The Enchiridion :: A Review

The Enchiridion is the bridge between the old radical schools of Stoicism in the tradition of Zeno of Citium which taught to deny desire and defeat emotion to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ (excellence in temper) and the late era Stoicism which teaches us not to defeat emotion and desire but simply not to let it dominate prudent judgments, decisions and actions.

Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy is a practical philosophy for life that focuses on understanding what causes us grief in our life and then detaching ourselves from that grief; removing from our lives unnecesary pains. The Enchiridion offers insightful and straightforward wisdom on how to endure misfortune by developing character and apatheia (clear judgment) by training ourselves in the Socratic lifestyle. The four cardinal virtues of such a lifestyle are sophrosyne (temperance/self-control), dikaiosyne (justice/righteousness/honesty/authenticity), sophia (prudence/wisdom), and andreia (fortitude/courage). When we dedicate our lives in the pursuit of virtue and not in the pursuit of gratifying our emotions, not only do we fulfill our duty within nature in achieving harmony amidst the community and earth but we also find how meaningless a good deal of the constant bickering, drama, dishonesty and insincerity of the mob really is.

A Stoic philosopher removes himself from addictions, a life centered around sex, inauthenticity, falsity, selfishness and actions which would unbalance the natural order or damage the community. At the heart of the Epictetus’ philosophy is a sort of civic virtue that transcends nations and borders:

If what philosophers say of the kinship of God and Men be true, what remains for men to do but as Socrates did:–never, when asked one’s country, to answer, ‘I am an Athenian or a Corinthian,’ but ‘I am a citizen of the world.’

A Stoic looks beyond silly and proud displays of nationalism and instead accepts everyone for what they are, while striving to attain righteousness within himself. Stoics were the first philosophers to detest slavery. For Epictetus slavery is a thing which only occurs in the mind, when we allow ourselves to become a slave mentally. In fact all misfortunes are illusory things which only become misfortunate when we define them as being such. The core of the Stoic philosophy of the Enchiridion is realizing that nothing bad can happen to us, that we have no control over external things, and can only be concerned with controlling our own actions, decisions and judgments.

If we are not in control ourselves, we are a slave. For Epictetus, who was a slave before being a Roman-era Socrates, slavery is a mindset. We can maintain our diginity, charm, cheerfulness and character in the face of any disaster. He offers a interesting proposition: surely we would be angered if someone tried to control our body like a puppet, so why do we so easily hand our mind over to others when we are angered, in love or jealous? For Epictetus everything must be accounted for – and there is no physical circumstance, including death, which is unfortunate. In this we see a sort of proto-nihilism in the vein of Heraclitus – who was a heavy influence on the Stoics. Although Epictetus and the later Marcus Aurelius acknowledge a impersonal divine force and logic manifesting itself behind all things (the Logos), they never presume that God has any influence in the roll of events and for all intents and purposes, suggest living as if this matter before us, shifting every constantly, is the only consideration. This nihilistic view which is within the Enchiridion is perfectly summed up in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice., and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love – something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.

Perceptions like that – latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust- to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.

When we understand the innate nature of things, which is nihilism (without any innate meaning), we can begin to avoid having our mind disturbed when they are changed or destroyed, for change is the only persistent nature of existence. How can we be disturbed when our favorite jug is destroyed, Epictetus proposes, if it is simply a piece of clay that we had no control over in the first place? We have control over nothing external, even our own bodies and immediate possessions. We only have control over our judgments, actions, decisions and how we decide to temper our lives with reason and logic. Agony occurs when we attempt to control what is not within our power to control (anything external to the mind) or when we expect external things to act in certain ways. We can only expect ourselves to act in a certain fashion.

Epictetus even says that we should not be disturbed when our wife or child dies – the person hasn’t died, just the body, something we have no true control over. We have to evaluate why exactly we are being disturbed: because we will miss what they brought to our lives OR because they have gone to glory? The former is a greedy and irrational judgment, the latter should bring us no disturbance, but only joy, in the passing of the body and its rejoining of nature. How are we to ever presuppose what happens after death? For a Stoic this is entirely unimportant, the only thing that matters is a nihilistic philosophy of realism, attending to the matter at hand, as virtuously as possible, as well as possible, and leaving the rest up to Fate, blaming no one, forever remaining generous of character, valuing friendship and maintaining our charm, charisma and apatheia (clear judgment) in the face of great disaster and misfortune.

Before this review is concluded I will showcase one quote that I believe is the quintessence of the Enchiridon and all Stoic philosophy. What Epictetus is about to say is also the quintessence of a Socratic life – one based on actions, not pretension and not words:

Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

– Epictetus