How to be free, Epictetus style
[Based on How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, by Epictetus, translated by Anthony Long.]
Epictetus was a late first century and early second century slave-turned-teacher and Stoic philosopher. He literally changed my life. His Discourses were the first book from original sources that I read after discovering Stoicism as a practical philosophy, and it struck me like a ton of bricks. But in a good way. I immediately responded to Epictetus’s sense of humor, which often borders on sarcasm. I appreciated his no-nonsense talk to his students, the fact that he doesn’t pull punches, that he calls it as he sees it. But most importantly the fact that his philosophy is arguably the most useful form of Stoicism, which in turn is the most useful of ancient philosophies.
What better way, then, to begin this occasional series of commentaries based on the excellent “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” books put out by Princeton University Press, than with Anthony Long’s translation of Epictetus’s Encheiridion, retitled “How to Be Free.” Long is arguably the foremost scholar on Epictetus, and his introduction to the famous manual for a good life (as well as to a few selected excerpts from the Discourses) is well worth the price of admission.
The word “encheiridion” comes from the Greek cheir, which literally means a little thing to carry in your hand. A vade mecum (comes with me), as the Latins called it. It was not actually written by Epictetus (and neither were the Discourses), but rather by one of his brilliant students, Arrian of Nicomedia, who went on to produce, among other works, The Anabasis of Alexander, which is considered the best source on the military campaigns of Alexander the Great.
Long focuses our attention on Epictetus’s conception of freedom. Freedom is not a question of legal status, nor of being able to do whatever one wants. Rather, it’s a mental attitude whereby we are in charge of our judgments, willingly accepting that we ought to live in accordance with nature, regardless of our external…