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Scott Aikin & William O. Stephens, Epictetus’s Encheiridion. A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics

Bloomsbury Academic, London, New York (NY), Oxford, New Delhi, Sidney, 2023, 304 p., ISBN : 978-1-3500-0951-6
Gabriele Flamigni
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Scott Aikin & William O. Stephens, Epictetus’s Encheiridion. A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics, Bloomsbury Academic, London, New York (NY), Oxford, New Delhi, Sidney, 2023, 304 p., ISBN : 978-1-3500-0951-6

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1The topic of this volume is the meaning, for a 21st-century reader, of Epictetus’ Handbook (henceforth Ench.). Aikin and Stephens’ (henceforth A. & S.) goal is to explain each chapter of Ench. by showing, on the one hand, what role it plays in the overall structure of the work and how it enacts one or more concerns proper to Epictetus and to the Stoics; on the other hand, the content of Ench. is unfolded into a message relevant to a present-day reader. This project, to which Ench. lends itself easily, is in line with the ongoing popularization of ancient Stoicism which has been taking place in the last decades.

2This enterprise demands a preliminary «introduction to ancient Stoicism» (p. 1-48), which the authors carry out by firstly identifying Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic as the main inspirers for the core ideas of the Stoics. Afterward, A. & S. briefly present some of the main figures of the Stoic tradition, starting with the founder of the school, Zeno, and ending with key representatives of Roman Stoicism. We may regret the absence from this catalog of the representatives of the so-called intermediate Stoicism and of the Stoic opposition; evoking some of these figures would have enriched the reconstruction of Epictetus’ philosophical background, as, on the one side, some intermediate Stoics like Panetius seem to have influenced Epictetus’ doctrine (on this see T. Bénatouïl, «Épictète et la doctrine des indifférents et du telos d’Ariston à Panétius», Elenchos, 40 (2019), p. 99-121); on the other side, Epictetus praises as role models numerous individuals who defied Emperors Nero and Vespasian, such as Thrasea Paetus (Disc. 1.1.26), Paconius Agrippinus (1.1.28-30), and Helvidius Priscus (1.2.19-24).

3A. & S. follow this historical review with a succinct description of the Stoic «system», articulated in the three branches of logic, physics, and ethics, the most extensively deployed, given A. & S.’s practical aim with their book. This interest in ethics is carried on in the next two segments. The first one explains what the authors recognize as six «themes» constituting «the core of Stoicism» (p. 22) which, though not labeled by A. & S. as specifically pertaining to ethics, clearly do: they comprise (1) the encouragement to master one’s own desires; (2) «the Fundamental Divide» (p. 23), i.e., the dichotomy between what is up to us and what is not. In this regard, it would have been appropriate to point out, for the sake of historical accuracy and to enhance Epictetus’ philosophical contribution, that, although the Fundamental Divide is in tune with the orthodox Stoic doctrine, in the extant sources it is outlined only by Epictetus; (3) the identification of happiness with life in accordance with nature; (4) the idea that every individual has social ‘roles’, determining what they ought to do; (5) the Stoics’ commitment to an intellectual ethics, in which the moral quality of an action depends on the knowledge of the agent; (6) the ‘aspirationalist’ character of the Stoic message, that spurs people to strive for a moral status extremely hard to attain. This list of topics is well-selected, as they effectively make up the theoretical foundation of Ench. The first part of the book is rounded out with a discussion of the paradoxical tenets, concerning the virtue, the sage, and their counterparts, presented in Cicero’s Paradoxa Stoicorum, to which A. & S. add the one according to which «all non-sages are ugly; only the sage is beautiful».

4Part 2 of the book offers a biographical sketch for Epictetus that expands the one already traced at p. 14-15, and shortly delves into the structure of Disc. and Ench. This part is closed by an account of «the historical influence of the Encheiridion» (p. 54-59), which cannot but be a partial overview of what the authors regard as highlights of the history of the reception of Ench., since, as they write, it is «fair to say that no other text its size has exercised as wide, deep and lasting an impact in the history of Stoicism, or indeed arguably the history of Western philosophy, as the Encheiridion» (p. 59).

5A new translation of Ench. is offered in the next part of the book, after a short «note» (p. 61) in which the authors inform that their «twin goals» in this respect «are to present Epictetus’s ideas in a fresh, contemporary idiom that reflects his brisk, direct style while also keeping close to the sense of the Greek» (ibid.); when a «tension» arises between these objectives «fidelity to the Greek has been relaxed to accommodate his [scil. Epictetus’] message to contemporary life» (ibid.). This choice is debatable, as among its consequences we discover that the absence of affections (ἀπάθεια) discussed in Ench. 12.2 becomes – without any explanation in the commentary – «mental health», and the single combats between gladiators (μονομαχία) and horse-races (ἱπποδρομία) evoked in Ench. 33.2 are ‘updated’ into kickboxing fights and NASCAR races. These cases exemplify different issues related to the ‘accomodation’ of Ench. accomplished by A. & S.

