Ancients on Scepticism and Humour

Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.

Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.

Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”

In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.

As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””

His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.

The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.

How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”

Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.

Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”

The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.  

Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”

Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.

As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.  

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165

Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Cicero: How to Win and Rule

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Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman and philosopher. His writings are a major source of information about the politics and history of the end of the Roman Republic. He had been a brilliant student and one of the ancient world’s greatest orators. He studied philosophy and argument in Greece, including Platonism in Athens. His political and legal manoeuvring in Rome endangered him under the reign of dictator Sulla and his time in Greece was partly self-imposed exile to escape the vengeance of Sulla. His later advocacy of a return to principles of republicanism meant that fell afoul of Mark Antony and was assassinated an influential enemy of the new Caesar.

Cicero is considered a leading progenitor of humanism and liberalism by later moral philosophers and political thinkers, although he was opposed democracy. Instead, he preferred a productive tension between aristocrats and Plebs, which checks the power of each and forces the opposing sides to accommodate the interests of their opponents. His advancement of restraint and republicanism align him with Stoicism, a philosophy he expressed as a personal position in Paradoxa Stoicorum. However, he has been accused of opportunism and hypocrisy, using his brilliant speech as a cloak for self-serving arguments. Cicero was never reluctant to offer advice to students, important figures and the public. Two volumes of Cicero’s distilled wisdom are How to Win an Argument and How to Run a Country. The first addresses rhetoric and oratory and the second addresses statesmanship. These are two attractive small volumes which include English translations, Latin original texts, introductions and notes, making them self-contained and approachable for non-specialist readers.

How to Win an Argument has advice for politicians, lawyers and public speakers of all types. He discusses the Aristotelian triad of logos, ethos and pathos in the art of speech. The book includes not only Cicero’s advice to speakers but examples from his own speeches, legal and political. This gives us a chance to see Cicero using his own ideas in practice. A central example is Cicero’s 52 BC defence of Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murder of Publius Clodius. It was a defence that was unsuccessful partly due to interference in the trial and the political manoeuvring that demanded the exiling of Milo.

Cicero exhorts the speaker not to use obscure language or to use excessive rhetorical devices. He likens this to the use of strong perfume, which can be overwhelming. “[…] I don’t mind hearing people say “great!” and “outstanding!” about us, however often, but I don’t like to hear “charming!” or “how pretty!” too often. Certainly, the popular exclamation, “couldn’t do better!” I would want to hear repeatedly.” Of all the aspects that Cicero believed key to good speaking was delivery. “[…] the most effective element in our delivery, next to the voice, is the expression on our face; and this controlled by our eyes.” He quotes Demosthenes, the Greek who was considered that greatest orator in the ancient world. “People generally agreed that, when delivering these words, [Demosthenes] used his eyes, voice, and gestures to such effect that even his enemies could not contain their tears. I am talking about this in some detail because the orators, who act in real life, have abandoned this entire field, while the actors, who are only imitators of reality, have appropriated it.” The great speaker learns to use his body like a musical instrument.

Editor James M. May has compiled a summary list of key points: 1. Nature, art, and practice, practice, practice; 2. Eloquence is a powerful weapon; 3. Identify, arrange, memorise; 4. Not by logic alone; 5. Know your audience; 6. Be clear, be correct; 7. Delivery matters; 8. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and more; 9. The pen is often mightier than the sword; 10, Words, without substance, are hollow things

Once you have won election, how should one govern? How to Run a Country contains Cicero’s comments on how to act as a ruler and politician, a subject he had expertise in. Cicero recalls how, upon returning from a successful governorship of a Sicilian province, he was thunderstruck to encounter some holidaying Romans who had never heard of him. He reminds us of the humility we should exercise to keep our achievements in perspective. “Why should I say more? At this point, I gave up and joined the crowd on the beach.”

His advice to orators is incisive and succinct. “An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of the speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.” In principle, Cicero is correct. However access to plentiful written sources has allowed the role of memory to diminish for anyone other than a participant in a spoken debate or private argument.  Feats of memory were considered a prerequisite of many roles in public life. Imitation of the masters is recommended to gain command of technique and to learn the application of theory in practice.

Generally, he warns against excessive taxation, corruption and unwise foreign adventures in war. He vaunts service and duty – on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. He warns against tyranny, stating “Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad. For no matter how much a tyrant might try to overturn the law and crush the spirit of freedom, sooner or later it will rise up again either through public outrage or the ballot box.” Ultimately, Cicero would pay with his life for his opposition to the tyranny of Antony.

