Review: Epictetus, Loeb Classical Library

The dustcover on my copy of Epictetus: Discourses Books 3-4, Fragments, The Encheiridion is falling apart. It's a compact book, but thick since it's printed in both original Greek and the English translation. The cover is worn because I read it at least weekly, if not daily. Epictetus comes with me on trips. His words served me well in New York during Hurricane Sandy and over the holidays visiting family. A practicing Stoic doesn't need this particular printing of Epictetus' works, but every Stoic should be immersed in Epictetus' words.

The Loeb Classical Library edition comes in two volumes. The second is the long title I mentioned at the start. The first is Epictetus: Discourses Books 1-2. Both volumes are printed with the Greek text facing an English translation. This is part of the reason I purchased the Loeb set. I have minor experience with ancient Greek and I find it can be helpful to look at the actual word used by the author from time to time. Trust me, if you ever see the word love used in an English translation of a Greek sentence, you have no idea what the writer actually meant. The other reason I have the Loeb edition has to do with my religious past. I used to have a bible with me everywhere I went. I'd missed having a source text to review. Now these books are on my nightstand. They have heft. They feel and smell like a book should. It feels good to have a tangible reminder of my philosophy close at hand.

Epictetus' works are the only lengthy thoughts of a stoic teacher that we have access to. For all the helpful guidance that can be found in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius' writings, they were not teachers, but practitioners. They are our peers. Epictetus was a teacher, devoted wholly to the teaching of Stoic principles. He didn't write the Discourses, etc... himself. An industrious student named Arrian wrote down his lessons and left us with a detailed, if haphazardly arranged outline of Epictetus' teaching sessions. I am so glad that he was a good note taker.

If you were inclined to only purchase one of the two volumes, it's the second that is most necessary. No Stoic should be without the Encheiridion (the Handbook). The Handbook consists of 52, often short, chapters of condensed Stoic thought. It was meant to guide new Stoics. It is invaluable. The Handbook's opening sentence is arguably the most famous Stoic quote, "Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control." From there he lays out the Stoic life. The Discourses themselves are lengthier discussions of the same thoughts found in the Handbook. They are worth wrestling with.

Get yourself a copy of Epictetus' works. The Loeb edition will last you a lifetime but there are also free versions online (some with less than perfect translations). In any case, one of our ancient teachers is still able to instruct us. That's a gift that should not be passed up.

Epictetus Volume One/Volume Two


Review: The Inner Citadel

Few modern stoic texts have influenced my understanding of the philosophy more than Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel. I've heard the book referred to as a study of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. It is that, in part. However, Hadot's deep knowledge of ancient thought makes it much more than an explanatory text. He expounds on Aurelius' words. He shows the influence of earlier teachers, and illuminates what seems to be uniquely Aurelius. More important to the stoic practitioner, Hadot takes a bare philosophical framework and fleshes it out. The Inner Citadel presents a livable philosophy. Hadot brings out ideas that can be locked within the original stoic texts for years if a student is left to personal reflection.

This is not to say that Hadot is a sage, or that all his thoughts are unimpeachable. Not at all. However, his work serves to elevate the discourse surrounding Stoicism. I find myself continuously returning to his chapters on the Three Disciplines, which alone make the book indispensable.

So yes, I like The Inner Citadel. I do not suggest handing it out as a gift for people new to the philosophy. It's not that sort of book, unless your pal is really into wisdom literature in which case, go for it. The Inner Citadel is for those of us who already practice stoicism in our daily lives. For us, it can expand our knowledge of the philosophy and assist in shaping our inner discourse.

Review: The Emperor's Handbook

The Emperor's Handbook, a new translation of Marcus Aurelius' meditations by the Hicks brothers, is a must for any practicing stoic as well as for anyone who is interested in wisdom literature. Aurelius' writings provide the rare opportunity to share in the daily thoughts of a common stoic. Not common concerning his position as emperor, but common in that he is seriously applying stoic principles to his lived experience. He is not a teacher addressing students nor an old man addressing his protege. His only audience is himself. As such, the Handbook provides a guide for how high a bar stoics should set for their own judgments and actions. This new translation makes Aurelius all the more potent.

Prior to being gifted this translation (thank you Christy) I was using a free version of the Meditations on my Kindle. Here's some practical advice from Emperor Aurelius,

Use thyself even those things that thou doest at first despair of. For the left hand we see, which for the most part lieth idle because not used; yet doth it hold the bridle with more strength than the right, because it hath been used unto it.

Here's that same thought updated for modern eyes,

Practice also the things you don't expect to master. The left hand, clumsy at most things from inexperience, grasps the reins more confidently than the right because it's used to them. (Book 12, 6)

My guess is that the second version came off a bit less stilted, and Marcus is just pumping himself up to practice something he's not a natural at. When his writings are more philosophical and more technical, the difference in impact between the two translations is night and day.

The Emperor's Handbook has helped me to appreciate a strong stoic voice that I had previously dismissed. Before I would read him and think, "I get it, you've read Epictetus have I pal." Then I'd go read Epictetus again. Now I find a brother in the pages. He's a peer who also struggles to live a joyful stoic life in a turbulent world. Every stoic should have this book on their nightstand or next to a favorite reading chair. If you do, Marcus will become a daily counselor and friend.