July 27th, 2005

Epictetus

methexis has been posting extracts from Epictetus. Epictetus is cool. He argued that we shouldn't worry about things that are beyond our control, only about things we are directly responsible for- like our moods and actions. Disease, poverty, death? There's nothing we can do about any of these, so why worry? He was a bit Zen, a bit Spock, a bit Alfred E Neumann.

I remembered that I had a volume of Epictetus on my shelves. It's one of the books I inherited from my grandfather.  I went and got it and opened it up and received a mellow blast of my grandfather's tobacco. Dead for 25 years and the reek of his cigars is still with us!

It's an old Everyman edition. Everyman was a cut-price brand. They didn't/couldn't/wouldn't pay translators, instead they reprinted "classic" translations from the 18th and 19th centuries. This then is Elizabeth Carter's translation from 1758-9. It comes with an Editor's Note (c. 1920) which informs us that "Miss Carter's own style is not the style of Epictetus; but it is a style, which is more than can be said of most writers at this time."

How's that for a sale's pitch?

OK, this book is pretty rubbish, but it's the best we can do, so be grateful.

Miss Carter's own Introduction gets very worried about whether Epictetus was aware of Christianity or not. She fears he may have stolen ideas from the Gospels and considers it very much to the discredit of his judgement if, knowing them well, he didn't convert. The idea that the influence might have run the other way- from the Stoic tradition to Christianity- doesn't cross her mind- is, in fact, literally unthinkable. That some Greek philosopher might have anticipated the Son of God- no, banish the thought!

We forget how positively Stalinist the grip of Christianity used to be.

So Carter's Epictetus joins the pile of books on the table beside my armchair. I like how Epictetus writes in short discreet paragraphs- not developing an argument but distilling wisdom- like Nietzsche, like the Reader's Digest. You can take him like a pill. So when there's a commercial break in the middle of the Simpsons there's time for a quick, uplifting dose of stoic wisdom.

"Require not things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well."

Thank you, methexis