Cicero’s insights are as valid as they were 2,000 years ago and his advice could be beneficially applied perennially by speakers and rulers today.

 

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (ed., trans., introduction), How to Run a Country, Princeton University Press, 2013, 132pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $12.95, ISBN 978 0 691 156576

Marcus Tullius Cicero, James M. May (ed., trans., introduction), How to Win an Argument, Princeton University Press, 2016, 263pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 164335

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Seneca on Anger, Thucydides on War

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Two timely additions to the Ancient Wisdom series of Princeton University Press have been published. They bring us insights from yesteryear which apply to our age.

In our age of Twitter storms and online petitions, of aggressive demonstrations and refusals to accept the validity of an opposing argument, this extract of Seneca’s Stoic text On Anger is welcome. Seneca was the most noted Roman orator of his age – perhaps in all the ancient world – and his measured words and apt insights bring his philosophy of restraint, decency, leniency and empathy vividly to life. In our age polarised by politics and atomised by social media, Seneca’s instructions guide us to put our petty frustrations and over reactions into perspective.

Some men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true.

Anger is a disaster – “No plague has done more harm to humankind” – or a disease, akin to unsightly swelling indicating an inner malady. It makes us mad and turns us into animals. It makes us ugly and deformed. To give in to anger is akin to throwing ourselves off a cliff. Once we abandon our control we are unable to regain control and can only fall to an ignominious and unnecessary end. Anger hurts us more than any other emotion because it causes us to act against ourselves.

In the following passage Seneca could be describing the iGen, the youngest generation which grew up tethered to smartphones and social media, and its helicopter parents.

The more an only child is indulged, or the more that’s permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don’t you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?

If one looks at the university students furiously protesting real or imagined infractions of politeness, one sees these fortunate ones driven to the heights of fury. These are the individuals that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind – pampered, protected and unable to resist the mildest of challenges. Their rage is not an expression of an attachment to justice but the petulance of an affronted child. Instinctive ire at a sign of disrespect comes not from a position of confident self-knowledge but of insecurity.

In an age when we rush to judgment and post our first thoughts to public forums, we would do well to heed Seneca’s warning against rashness and credulity. We should treat news stories with caution and wait. Often enough, we will see what a trifling matter it was and undeserving of comment or emotion. Your restraint ennobles you – consider the bearing of great men.

Seneca urges us to set aside our selfish anger and instead remember our commitment to duty. He reminds us that none of us are innocent and that we must accept fair rebuke. This is contrary to the advice we get today to express our emotions, to make ourselves important, to indulge our emotions and expect others to accommodate us. Seneca’s Stoicism is tempered by consideration. His belief is that we do others a courtesy by not imposing on them demeaning emotions. We injure ourselves by giving in to anger. “Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow.”

To avoid the temptation of ire, Seneca recommends we keep the company of calm people and try not to attempt tasks that are beyond us, for that will frustrate us. When needed, w should be able to turn our backs on the senate and forum – today, that would be switch off the news and unplug from social media. (“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything.”) We should not seek information which personally insults us. Be wary of drinking parties. He concludes with examples of superhuman self-control by individuals in the face of monstrous provocation and cruelty. The message is clear – if these individuals could restrain themselves, so can you. In lives as short as ours, why poison them with anger?

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How to Think About War is a compilation of speeches from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian, considered one of most accomplished and important of all histories. The author was a general in the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC. Athens had established a trading league which became an association of colonies and allies which paid Athens to protect them from hostile forces. This league had a treasury at Delos and thus became known as the Delian League. However, it was known by all – not least the Athenians themselves – that the Delian League was actually an Athenian Empire, with tithes paying not only for the building of warships but buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon. There was “mission creep” or imperial hubris which led to the Athenians seeking to expand their empire. When client city-states revolted, these uprisings were put down with force and compensation extracted. Thus Athens – acknowledged birthplace of democracy and home to the flourishing of Ancient Greek civilisation and the wonders of art, drama, architecture and writing – was also a powerful military power which used a combination of soft power, wily diplomacy and overwhelming force to expand its influence across its neighbours. They prided themselves on propagating (and sometimes imposing) democracy on their client states. However, although Sparta agitated for the freedom of Greek states, it was a society founded upon slave labour. Additionally, Athens had a navy that could protect all of the Greek states from the threat of invasion by Persia. So although Athens was repressive, it also offered protection from foreign threat. The picture is a complicated one.

