Review: Epictetus’s Discourses

Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics)
Epictetus (trans Robert Dobbin)

If Marcus’s Meditations are the most popular introduction to stoic philosophy, Epictetus discourses are perhaps the most substantive. Together, they are the two books of ancient stoic thought one really must read.
Born a slave, Epictetus eventually gained his freedom and taught philosophy in Rome until Domitian banished philosophers from the city. He wrote nothing (or nothing that survives). What we know of his work we know because his student, Arrian, wrote it down.

What Arrian wrote down is a much more careful philosophy than the self-help of Marcus’s Meditations. It is a practical philosophy of self-mastery. The work of the philosophy, such as it is, is in distinguishing between that which we can control (ourselves, our impulses) and that which we cannot (other’s actions).  Identifying which is which, then mastering that which we can control while disregarding that which we cannot is the essential lesson of Epictetus and a pivotal aspect of Stoicism.

Approachable,* yet rigorous, the Discourses can be read over and over (and probably were intended to be memorized). If you’re interested in the Stoics or, frankly, in an examined life, this is a must read. I’ll be annotating it after I am finished with the Mediations.

*Why is it that ancient philosophy is almost always more approachable than modern? Is Quine more complex than Plato? Perhaps, but also unlikely to have as much of an effect on your life.

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