Book Club: The Art of Living
Part 3: The hidden structure of the Enchiridion
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.