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The Online Introduction to

The Teaching of Epictetus, etc.,
translated from the Greek, with Introduction and Notes,
by T. W. Rolleston.


I know very little about Philosophy, but now I know a little bit more. The reason is my discovery of this old book in an Antique Mall on a main street in Shelbyville, Kentucky, where I browsed after paying my first traffic ticket in 20 years.

There were four reasons for my decision to slog through and type up this book. First, I never recall hearing much about Epictetus until I put online The Pleasures of Life, by Sir John Lubbock. The fact that Epictetus was such a huge source of comfort for this philanthropic Victorian roused my curiosity and my sporadic and formless cravings for similar solace. Secondly, The possibility that he had consoled a man named Henry Gatewood from Norfolk, Virginia, according to the book’s label, some 100 years ago. Third, The book made its way to a small town in North Central Kentucky and survived instead of being used as kindling or a door-stop. Lastly, The translator W. R. Rolleston, was a famous poet and popular author, and one of the first three post-Elizabethan people to translate Epictetus into English in an inexpensive form. Two of these translators were not college professors, but dilettantes. The last illustrates the fact that a great deal of what we value and know about history and literature was done long before anybody in English-speaking Academia, whose job it is to do such things, decided to earn their salary. The first translator was a woman no less, Elizabeth Carter, and she did it a century and a half earlier!!! The other was a Classics Professor, George Long, but he published his over a hundred years after Ms. Carter, too.

It also turns out that this text is the Americanized version of Rolleston’s authorized edition, published in England. It was probably stolen, since there is no mention of copyright or authorization anywhere on either the title or the reverse of the title page. (Although I may be missing a few front papers, since the book is so fragile.) The unscrupulous publishing house was based in Chicago, which had a number of them. Plagiarism and pirating was a well-known American and UK pastime, at that era, and this adds to my impression that the worst offenders and copyright lawbreakers were American. There is faint howling that England pirated American stuff more often. The title on the book binding has The Teachings of Epictetus, while the Title Page has Rolleston's own title of The Teaching of Epictetus, etc. Other than that, and the Americanized spelling, the typos generally reproduce the typos in Rolleston’s original text. This ripped-off book is on very cheap paper: the book is falling apart and the pages are so brittle they break and crumble at a touch, so don’t buy an old copy by this publisher and expect to read it often.

As I said, there were several typos in the book, both American and British, a few more than usual, and two of some importance to the sense, which were emended. The source code of each page will show where these occurred. This copy may be missing the table of contents and a prefatory quote by Goethe.

On the book matter itself, semi-briefly: Epictetus was a Stoic, and a pagan: a sort of a spiritual descendant of Socrates. His most important student was Flavius Arrianus, who took notes at his Lectures and these notes are the only records we have of Epictetus’ philosophy, other than a few scattered quotes. He had many later followers, both Christian and pagan, including Sir John, mentioned above, who all credit his philosophy as one of great importance to them personally, without qualifiers. Other Christian admirers, to be able to approve of him and the value and worth of his teaching decided to tout him as a monotheist at heart. So, now by convincing themselves that he believed in only one god, it became acceptable to learn from him and still be a “good Christian.” Frequently this was not the case, merely by being a pagan he was damned by many early Christians as an unfit teacher (or the idea of giving him the gloss of monotheism had not occurred to them yet). As a work-around, however, those “good Christian” monks and other early religious Christian writers, just plagiarized his words and thoughts when they liked them. Even worse than stealing pagan wisdom uncredited, some of them lied further to glorify their own cult heroes. As Rolleston says in a footnote in his earlier translation of The Encheiridion of Epictetus:

“. . . Christians, too, paid honour to this ‘king of old philosophy.’ Adaptations of the Encheiridion were made especially for their use in which the name ‘Socrates’ in Ench. li, was changed to ‘Paul.’ ”

I am assuming that this is Paul the Apostle to give even more weight to the words and ideas taken from such a wise but "unchristian" man, and of course to make these writers seem more trustworthy and devout. I will refrain from further vexatiae on the propaganda and immorality of the pseudo-religious under the guise of leaders and scholars. For a kinder, gentler, and broader view see Chapter III: “Greek Philosophy as the Antecedent of the Patristic Apprehension of Fact,” from The Mediaeval Mind, Volume I, by Henry Osborn Taylor, on this site.

Other than that contribution to my burgeoning cynicism, it seems clear from Rolleston's brief explanation of the Cynic school of philosophy, that I am not a true Cynic, nor, alas, a good Stoic like Epictetus, and not much of an Epicurean either. In his Introduction, Rolleston gives you the highlights of all these schools. There are also a few additional pages defining some of the Philosophic Terms used by the ancient Greeks at the end of the book. The more ancient Stoic Cleanthes, wrote a hymn or prayer to Zeus, which Epictetus admired and quoted. Rolleston includes his translation of it, which makes the second translaton of this hymn on this site. The first one is by Palmer. Both translations leave me thrill-less, so maybe another translator in the next 200 years can do better.