Not surprisingly, this history (left incomplete) has been seen as a parallel for subsequent imperial ventures. The most recent analogies have been between the Athenian venture and the foreign policy of the USA. Thucydides’s history has been seen as a warning of globalist ambition, military hubris and strategic overreach. Some have found justifications for a nation wishing to spread its values overseas, while others see it as a critique of that tendency. Thucydides position is opaque. While he was an Athenian, he was also critical of the failures in policy and philosophy behind the conflict. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war but he died before he could complete his history, so he knew that the ultimate military defeat of Athens was the outcome for his polis (city-state). He tries to be as objective as possible, compiling the views of participants and attempting to establish the correctness of the statements he has.

One of Thucydides main narrative devices is to record the speeches of various statesmen and generals. Some of these he actually heard, others he had reported to him. The speeches are not verbatim but they convey the position of the speaker accurately even if Thucydides considered the speaker disingenuous or misguided. This book is a collection of the speeches, each preceded by a short introduction.

On the patriotic enthusiasm for war, Pericles says: “I do realize that people are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it; that as circumstances change, so too does resolve.” Pericles warns that refusing to fight over small matters risks appeasing and encouraging further infractions which infringe the principles of Athens. If Athenians truly hold certain beliefs then they must be prepared to fight and die for them not to allow them to be breached. However, once the decision has been made, Athenians must be willing to fight to win and not disavow their commitment should the conflict prove trying for them. There is tactical advice on the weaknesses of a divided enemy unable to mount a sustained campaign and advantages and disadvantages of winning territory.

The principles which Athens subscribes to are outlined in Pericles famous funeral oration, included here. In this he sets out the achievements of their ancestors who fought and died to protect their people from barbarians. He speaks of Athens ability to overcome obstacles while never falling prey to the weaknesses of other cultures. He praises the education and creativity of Athenians. Grief and suffering are the cost of protecting such freedoms.

On the morale of a divided people, Pericles says: “I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving. A city can bear its people’s various sufferings but no single person can bear the whole city’s.”

A barb from leader Pericles chastising his mutinous fellow citizens demonstrates his legendary oratorical skills: “Apparently, the real flaw in my policy is the weakness of your resolve.”  He manoeuvres Athenians into supporting the continuing war by stating that whether or not they supported the establishment of the empire, they are burdened by its existence and must bear that burden. “Even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous.” He casts opposition to war as the bind of the free riders and pacifists, who benefit from the actions of others without personally engaging. “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.”

A debate between Cleon and Diodotus on the fate of the Mytileneans frames the matters of realpolitik and justice. The Athenians had voted for the execution of every Mytilenean men after their failed revolt but had second thoughts and two Athenians debated whether or not to rescind the order. Clemency and punishment have implicit costs and are weighed in terms of both ethics and pragmatism. In the Melian Dialogue we see Athenians arguing that nothing between submission or defeat of Melos is acceptable because neutrality would present other nations with an alternative and encourage Athenian client states to seek neutrality. The Melians are urged to surrender because they are militarily inferior and war could only lead to their defeat, yet still the Melians claim that the unlikely prospect of victory is better than the sure prospect of submission and associated shame. A final debate is on the wisdom of Athens launching an invasion of Sicily.

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The translation is very readable and is printed facing the original Latin/Greek in matching parallel. The introductions and notes allow new readers to appreciate the texts to the full without preparation. These handsome small books (with cloth spines) introduce people to the classics in a way which makes these ancient writers seem as relevant and wise as any famous author of our own times. The issues in these books are as relevant now as they were 2000 years ago.

 

Seneca, James Romm (ed./trans.), How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 220pp + xviii, English/Latin text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 18195 0

Thucydides, Johanna Hanink (ed./trans.), How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 276pp + liv, English/Greek text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 19015 0

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Stoicism: Antidote for Victimhood

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Two new books filled with ancient wisdom offer an alternative to the culture of victimhood which currently dominates public life.

