A critical analysis of Epictetus’s enchiridion

Adekunle Adebajo, University of Ibadan

If Philosophy is nothing other than a reflective activity, a deep and critical enquiry, an unquenchable thirst for the knowledge of the truth about existence, the ultimate reality and ideas we [and ought to] live by, then I can say with no iota of hesitancy that Epictetus is indeed a philosopher.

Epictetus did not just write for writing sake, he wrote due to need to preserve the verities he arrived at as a result of intense intellectual and philosophical activity. That is why reading through the 52 propositions in his manual; I could hardly find a point that does not logically appeal to me as a student of philosophy. One might even be misled to think that the enchiridion is a divine revelation. As terse as it is, the enchiridion contains a vast amount of wisdom. I want to believe that any human person, regardless of race, gender or creed, who engages in an activity as reflective as that in which Epictetus has journeyed into, leaving behind his/her sentiments and past experiences, will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion as Epictetus of Phrygia.

Epictetus belongs to the ancient Greek stoic school of philosophy. He appears to be a moralist and ethicist who cherishes virtues such as freedom, humility, altruism, moderation {§33}, taciturnity {§33} and {§41}, contentment {§23}, time management {§50}, consistency {§29} and tolerance {§3}. He believes that there are things which are within our power (opinion, aim, desire, aversion), and there are those that are not within our power (body, property, reputation, office). If a man wishes to be free, happy and in harmony with nature, he should only attempt to attain or control those things which are within his power, for if he does otherwise and he fails, he will be overwhelmed with grief and disappointment. A man must not make an attempt at battling with his fate. He should also only take things belong to him and leave those which are for others in order not to be restricted, harmed and hated {§1}.

It is obvious from the Enchiridion, as well as the other four discourses containing his philosophical deductions, that Epictetus believed in the existence of a supreme being, an omnipotent deity, who has ordained the destiny of every man {§17}.  He also believes in the authenticity of smaller deities who act justly in the governance of the universe {§31}. Although this points to the metaphysical aspect of philosophy, the enchiridion centres mainly on ethics and ideals, how man ought to live, how he ought to act and react in every circumstance he finds himself, how he ought to perceive the happenings around him and how he can ultimately achieve happiness and avert disappointment. The concept of destiny is one which Epictetus believes strongly in. This is clearly stated in §17, where he wrote that men are merely actors in a play; the roles in which are determined by the author. Man’s job is just to act it to the best of his abilities.

He also seems to believe in an after-life, not necessarily one in which man will have to account for his deeds though. Or perhaps, he is only pointing to the reality of death and the futility of life. He says in §21 that man should always remember death, as this will protect him against abject thought and the temptation to covet anything. And again, in §7, he painted an analogy for a man sailing across the seas, he comes to the world, engrossed with various material things like children, women, wealth etc., eventually the captain (i.e. God) calls him, and he has no choice but to leave those things that appealed to him.

The enchiridion contains various etiquettes, such as how to conduct oneself in public functions and other gatherings {§33} and {§36}, how to relate with a bereaved man {§16}, how to relate with one’s family {§43}, as well as how to relate with one’s slave {§12}.In a person’s bid to live happily and freely, as well as cope with the numerous vicissitudes of life, Epictetus suggests that he should set his principles and strictly abide by them {§50}, he should always consider the ephemeral and mortal nature of those things that he loves {§14}, he should not demand that things should happen as he wishes but as they do happen {§8}, he should consider sickness only an impediment to the body and not the soul {§9} and he should weigh the pros and cons, the possible outcomes and the requirements of every activity before he engages in it {§4} and {§29}.

It is part of Epictetus’s world-view that bad events are only bad because we consider them so {§5}, that remarks are only insulting if we think they are {§20}. It is also his philosophy that ‘the best sermon is a good example’ {§46}, a philosopher should not tell people the ideal way of eating; rather he should show it to them. To him (i.e. Epictetus), a good philosopher does not look to others for help or harm {§48}; he also does not accuse anyone, neither does he accuse himself on things which are beyond his power {§5}.

I would like to say that as fabulous as the philosophy contained in this enchiridion seems, it is not without its shortcomings. If a person were to rigidly think that his property is one of those things beyond his power, then he will undoubtedly become otiose, he would not strive to possess a good certificate, and other basic necessities of life. Also, it is not the case that if a person minds his business and fails to infringe on other’s rights, he will be free from harm. This can only be possible in a world where everyone is fair and morally upright.

In conclusion, I agree with the lecturer when he said after reading the enchiridion, one is most likely going to have a change in world-view, whether little or great. The philosophical piece has greatly influenced my general perception on life.

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