6The Stoic concept of ἀπάθεια has a narrower meaning than mental health: by lack of «disturbing passions» (p. 21) the Stoics mean being devoid of false judgments about the value of things and, therefore, of their consequences in terms of mental and physical distress; mental health, as defined e.g. by the World Health Organization has the broader denotation of «state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community». Stoic ἀπάθεια enables a person to realize themselves on the individual and social level, but these ideas are implied by the concept of ‘absence of affections’ rather than being at its core. A & S. ought probably to be more precise on this point – and the same comment may be made about the very heart of Epictetus’ psychology, i.e., προαίρεσις –, as they duly do for the occurrence of εὐροέω in Ench. 8 (p. 102) or for that of ἡγεμονικόν in Ench. 38 (p. 200).

7Regarding gladiators and horse-racers turning into kickboxers and NASCAR drivers, the problem of these translations concerns, in the first place, them being superfluous and arbitrary: on the one hand, anyone with an average historical consciousness is familiar with the gladiator games and knows that they had almost nothing to do with kickboxing matches. On the other hand, horse-racing is still a popular sport in most countries, and it is thus unclear why A. & S. felt appropriate to transpose a sport still in vogue pretty much everywhere to a much more specific one such as NASCAR racing. These translation choices can entail however a more serious difficulty: like any other writing, Ench. bears the signs of the milieu where it was produced; it is the reviewer’s opinion that this inevitable anchoring ought to be preserved in a commented translation, even if the translator primarily aims at maximizing the practical effectiveness of Ench. Neglecting this component of Ench. impoverishes its depiction provided to the reader and, therefore, risks precisely decreasing the power of its message. This is, however, a personal judgment given by a scholar who, on the other hand, finds A. & S.’s translation of Ench. overall convincing.

8In Part 4 the authors offer an in-depth analysis of each chapter of Ench. in order to bring forth the core lesson condensed in it. A. & S. do this by explaining the content of Ench. with a diffuse use of examples and sometimes by lingering on issues they acknowledge as implicit in Epictetus’ reasoning, like (1) the tension they envision, in Ench. 13, between the «social impulse of Stoicism», spurring «to be an active part of a community» and the «hard Stoic perspective», according to which only virtue is valuable (p. 115-116), or (2) their reflection, starting from Ench. 31, on how the Stoic attitude towards the divine might «present in a contemporary context» (p. 175-176). On the critical side regarding this section, we have a minor observation and a major perplexity, which in this context we can only briefly expose: on the one hand, we think that the presentation of Ench. 43 (p. 212-214) would have benefited from explaining that with σχέσις Epictetus seems to denote not the social relationships, but rather the «social configurations» (S. Alexandre, Évaluation et contre-pouvoir. Portée éthique et politique du jugement de valeur dans le stoïcisme romain, Grenoble, Million, 2014, p. 84) of a person, that are completely up to them. On the other hand, A. & S.’s pondering on Ench. 40 (p. 202-207) inflates Epictetus’ words with a feminist message, addressed to the «oppressed» women as well as to their male «oppressors» and aiming at the former’ emancipation, that does not evidently reflect the content of the chapter.

9In line with the authors’ delving, in Part 4, into issues implicitly raised by Ench., in the final part of the book they examine six «problems» (p. 247) to which Stoic philosophy lends its flank with its fatalism, its devaluation of external things, its allegedly systematic structure, its apparent compliance with the status quo, and the practical difficulty of respecting its tenets. In considering these issues, the authors evoke different strategies the Stoics resorted to or might have resorted to in order to shelter their philosophy from their critics; but, in this regard, A. & S. can also test the urgency for the Stoic thought to be «revised» and the «proper limits» (p. 247) of this revision, which, after all, is the question underlying the operation they tried to accomplish with their book.

10All in all, except for the specific issues we raised in the course of our review, this book presents itself as an accomplished attempt to vulgarize Ench. and to show its enduring relevance. Hopefully, the considerable length of this useful «guide» will not discourage people to whom Stoicism and the teaching of Epictetus are little known from reading it through.

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Gabriele Flamigni, « Scott Aikin & William O. Stephens, Epictetus’s Encheiridion. A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics »Philosophie antique [En ligne], Comptes rendus en pré-publication, mis en ligne le 05 janvier 2023, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL :

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Gabriele Flamigni

Sorbonne Université

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