In recent years the culture of offence, emotional lability and learned helplessness has encouraged people to be weak in order to gain social status. If we are upset we display our emotions for support; if we are hurt we show our wounds for sympathy; if we consider ourselves slighted we indulge our injury. By rewarding weakness we encourage it. We learn to make ourselves unable to accept valid criticism by rejecting it as a personal slight. We demand respect without displaying the qualities that might generate admiration. Whenever we encounter opposition we feel defeated because we have defeated ourselves peremptorily. Social and psychological data show that we are making ourselves, our children and our society ever more fragile in a descending spiral of blame, making anyone but ourselves responsible for suffering. The culture of victimhood can be seen in social-media outrage mobs, the prevalence of identity politics and the casual assumption that bigotry is endemic and condemns subjects to lives of intolerable failure.

The Stoics believed that suffering largely emanates from within each person and that each person, therefore, has the power to overcome suffering through conscious thought and learned habit. They believed that treating both failure and success with equanimity preserved the individual from the excesses of pride and despair. An interior search for meaning led to understanding of virtue and to dignified restrained conduct not to temptation to succumb to self-pity, vanity and selfishness. Stoicism’s cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

Stoicism was a school of moral ethics originated by the ancient Greeks in Athens in the 3rd Century BC. Two of the most prominent writers were Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-36 BC). Princeton University Press have produced two attractive small volumes of which publish the original texts (Cicero in Latin, Epictetus in Greek) with parallel English translations and brief introduction and endnotes.

How to Be a Friend (Laelius de Amicitia – literally “Laelius on Friendship”) was written by Cicero for his friend Atticus when they were both old. He was reflecting upon the importance and nature of friendship, using the general and orator Gaius Laelius not only to share Laelius’s thoughts but to reflect Cicero’s own understanding of friendship. In the translator’s introduction some of Cicero’s observations are summarised:

Only good people can be friends because trust, wisdom and good faith are essential to deep friendships; persons of low moral character cannot be trustworthy friends. Make new friends, but keep the old because your friendships of longstanding may change as your circumstances change; new friendships reflect new aspects of your life. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong because moral distortion of a friendship is the result of moral flaws which should disqualify the friend from your trust. Friendship should never – ideally – be material or the result of dependence.

To the degree a person relies on himself and is made sturdy by virtue and wisdom so that he depends on no one and thus possesses all he needs within himself, to that extent he most excels at seeking out and cherishing friendships. Did my departed friend Africanus need me? By Hercules, not at all! And I had no need of him. But I loved him because of his goodness, just as he, if judged rightly, loved me because of the virtue he saw in me.

In one touching passage, Cicero talks of two friends becoming competitive in their attempts to help each other, trying to outdo each other with consideration and generosity. Elsewhere he writes, “Friends are the finest and most beautiful adornment of life.” This is tempered by moral seriousness. “True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.” On the response to the death of a friend, Cicero writes “If you let your sorrow overwhelm you, you’re not showing how much you loved your friend, only how much you love yourself.”

One might quibble with a handful of points – including that one must never give consideration to negative comments made about your friends – but generally the book is full on sound insights into human nature.

How to Be Free (comprising extracts from Encheiridion (Ἐγχειρίδιον) (“Handbook”) and Diatribai (Διατριβαί) (“Discourses”)) is a parallel translation with the colloquial Greek, as spoken by Epictetus in his lectures. They were transcribed from memory by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. Epictetus was a freed Geek slave who became known as a thinker after he was granted his freedom. For Epictetus, freedom was a mental choice. One could examine one’s self and become aware of the virtues and vices and understand how different phenomena affect one’s outlet. After knowledge and self-knowledge comes the exercise of will. Epictetus does not, however, address the dangers of passivity in the acceptance of one’s fate. The philosopher enjoined persons to treat every situation as expected and necessary and to only respond by tempering one’s reactions. Mastery of oneself – through deciding how to respond – gives both serenity and stability.

Epictetus helps us view with equanimity things that most people care about: wealth, poverty, illness and so forth. If we treat such matters with distant appreciation and mindfulness we become not entirely indifferent but less swayed by passing states. Do not get carried away with your passions, for good or ill.

“In company don’t go on at length about your deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you.” (That just about kills social media.) Refrain from luxuries, socially unacceptable sex, emotional excess and humour. Epictetus is capable of his own dry wit. “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”

If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. Aren’t you ashamed of that?

In an age of vanity, fear and self-absorption, Stoicism offers hard truths and curt truisms. These small tomes should appeal to readers with a desire to better themselves and a willingness to take on tough wisdom that has not aged in 2,000 years.

 

Epictetus, A. A. Long (trans.), How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 173pp + liii, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17771 7

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (trans.), How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 208pp, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17719 9

28 September 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art