Book Club: The Art of Living
The Art of Living, by John Sellars, is one of those must read books for the serious student of Stoicism. Despite the distracting (for the layperson) use of Greek terms, and the fact that it is not aimed at practitioners of Stoicism, it’s full of interesting observations about the philosophy. In this third installment of my commentary I will focus on chapter 6 of the book, “Exercises in the Handbook of Epictetus.”
The Handbook, or Enchiridion, is of course one of the fundamental texts of ancient Stoicism. It was compiled, just like the Discourses, by one of Epictetus’ best students, Arrian of Nicomedia. It is often presented as an introduction to Stoicism, or as a summary of the Discourses, but it is neither, really. It’s a highly condensed set of Stoic precepts to be used by the advanced student (because they come with no explanation) as ideas to keep “at hand” (enchiridion) for day to day living.
John remarks that Justus Lipsius, the founder of the Neo-Stoic movement during the Renaissance, called the Enchiridion “the soul of Stoic philosophy,” and goes on to say that it is the archetypal example of a particular way of writing about philosophy as the art of living. The 6th century commentator Simplicius of Cilicia, himself a Neo-Platonist, says that:
“It is called Encheiridion because all persons who are desirous to live as they ought, should be perfect in this book, and have it always ready at hand; a book of as constant and necessary use as the sword (which commonly went by this name, and from whence the metaphor seems to be taken) is to a soldier.” (p. 130)
Indeed, short, portable swords where then commonly called by that name, and this seems to be the origin of the metaphor.
Each “chapter” of the Enchiridion (in reality, short sections, ranging from a few sentences to several paragraphs) describes a type of spiritual exercise, without providing the necessary background philosophical argument, which is found instead in the Discourses.
The most interesting part of Sellars’ chapter is his discussion of the “hidden” structure of the Handbook. If you read it superficially it may come across as 53 disjoint pronouncements, with no rhyme or reason to connect them, other than they are obviously all coherent with Stoic philosophy. However, several scholars — referenced by John — have attempted to put some order in the apparently haphazard sequence. What I am about to describe is John’s own attempt, which I find reasonably convincing, and in fact very useful in approaching the Enchiridion.
Section 1: the key to the structure of the book, according to Sellars, is to be found in its famous beginning:
“Of things, some are up to us and some are not up to us. Up to us are  opinion,  impulse,  desire [and] aversion, and, in a word, all our actions. Not up to us are our body, possessions, reputations, offices, and, in a word, all that are not our actions.” (Enchiridion 1.1)
The second part of the quote — what is not up to us — is a partial list of “externals,” such as health, wealth, fame, and so forth. But the first part can reasonably be interpreted as programmatic for both the Handbook itself and the entire Epictetean approach to the art of living.
Here is where John’s insistence on parenthetically using the Greek terms comes useful, since the four things listed by Epictetus as “up to us” are translated in various manners into English, and this variety can easily obfuscate the underlying meaning.
“Opinion” really means considered judgment, the sort of thing that the so-called discipline of assent is designed to train us in.
“Impulse” is a technical Stoic term which doesn’t have much to do with the modern English word, but rather means impulse to action, or whatever moves us to act, and is therefore part of Epictetus’ second discipline, of assent.
“Desire” and “aversion” go together, and refer to the sort of things we should properly go for or abstain from, and is therefore a direct reference to the third and last discipline, of desire and aversion.
These three disciplines constitute the core of Epictetus’ approach to Stoicism, which is why I used them as the underlying structure of both my How to Be a Stoic and The Handbook for New Stoics (co-written with Greg Lopez). Epictetus devotes an entire discipline, or area of study, to each of the (only) three things that are truly under our control, and much of the rest of the Enchiridion elaborates on this fundamental point. He had already told us about this practical curriculum in the Discourses, though there the three disciplines are presented in reverse order:
“There are three areas of study, in which a person who is going to be noble and good must be trained:  That concerning desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he would avoid.  That concerning the impulse to act and not to act, and, generally, appropriate behavior; so that he may act in an orderly manner and after due consideration, and not carelessly.  The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, generally, whatever is connected with assents.” (Discourses, III.3.1–2)
A number of scholars, beginning with Pierre Hadot, have also noted that the three discipline correspond to the three parts of the Stoic theoretical curriculum: physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), logic (i.e., anything to do with sound reasoning), and ethics (i.e., how to live one’s life), in this manner:
Physics <=> Desire & Aversion
Ethics <=> Action
Logic <=> Assent
Why? The connection between ethics and action is obvious: ethics is about how to live in the world and hence — since we are social animals — how to interact with others, which is precisely what the discipline of action teaches us. Logic is related to assent because the latter has to do with arriving at the best judgment we can about things, which requires sound reasoning. The connection between physics and desire & aversion may be less intuitive, but it should be clear upon a moment’s reflection: it is a proper understanding of how the world works that tells us that some things are up to us and others are not, whence we derive guidance as to what is proper for us to desire (good judgment), to be averse to (bad judgment), and to treat as indifferent (all externals).
