Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics) 1st Edition
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About the Author
Robert Dobbin received a PhD in classics from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught history and classics at the college level. He is the translator and editor of Epictetus's Discourses and Selected Writings for Penguin Classics, as well as an author of articles on Virgil, Plato, and Pythagoras. He works as a book editor in Northern California.
- ASIN : 0140449469
- Publisher : Penguin Classics; 1st edition (November 25, 2008)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780140449464
- ISBN-13 : 978-0140449464
- Item Weight : 7.9 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.05 x 0.68 x 7.78 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #6,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Hello fellow 19 year olds! Floor Gang AOOUUHH!!
Epictetus, the extremely influential Greek Stoic philosopher who lived during the second century, would have had none of this, but the antidote required access to his teachings. Though philosophy didn't always exist in an academic vacuum, access to it has almost always remained limited to wealthier classes who could afford adequate leisure time and resources, including slaves. Many wealthy Romans sent their children to philosophers, especially to the highly-regarded Epictetus, who taught in Nicopolis after the Emperor Domition exiled all philosophers from Rome in 95. Once at his school, they didn't learn abstract metaphysics, heady ontological theories or how to read turgid tomes, they learned how to live. Such a proposition seems ridiculous today, but Epictetus wanted nothing to do with students who didn't apply their teachings to their own lives. He urged them not to just read philosophy, nod their heads and smile in class and then go out into the world and violate everything they had learned. He wanted them to actually practice philosophy. Practice remained the entire point. Every day, whether inside or outside of school, one should apply philosophy to the real world, not just understand it and regurgitate it at parties or conferences. The textually dominant way that many colleges and universities teach philosophy today would probably disappoint Epictetus. His philosophy emphasized more a way of life that accepted the world and one's place within it. No thinking purely for its own sake, or reading for its own sake, allowed.
A work known as "The Discourses" has come down through history as transcriptions of Epictetus's lectures written by one of his students, Arrian. Arrian must have had a miraculously quick hand, because his notes appear to capture complete lessons verbatim. The introduction to the Penguin edition of "The Discourses" sympathizes with skepticism about whether Arrian actually copied the lessons down so thoroughly. Despite this, it states that Arrian's other extant work differs greatly in wording and structure from "The Discourses," so its content seems to have come from someone else. They also circulated during Epictetus's lifetime and others at the time would have likely disputed their authenticity or accuracy, but apparently nobody did. Still, it seems inconceivable that Arrian could have possibly captured such a vast quantity of material by hand in the second century. Yet his opening letter to Lucius Gellius, placed at the beginning of "The Discourses," says "whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could, as a record for later use of his thought and frank expression." Given the sheer lack of contention against this claim, and since no writings by Epictetus himself appear to exist, "The Discourses" remain the main source for his thought.
Four complete books of "The Discourses" survive and the Penguin edition presents a truncated version of the entirety. The "Note on the Translation" explains that sections from Books III and IV repeat material from Books I and II, so they don't appear. Opinions on this editorial decision will obviously differ, but it did shorten the length of Book III and it seems to have considerably shortened Book IV. As such, anyone looking for the complete "Discourses" will have to look elsewhere. Eliminating alleged repetition may reduce a book's cost and reading time, but repetition can also serve as a useful pedagogical tool, so removing it remains at best a controversial move. Still, enough remains of the work to warrant a reading of this reduced version, but some readers may wonder what they missed and whether it truly warranted removal.
Many of the themes that will reverberate throughout "The Discourses" appear immediately in Book I. Epictetus, speaking through Arrian's diligent writing, points out the uniqueness of human reason, the only faculty capable of analyzing itself. It makes use of "impressions" from the world and how we react to such "impressions" carries great consequences. He sees our physical bodies as limitations that "weigh us down" and we should include even our bodies in the list of things that we don't actually posses. "Knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine" and "what I can and cannot do" also needs careful assessment. In this context, his famous line "it's only my leg you will chain" appears, as an imaginary tyrant tries to subdue him. His main point revolves around an overvaluing of "externals," which include wealth, fame, pleasure, position, reputation, our families and also our bodies. Even his aforementioned leg qualifies as an "external." Tyrants can't control a person who doesn't overvalue such externals. If a tyrant threatens death, Epictetus claims that they will only destroy one's body, not one's self. Consequently, those who don't fear a loss of externals will never do what they don't want to do in life. "Don't sell your integrity cheaply," he argues, and "don't turn into one of those unfortunates" who favor the body over reason, the faculty that humans "share with the gods." We should look after the health of our reason the way that athletes look after the health of their bodies.
Students make "progress" by reducing desire and eliminating "whining." Here Epictetus shows little patience for "poor me!" fulminations, since they originate from attachment to externals. Look inward, because "no one is ever unhappy because of someone else." The gods gave humans fortitude, courage and patience to deal with things, he protests, but we choose not to use them and babble on in protest instead. Exercise your reason, learn logic and how the changing of premises alters an argument. Also work on moral character and don't confuse this character in others for things that happen only incidentally or by chance, such as beauty, strength or things given only at birth. On beauty in particular, "don't make your wife's external beauty her chief attraction, and you won't be angry with the adulterer," which evolves into the larger point, "as long as you honor material things, direct your anger at yourself rather than the thief or adulterer," and concludes, "you are invincible if nothing outside the will can disconcert you." To the powerful he says "you are master of my corpse, come help yourself to that." To overcome subservience, "liberate yourself from the emotions that make your master frightening." When asked "who is my master?" he answers "whoever controls what you desire or dislike."
