Chicago (2022) p/b 475pp £15.00 (ISBN 9780226769479)

In 2020 an employee argued before an employment tribunal that he had been discriminated against because of his adherence to a belief system known as Stoicism. Among other points he argued that he should not be disciplined for speaking the truth as he saw it, even if it involved making disparaging remarks about colleagues. The judge held that Stoicism was indeed a coherent belief system, entitled to protection under the Equality Acts, although on the particular facts of the case he struck out the action as having no prospect of succeeding.

The point is that the study of Stoicism is not simply a matter of showing an interest in the history of ideas, but a live issue worthy of careful and serious thought. And there can be no better guide to developed stoic thought than this excellent book by Robin Waterfield (a distinguished independent scholar), offering a translation from the Greek of the surviving works of Epictetus (c. AD 50-130) as preserved for us by his disciple Arrian.

Epictetus was a former slave who became a teacher of philosophy, setting up his school at Nicopolis on the west coast of Greece as the Emperor Domitian (reg. AD 81-96) expelled philosophers first from Rome and then from mainland Italy.

Arrian noted down and set out E.’s teaching in a handbook (Encheiridion) and in four books of Discourses. W. also translates the collected fragments of E.’s work.

W. does much more than offer a translation. He provides a careful introduction which includes ‘Stoicism: a Sketch’ which gives a masterly overview of orthodox stoic belief. This was basically composed of three elements: logic (sound reasoning), physics (the nature of the world, with a theological acknowledgement of the role of God/the gods) and ethics (how to behave so as to live a happy and fulfilled life). W. sees the formal teaching of these three elements taking place in the morning, with the afternoon set aside for E. to ‘address his students’ personal issues’, this being done with anecdotes and examples from the natural world, social intercourse, historical and mythical events and ‘Socratic-like dialogue, often rapid-fire’ as ‘he puts objections into the mouths of imaginary interlocutors and refutes them’.

To give an example from the Fragments (17), which also illustrates W.’s stylistic approach, ‘When we are invited to a banquet, we address ourselves to what’s on offer. If someone were to ask his host to serve up fish or cakes instead, that would be thought outrageous. Yet in life we ask the gods for things they don’t give us, and do so even though there are plenty of things that they have given us.’

The word translated ‘outrageous’ is atopos, sometimes translated as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘eccentric’. It is interesting that W. chooses a word which expresses higher moral indignation—surely a reflection of E.’s emphasis that such behaviour is not just ‘odd’ but ‘wrong’. For the stoic doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong is what matters. As W. writes in his introductory sketch, ‘The fundamental stoic ethical tenet is that the only thing that is good and beneficial is moral virtue or human excellence.’

W. himself has spared no effort in excellence of exposition and commentary. Copious well-referenced notes explain historical, mythical and literary allusions. There is an extensive further reading list, including works on modern Stoicism and a full index.

One further observation: in Fragment 17, quoted above, W. refers to ‘his host’, whereas in our gender-neutralised modern way some translators might have offered ‘the host’. W. is unapologetic. As he explains in ‘A Note on the Translation’, to have done so would have been to misrepresent E. and his male- dominated world. If W. were to be criticized for this, E. would certainly have congratulated him on his stoic stand.

This is an excellent book, well-produced and presented and exceptional value. Our thanks are indeed due to W. and the University of Chicago Press for a stimulating work of scholarship. 


Ray Morris