Sunday, September 11, 2016

Epictetus on Reading?

There is a quotation, supposedly by Epictetus, on why mere reading of books is not enough. It's all over the Internet, and it reads:
“Don't just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents." Translation by Sharon Lebell”[1]
Searching Epictetus's texts themselves (or rather Arrian's account of the teachings of Epictetus, as we have no texts by Epictetus himself), you will not find this "quotation." It is actually from a rather dubious edition of Epictetus, namely by The Art of Living. The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell. The subtitle of this work is "A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell."[1] It is a translation only in the loosest sense. As Lebell points out in her "Prologue", "I have done my share of selection, interpretation, and improvisation with the ideas in the Enchiridion and the Discourses. ... My aim has been to communicate the authentic spirit, but not necessarily the letter, of Epictetus. The passage in question, found in the section on "Essential Teachings on Virtue, Happiness, and Tranquility," is clearly an example of her "improvisation with the ideas" of Epictetus. It is written by Lebell, not by Arrian, and it is loosely based on some passages in the the Enchiridion and the Discourses.

Does it "communicate the authentic spirit" of Epictetus? I doubt it. Epictetus is constantly contrasting mere reading about certain principles and actually living them. To rely on reading is
just as if, in forming our opinions, when perplexed between true and false semblances, we should, instead of practically distinguishing between them, merely peruse dissertations on evidence. What, then, is the trouble? That we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature. But we stop at learning what is said, and, being able to explain it to others, at solving syllogisms and arranging hypothetical arguments. Hence where the study is, there, too, is the hindrance.
Reading may be a beginning, but "we have neither learned by reading, nor by writing, how to deal practically with the semblances of things, according to the laws of nature." Practice is what is called for. To be "a more discriminating and reflective person," as Lebell would have it, would be for Epictetus not even the beginning of living in accordance with nature.

The very title of the book includes "effectiveness" as one of Epictetus's goals. But effects are, according to Stoicism not "up to us." Reader beware! And those who consume quotations should be aware that they are not quoting Epictetus, but a modern hash of Epictetus.[2]



1. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, 1995)
2. I am well aware that most people would not care about this distinction!

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