As for me, may it happen that I am seized while nothing else I am taking care of but my proairesis, that it may be self-controlled, unhampered, unconstrained, free.Epictetus
A SHORT BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE ON EPICTETUS
We know so few details about Epictetus’ life that the story is quickly told.
Epictetus lived between the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century a. C. He was a contemporary of Plutarch and of Tacitus.
In 69 a. C. he saw the burning of the Capitol in Rome. He was, at that time, more or less twenty years old.
Epictetus was born at Hierapolis, in Phrygia. Hierapolis is today in Turkey, and its new name is Pamukkale. The ruins of the ancient town are still there, on a magnificent plateau overlooking the Denizli valley, and are scattered around the most marvellous natural swimming pool of warm thermal waters that I have found in the world. Plunge into that water and you will understand, for example, that the Stoic precept is not one of ‘living in accord with nature’, simply because you will quickly realize that neither a stone, nor a vegetable, nor an animal, nor a man, and not even the worst criminal can live ‘against nature’. The Stoic precept is, instead, the one of ‘living in accord with the nature of things ’. And which is, then, the nature of things ? The nature of things is their essential bipartition in things that are in our exclusive power, the so called ‘proairetic things’; and things that are not in our exclusive power, the so called ‘aproairetic things’. In order to grasp the meaning of this basic and fundamental distinction, or ‘diairesis’, you must however abandon any assumption of already knowing it and any distrust in your ability to understand it. At this point it will be very useful for you to plunge into that warm water for a second time and you will perhaps understand about Stoicism more than you can imagine. I am absolutely sure that, during his childhood, Epictetus too liked to wallow in it.
But let’s come back to our story. The mother of Epictetus was of slave condition. Epictetus himself was born slave, and remained in slave condition for many years before coming to Rome. At some time he was bought and owned by Epaphroditus, the powerful freedman and secretary of the Emperor Nero.
When he was young a schoolmaster –as I think- crippled him. But you can believe something else because, with respect to his lameness, the interpretations of the scholars are conflicting. In Rome he was a pupil of Musonius Rufus, the most famous Stoic philosopher of that age.
When the emperor Domitian, around 90 a. C., banished all the philosophers from Rome, Epictetus went to Greece and settled in Nicopolis. Here he opened a school and taught for many years and with a large success.
He had no sons, but in his old age he took a wife to help him to take care of a little child he had adopted.
Epictetus wrote nothing for publication, but one of his pupils, Flavius Arrian, took notes at the lectures and wrote down the books that have survived till now.
We know nothing about Epictetus’ death. Yet in Book III 5,7-11 and in Book IV, 10, 14-17, he himself has left us the words that he would have thought in those moments.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF EPICTETUS
This page contains a collection of five dialogues that explain the philosophy of Epictetus in a discoursive and dramatic form, according to the model of Socrates’ teaching.
Three people meet in a small Greek island and discuss the following topics:
‘Dialogue’ I: -The Proairesis-
Proairesis is a key concept in the phylosophy of Epictetus. Proairesis is shown to be the human reason as our only faculty capable of assuming an attitude according to Diairesis or in contrast with it (that is according to Counterdiairesis).
‘Dialogue’ II: -Medea: Diairesis, Antidiairesis and the mysterious judge-
The well known story of Medea is told and analyzed in order to understand in depth the way that all human Proairesis work. It is shown that human Proairesis is home to:
1) a Superjudgement called Diairesis
2) a ‘mysterious judge’ which will later (in the fifth dialogue) shown to be a Superjudgement that can be called Counterdiairesis
3) a huge class of ordinary judgements that can be collected under the general name of Antidiairesis.
‘Dialogue’ III: –The Diairesis at work-
The dialogue shows that conscious human life is a continuous stream of Antidiairesis at the orders of either Diairesis or Counterdiairesis.
‘Dialogue’ IV: -The Stoic precept is not that of ‘living according to nature’ but that of ‘living according to the nature of things’-
Living in accord with ‘nature’ means perfectly nothing, simply because it’s impossible to live ‘against nature’. Instead, the dialogue shows that men can live in accord with the ‘nature of things’ or in contrast with it. It is shown that the nature of things exist, is invariant like the speed of light in Physics, and is valid for all human being without exception.