Externals also provide a rich source of fear and anxiety and we can become enslaved to our bodies, our property or our reputations since others can easily exploit them: "what you protect your enemy will attack." Even the preservation of one's life can prove a liability: "death is necessary and cannot be avoided... but at least I can escape the fear of it... passions stem from frustrated desire." Desire can lead to theft and, for Epictetus, a thief did not come out ahead by successfully stealing a lamp, "he became untrustworthy and a brute." In this case, valuing externals led to the dissolution of moral character and integrity: "you think nothing of losing the capacity to be honest, decent and civilized." Epictetus likens such a person to having a "moral disability" and we should treat such people as lacking. Also, an adulterer, bound to externals, loses the trust of others as a neighbor, a community member or as a friend. He asks "what are we going to do with a human who can't fulfill the most basic human role?" Scholarship won't help, since "you can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or an ape rather than a human being; what's to stop you?" Knowledge remains useless until applied. Not only that, people who do wrong or live in fear are not free. Only the educated remain free, but by this Epictetus means educated on the proper use of externals and the efficient analysis of impressions.
Additional fascinating, and sometimes hilarious, observations made by Epictetus along the way include the quote: "Just pay attention to the way you behave and you will discover the school of philosophy you really belong to." He also claims that humans would not remain human outside of their communities or cities, suggesting that we have an intrinsically necessary social element. Not too surprisingly, Epictetus doesn't have a particularly progressive attitude toward animals, calling them utterly subservient to humans and "created to serve." In another memorable passage from Book II, someone cries out "I'm sentenced to death!" and Epictetus replies "And the rest of us aren't?" Book III's 22nd section provides an apt warning to anyone wanting to take on "real" Cynicism. Epictetus says "it isn't what you think" and goes on to describe the agonizing rigor of Diogenes' lifestyle. Not for the faint-hearted. The first section of Book IV arguably provides a decent summary, or recap, of the entire "Discourses." Most of the major themes get repeated in a nicely compact way and just differently enough to provide good reinforcement. Here Epictetus really rails against the Roman aristocracy and those who seek favor with Caesar. All of them remain far more hopelessly enslaved to their positions than they would ever admit.
After "The Discourses," a section called "Fragments" includes Epictetus quotes from other sources, including Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations." One of the fragments claims to have come from a lost Book V of "The Discourses." Following this, the "Enchiridion," or "the manual," appears. Basically a distillation of "The Discourses" down into some 25 pages, placing it after "The Discourses" seems very appropriate, because reading it in total isolation could lead to oversimplification or misunderstandings. This much shorter work should ideally get read only in the context of "The Discourses," or at least with the understanding that it serves as a very brief summary of the much larger work. It does provide a decent refresher for those who have already read "The Discourses."
Epictetus presented a philosophy that attempts to alleviate anxiety, fear, jealousy, enslavement, anger and resentment by convincing people not to concern themselves with things beyond their control. He argues that fame, wealth and health all remain outside the control of human volition, so evaluate others by what fate has dealt them rather than by the "glorious deeds" many of them claim for themselves. Self-control and acceptance exist within each of us and not entirely in the approval or disapproval of others. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance of good citizenship, which people should desire for themselves and not for want of praise or accolades. His path will ultimately lead to a freedom that will prevent its adherents from doing what they do not want to do or experiencing what they do not want to experience. Authority, adversity or public approbation will not wither or cajole this rigid Stoic character. At its essence, it prepares one for accepting the world as it is and facing up to the vicissitudes of existence. Everything has its time and will pass. Even family and friends and our own selves will meet this fate. Accept it and live accordingly. Why live otherwise? Why live with illusions that will lead to terrible anguish? Treat nothing external, including loved ones or one's own life, as "owned things" and accept that one does not have much control over the universe. This will make a Stoic "invincible" against the nasty things that the world inevitably vomits up.
Does all of this mean that a Stoic shouldn't try to change the world? Epictetus doesn't really dwell on this question. Perhaps the Roman Empire seemed far too formidable, or maybe such talk would come across as treasonous and only occurred "after hours?" He might have argued that changing the world probably remained an idealistic or futile pursuit given human nature, so one must accept and find peace within the limitations of the given world. He did live in the second century, after all, and he also lived as a slave earlier in life. In any case, "The Discourses" has circulated ever since its initial composition. When the age of printing arrived, it quickly became mass-produced and has remained continuously in print following its first 1535 edition in Venice. It has had incalculable influence on world civilization ever since. Emperor Marcus Aurelius read it, as did Arab philosophers such as al-Kindi. The Christian Church approved of it on moral grounds, despite its pagan origins. "The Discourses" has survived through millenia. The present day has seen a resurgence of Stoic philosophy, though with more of a "self-help" twist, and Epictetus often tops reading lists and study groups for people seeking peace in an increasingly violent and unpredictable world. He doesn't present an easy path, quite the opposite, but the longevity and vast influence of his ideas suggest that he was on to something pretty astounding almost 2,000 years ago.
Mindfulness was alive and well with Epictetus and the Stoics as with Buddha and his followers.
Recommending this book to whomever want to better himself as a human being.
Top reviews from other countries
The copy I received was apparently in good condition, however many, many, many pages were stuck together which - when reading - led to there being rips and tears, which is a travesty for a book. I was disappointed with the thinness of the pages, and would advise bearing that in mind hence the removal of two stars. No book should be torn while being read.
5* philosophy, 3* execution in book form.
Recommend this book but maybe try a different seller, I'm unsure whether the pages sticking is something to do with the conditions the book has been stored in or whether it is an issue with the penguin classics version generally.