John argues that — regardless of whether this was intentional on the part of Arrian — it is useful to see much of the rest of the Enchiridion as loosely divided into three sections, corresponding to the three disciplines, in the following order: desire & aversion (physics), action (ethics), and assent (logic). Let’s take a quick look.
Sections 2–29 deal with what Sellars calls “physical exercises,” meaning spiritual exercises having to do with desire and assent. For instance:
“Do not seek events to happen as you want, but want events as they happen, and your life will flow well.” (Enchiridion 8)
This advice comes straight out of Stoic physics, which understands the universe to be functioning according to a web of cause-effect. We are an integral part of that web, but our power to affect things is very limited, which means that it is wise to train ourselves to accept what happens with equanimity.
John also reminds us that Chrysippus — the major theorist of early Stoicism — distinguished between simply fated things (simplicia) and conjoined fated things (copulata), where “fate,” of course, is a shorthand for the result of cause-effect. As he explains (p. 137): “‘Socrates will die’ is a simple-fated thing by virtue of the fact that Socrates is a mortal being, but ‘Socrates will die today’ is not simply-fated insofar as various other factors will contribute to the outcome, such as whether one chooses to call out a doctor or not, if he is ill.”
We have no saying whatsoever on things that are simply fated, such as our mortality. But in some cases we are part and parcel of the co-causes that determine conjoined fated things. And that is the extent of our role in the cosmos as moral agents.
Sections 30–41 are “ethical exercises,” concerned with the discipline of action. Here the key concept is that of an “appropriate actions” (kathēkon), that is, actions that are the result of rational impulses, appropriate in the sense that they are in synch with our nature as human beings and social animals. For example:
“When you are about to meet someone, especially one of the people enjoying high esteem, ask yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will not be at a loss to deal with the situation properly.” (Enchiridion 33.12)
How should we comport ourselves in such situations? We should not be feeling awe in front of someone who is famous or rich just on the ground that they are famous or rich. That’s because reputation and wealth are preferred indifferents, they tell us nothing about the moral character of the individual in question. We should still treat these people with respect, but this is the same respect that we accord to any human being, qua fellow rational-social animal. Nothing more.
Sections 42–45: “logical” exercises. The discipline of assent, Epictetus tells us, is the most advanced and difficult to practice. But it is nonetheless crucial, since it deals with improving our sense of judgment (prohairesis), a major goal of Stoic training. It is this refined sense that allows us to assent only to “adequate” impressions, and not just to any impression. For instance:
“Someone bathes quickly: do not say, ‘he bathes badly,’ but ‘he bathes quickly.’ Someone drinks much wine: do not say, ‘he drinks badly,’ but ‘he drinks much.’ For before knowing his judgement, how do you know that it is bad? In that way it will not happen to you that you receive adequate impressions of some things but give your assent to others.” (Enchiridion 45)
This is a very clear exhortation to be less judgmental of others, since most of the times we really don’t know where they are coming from. And of course, if one of our goals is to make fewer incorrect judgments, one way to get there is to train ourselves to abstain from judgment as much as possible, that is, unless we are reasonably sure that our assent to the particular impression is justified.
Sections 46–52: the philosophical life, or philosophy as the art of living. These sections, in Sellars’ reading, focus on how a philosopher (meaning, not a professional academic in the modern sense, but anyone attempting to live a philosophical life) should behave. Here, Epictetus talks about the difference between philosophers and non-philosophers, what it means to make progress, and how to train yourself if you wish to make progress. For example:
“If I am impressed by the explaining itself, what have I done but ended up a grammarian instead of a philosopher, except that I am explaining Chrysippus instead of Homer. Instead when someone says to me ‘read me some Chrysippus’ I turn red when I am unable to exhibit actions that match and harmonize with his words.” (Enchiridion 49)
We are told, in other words, not to study Chrysippus, or any of the other Stoics, as if they were literature, for their own sake, for curiosity, or in a purely intellectual manner. We are to study them so that we understand how to live a eudaimonic life, and actually try to live it, day after day.
Section 53: useful maxims. The last section of the Enchiridion contains a few inspirational quotes from other philosophers, including the famous “Hymn to Zeus” by Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa), one maxim from Euripides, and two attributed to Socrates:
“But, Crito, if it pleases the gods like this, it must happen like this. [and] Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” (Enchiridion 53)
The first Socratic quote is a reminder of the Stoic conception of the universe as a deterministic system: if it pleases “the gods” (which, remember, for the Stoics were coincident with Nature) then it has to happen. The second passage reminds readers of a recurring theme in the Discourses: other people can hurt you physically, and even kill you, but they can never take over your will, which is the most important part of who you are.
[Next: How to study philosophy, a three-pronged curriculum.]