‘Dialogue’ V: -Giges: Diairesis and Counterdiairesis, Good and Evil-
The story of Giges is told according to Herodotus and analyzed so as to show that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ indeed exist and what they are.
THE TEXT OF EPICTETUS
With the title THE DIAIRESIS TREE, the complete text of my English translation of Epictetus is made up of six units: the four books of the ‘Discourses’, the ‘Fragments’ and the ‘Handbook’.
1) Book I of the ‘Discourses’
‘Man, you have a proairesis by nature unhampered and unconstrained. Here, in the entrails, this has been written’. (I,17,21)
Book I consists of thirty chapters.
2) Book II of the ‘Discourses’
‘You only remember of that diairesis according to which a boundary is drawn between what is and what is not in your exclusive power’. (II,6,24)
Book II consists of twenty-six chapters.
3) Book III of the ‘Discourses’
‘What a great thing is to be able to say to oneself: “What now the others talk solemnly about in the schools thinking to say paradoxes, this I actually bring to completion. Sitting, they comment upon my virtues and inquire about me, they sing a hymn of praise to me’. (III,24,111)
Book III consists of twenty-six chapters.
4) Book IV of the ‘Discourses’
‘Why, then, do you say that he is a man? For is perhaps each being judged from its mere external appearance? Since, in this way, say that also a waxen apple is an apple. But it must also have the aroma and the taste of an apple, the external feature is not sufficient. Not even nose and eyes are, then, adequate to make a man, if he has not the judgements of a man’. (IV,5,19-20)
Book IV consists of thirteen chapters.
5) The ‘Fragments’
‘It is compulsory to know that a judgement does not become easily present to a person unless he should every day say and hear the same judgements and at the same time use them for life’. (Fr. XVI)
6) The ‘Handbook’
‘If someone handed over your body to anyone you meet, you would be vexed. And that you hand over your intelligence to any chance comer so that, if you are reviled, it is disconcerted and confused; for this are you not ashamed?’ (Handbook, 28)
The ‘Handbook’ consists of fifty-three chapters.
THE TRANSLATION OF EPICTETUS
‘And he seems always to be using the same terms for the same things; so that anyone inexpert and thoughtless might laugh his sentences to scorn’ (Plato ‘Symposium’ 221E)
THE DIAIRESIS TREE is the name that I have given to my English translation of all the extant Greek works of Epictetus: the 4 books of the ‘Discourses’, the ‘Handbook’ and the ‘Fragments’.
The Greek text upon which my translation is based, is essentially the text prepared by W. A. Oldfather and published in two volumes (reprinted 1979) by the Loeb Classical Library, with the title: ‘Epictetus. The discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual and Fragments’.
A Greek scholar will quickly realize that my approach to Epictetus is not a philological one. I have carefully avoided to deal, and depress myself accordingly, with matters like complete bibliography or extensive critical literature or scholia. There is no question about that. If I were a Greek scholar, I would have never undertaken the task of translating Epictetus. Since I brought this task to an end, and in the course of many years of daily work, the reason must be that I was interested in something else. At the same time I hope that also people unlearned in philological studies will quickly realize that my translation abstains from the Christian rape that the text of Epictetus has been up to now forced to endure, and that it takes a special care to respect the materialistic, pantheistic, monistic background which was a peculiar trait of the ancient Stoa.
The most distinctive feature of THE DIAIRESIS TREE is the fact that my translation is strictly based upon the careful analysis of the ‘Index Verborum’ included in H. Schenkl’s critical edition of Epictetus (Teubner, 1965). Taking advantage of this Index, I have tried, in the first place, to be scrupulous in giving to each Greek word (noun, adjective or verbal form, etc.) one or the least possible number of meanings consistent with the different contexts in which they appear, and then to keep the number of its occurrences in my English translation consistent with the number of occurrences of the word in the Greek text. I think that this attempt, to my surprise and also -I must say- satisfaction, has been basically successful. It’s obvious that all the mistakes one can find are mine, and that I would appreciate very much any contribution that might help me to emend them.
Many people, reading my translation for the first time, find themselves faced with terms and concepts that they have never heard, and are disconcerted. I have taken the utmost care to always carefully define, in the titles of the hundreds of paragraphs in which I have subdivided the text, the meaning of each new word that I had to introduce. I think it useful, however, to briefly summarize here some of the explanations that are more frequently requested.
