Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus

I really did not expect to gain anything from this text when I read the first page.  In fact, I was expecting it to be a bit of a slog.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can say with confidence that this was due to the translation.  It seemed to me that the translator was either 1) approaching the text with such a high and lofty regard that he felt it necessary to employ achingly archaic language and tone to the point of alienation of the common reader or 2) translating at a time when the English language was at a vastly different point in its evolution.

The book itself quickly quashed any misgivings and turned out to be, I am not ashamed or even slightly reluctant to report, one of the more valuable books I've ever read.  I will also readily admit that before I started this series and picked up this particular volume, I think I had gone 33 years without ever having heard of Epictetus.

Epictetus was a Greek around the first century.  Epictetus was a slave with an obvious disability of some sort (note the crutch in the picture.)  He slept in the dirt and had no wife, no horse, no mustache.  He was banished from Rome.  He was also content with his life by all accounts.  He was able to acheive this through the miracle of philosophy.  He was a Stoic philosopher and I think I came to realize that all previous descriptions I'd heard of the Stoics were inaccurate.

The basic idea is this: God is in control and you're not, so be content with whatever is set before you.  Suffering is an outworking of kicking against the goads/fighting the flow (very Eastern as well as very post-Constantinian Shift ascetic.  Which certainly gave me pause over the originality of the latter just as the Socratic explanation of the afterlife for the unvirtuous had previously given me pause over the originality of the popular, in my view extrapolated, and seemingly extra-scriptural Christian version of Hell.)  Also, seeking wisdom and virtue, working toward becoming a better human, were major themes.  Also social justice and good works.
"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do."
Also, the equality of humankind regardless of class or social status (reminded me very much of Quaker authors, as well as the Epistle of James.)
"Thou shalt not blame or flatter any."
Also, he scored major points in my assessment book by being utterly devoted to the teachings/example of Socrates.

It actually turned out, as all of this series has for me so far, to be an efficacious healing balm in a time in my life which, if not the one famous long, dark night of the soul, is at least a "night that has stayed about 45 minutes after it would have been socially appropriate to leave" of the soul.  I've found something helpful and it seems to be directing me into a different person.  I feel as though I haven't quite bagged tranquility yet, but I've found fresh footprints.

I would highly recommend Epictetus to anyone.  I know an ancient Stoic philosopher probably wasn't topping your to-read stack, but so often in life I've found help and/or answers where I least expected them.  I think Epictetus would be happy to hear that... or at least content.


  1. I've been very sensitive about translations ever since I started reading Dostoevsky. Shortly after high school I had started out with Crime & Punishment translated by Constance Garnett and quickly dropped it. Later when I picked up the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation it absolutely came to life for me. I could feel the particular texture of Dostoevsky's story telling, the peculiarities which really bring his novels to life. Also attempting to read Plato I discovered how dull the Benjamin Jowett translation was and knew that I wouldn't be reading it until I found a better translation. A good choice, since everyone before the mid 20th century bowdlerized Plato dreadfully. I still haven't returned to Plato, but plan to before my project is over.

    Anyway, doing a quick bit of work I find that "Golden Sayings" is a collection of aphorisms culled from Epictetus's Discourses. Of that work, I found a couple references to Robin Hard's translation being preferred. It dates from the mid 90s. There's another from 2008 by Robin Dobbin, but it doesn't include all the discourses.

    As you work through the Harvard Classics, if you attempt to find updated translations I'd love to know which one's you've found to be good. If any Russians appear in the list, please, please, please give Pevear/Volokhonsky a read instead of Constance Garnett. She apparently would go so far as to drop a passage from the text if it proved to be too difficult to translate, and she worked at a notoriously fast pace.

  2. I will bear that in mind as I draw closer to the Russians. Thank you.

    I had decided, just as I had with Dante, to go with a translation I was most comfortable with rather than the one Dr. Eliot published. I think my "take away" from this experience of loving the text, not the translation, is to do my homework before reading future translated works in this series.

  3. I can start a page on the group's website keeping track of translations we've liked and translations that searching has turned up as promising. Beyond the Western Canon reading list which indicates preferred translations I've got suggestions for Stendhal, Herodotus, and a few others.

  4. I think this would be very helpful and I may be able to add a few contributions myself.