Rollestone, and others, all talk about how funny Epictetus is. Well, Epictetus still needs a better translator, if that's the case. After 2000 years, despite this repeated statement, his humor is still largely inapparent to me. I did laugh once. And smiled twice or thrice. But it seemed a small repayment for the other 268 pages. It takes patience and perseverance and concentration to catch what humor and sarcasm there is.

Comfort and solace also has yet to infuse my soul after fairly focused reading of it (twice, including proofreading). But it appears that must come with practice. Since I am no apprentice Philosopher, or freshman at any Philosophy class, nor is that on my to-do list, I expect that I will remain an “Idiot.” That, O Reader, is not self-disparagement, but proves I did learn a little bit from this book. The word Idiot in Antiquity merely means a layman, or Non-Philosopher. How the meanings of words do change!

There are some entertaining glimpses into life and customs under Vespasian in Imperial Rome in the book. Rolleston’s footnotes are interesting at times, as is his Introduction on Epictetus and Arrian. I learned that Epictetus, was one of the philosophers kicked out of Rome by that Emperor. It also appears from the text that Epictetus was beaten for being a philosopher by a nobleman, before being banished. Although nobody I read comments on this statement by Epictetus that suggests it. When he is talking about an example of an imaginary dialogue between a philosopher and a potential patron or student, Book V, chapter iii, he says:

3.  But what? this business of instruction is not very safe at present, and least of all in Rome; for he who pursues it will of course feel constrained not to do it in a corner, but he must go to some man of consular rank, it may be, or some rich man, and inquire of him: . . . Can you then declare to us in what manner you have taken thought for your soul? for it is not likely that a wise man like yourself, and one of repute in the State, would overlook the best thing you possess, and use no diligence or design about it, but leave it neglected and perishing? Surely not. But do you provide for it yourself? and have you learned the way from another, or discovered it yourself?

4. And then at last there is danger lest he say first, Good sir, what is this to you? who are you? and then, if you persist in troubling him, that he may lift up his hands and smite you. Once I too was an admirer of this method until I fell into these difficulties."

Being smote is the only difficulty mentioned in this excerpt, and so I am guessing he suffered it. Rolleston and a few other general sources on the life of Epictetus make no comment on my conclusion, so I am probably wrong and an Idiot in both the antique and the modern sense of the word.

What was startling to me was finding the central rationale of Alcoholics Anonymous, and similar behavioral concepts, leaping out of these pages. As any person who is familiar with addiction medicine and with the prinicples of AA will recognize, Epictetus knew and taught all this long ago. This bit from Book V, Chapter II, On Habit, shows that he was well aware of these principles:

3.  Wouldst thou, then, be no longer of a wrathful temper? Then do not nourish the aptness to it, give it nothing that will increase it, be tranquil from the outset, and number the days when thou hast not been wrathful. I have not been wrathful now for one, now for two, now for three days; but if thou have saved thirty days, then sacrifice to God. For the aptness is at first enfeebled, and then destroyed. To-day I was not vexed, nor to-morrow, nor for two or three months together; but I was heedful when anything happened to move me thus. Know that thou are in good case.

What is evident, is that Epictetus was a kind and tolerant man. That was worth discovering, and he taught that tolerance was crucial. Making snap negative judgements about others was also anathema to him. Also from Book V:

“Doth a man bathe himself quickly? Then, say not, Wrongly, but Quickly. Doth he drink much wine? Then say not, Wrongly, but Much. For whence do you know if it were ill done till you have understood his opinion?”.

Rolleston decided that Elizabethan was the best language to use when translating Epictetus. Usually, my historical interests stop far before Shakespeare’s time, so I could not share his appreciation. I also think that Shakespeare spoke “Elizabethan” more than most other Elizabethans. I cannot appreciate Shakespeare, I cannot appreciate Rolleston’s use of that linguistic style, nor can I appreciate Epictetus any better in Shakespearean guise. (However, there are plenty of other Elizabethans I like who are much easier to understand right off, without a glossary, or having to modernize it in my mind to get it. But that is another aside best deferred.)

Plus, reading Elizabethanese makes me talk weird for a week! But maybe you can find your own solace or comfort, or just have the totally laudable goal of improving your knowlege of trivia on customs of the world under Imperial Rome, If so, I will get me hence, and thou mayst get thee thither shouldst you clicketh Here, or on Next at the bottom of the page.

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