*According to the context, I translate the noun ‘theòs’ -singular and plural, with article and without article- with the words ‘Zeus’ and ‘Matter Immortal’; or ‘god’ and ‘gods’; or ‘God’ and ‘Gods’. The words ‘Zeus’ and ‘Matter Immortal’ are basically equivalent and interchangeable. I always define Matter as Immortal, because reason and experimental evidence tell us that only Matter is endowed with this quality. Zeus is the name that Epictetus gives to the totality of Matter that makes up the universe, and he never fancies Zeus as a personal and transcending God of Judean-Christian tradition. I use the words ‘god’ and ‘gods’ when Epictetus means one or some of those generous, happy, liberating impressions that are respectful of the nature of things and of which only the men can be fathers. I use the word ‘God’ (in four places) and ‘Gods’, instead, when it is clearly referred to people who could very well share that unhappy, narrow-minded, enslaving impression that is disrespectful of the nature of things and which characterizes all revealed monotheisms.
*I translate the noun ‘ànthropos’ with the word ‘man’ only in those cases in which Epictetus refers to the one who is virtuous, that is to the one who has learned how to play correctly with diairesis and antidiairesis. In all the other cases I translate it, according to my style rules, with words like ‘human being’ or ‘person’ or ‘fellow’ or ‘people’.
*I translate the noun ‘prònoia’ with the term ‘Matter Immortal’s mind’. Athena was called and worshipped as ‘Pronoia’ both in Delphi and in Delos. If we think of Zeus as ‘Matter Immortal’ and of Athena as ‘mind’, we can easily understand the accuracy and the clearness of the ancient myth that tells us something about her birth. Few things can be more alien to Epictetus and to myself than the idea of a transcending and Christian Providence.
*The noun ‘fùsis’, besides its usual meaning of ‘nature’, takes very often in the present text the more technical meaning of ‘nature of things ’, and I have translated it in this way where I thought it necessary. This is a very important question because, together with the concepts of ‘Proairesis’ and of ‘Diairesis’, this is one of the pillars of the philosophy of Epictetus that have been till now dramatically underestimated or completely disregarded by all translators in whatever language. Epictetus knows very well how easy it is to misunderstand this point and how big the danger is of passing off as ‘nature’ what is, on the contrary, a simple ‘cultural model’. He never plays this game. At the same time, he points out very firmly that we can and we must talk about the ‘nature of things ’, and he is adamant in telling us that ‘the nature of things ’ is invariant, inviolable and valid for all human beings without exceptions. The ‘nature of things ’ is, eventually, their essential bipartition in things that are in our exclusive power (‘proairetic things’) and things that are not in our exclusive power (‘aproairetic things’).
*I never translate the noun ‘paidèia’ with the simple word ‘education’, because this word could lead to the same misunderstandings that I mentioned for the word ‘nature’. I regularly translate it, instead, with the term ‘training to diairesis’ or ‘training to diairesize’, because this is the only interpretation that, in my opinion, is coherent with the general philosophical system of Epictetus and is also clearly the goal that he sets to himself as educator.
*I translate the verb ‘thélo’ with the verb ‘to want’, mostly in those cases in which Epictetus uses it ironically or makes fun of people who don’t know very well, as the saying goes, what they want. Epictetus is adamant in constantly reaffirming that we are ‘our judgements’ or ‘our proairesis’, so that the concept of ‘will’, although not unknown, is mostly useless to him. Except for few cases, I have therefore translated this verb with the English verb ‘to dispose’, a verb that, in my opinion, incorporates the precious meaning of an act of our intellect, useful to comply with the strong dislike of Epictetus for any chat about a presumed contradiction, in man, between theory and praxis.’
THE DIAIRESIS TREE has been written in Aluthgama (Sri Lanka), Singapore (Singapore), Pulau Pangkor (Malaysia), Bangkok (Thailand), Gili Trawangan (Indonesia), Paihia (New Zealand), Nadi (Fiji Islands), Lalomanu (Western Samoa), Ofu (American Samoa), Los Angeles (California, USA), Key West (Florida, USA), Turin (Italy), Athens (Greece).