes with gentle humor about his own and his elderly mother’s largely successful experiments in applying Stoicism to the challenges of living, strikes me as more deserving than Long is of the encomium we encounter on the back of the dust jacket of How to Be Free: “It is hard to think of a book that will make a greater contribution than this one to the growing interest in Stoicism as a way of life.” No, it really isn’t that hard.

This is not to denigrate Long’s scholarly authority in the field of Hellenistic philosophy. Irvine, although a philosopher, approaches Stoicism from a different angle: more as a seeker after the truth of how to live than as an expert in Hellenistic culture. There is plenty of room for both of them, and for others. Occasionally and not surprisingly, their recommendations for further reading overlap; for example, both Long and Irvine refer to Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full, though in neither book does Wolfe’s novel leap the yawning gap between a reference and a place in the bibliography. One book that Irvine does include in his compendious bibliography—one of many I hope to get around to reading—is Admiral James Stockdale’s 1993 memoir Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.

Any book that offers Stoic wisdom, whether diluted or updated, translated or condensed into bullet points, is meeting a perennial human need. Whether that need is greater now than when Epictetus—a freed slave—was teaching, or when Marcus Aurelius was encamped in Germany, or when Seneca was trying to keep his balance in the court of Nero, might not be the most fruitful question to ask, though I began by assuming that need is greater now in 2019 than ever. The point is that the need exists, and that Epictetus and his fellow Stoics still speak to us. Long provides one aid to listening; there are many others, and one is grateful for all of them.

[1] How To Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, by Epictetus, trans. and with an introduction by A. A. Long. Princeton University Press. $16.95.