Monday, November 17, 2014

Perspectives from Epictetus on luggage, property, eloquence, and writing obscurely

In Chapter 43 of the Enchiridion (authored by his disciple Arrian) the Stoic philosopher Epictetus reportedly says:

“Everything has two handles, by one of which it ought to be carried and by the other not.”

That’s still excellent advice about luggage. He continued that:

“If your brother wrongs you, do not lay hold of the matter by the handle of the wrong that he is doing, because this is the handle by which the matter ought not be carried; but rather by the other handle - that he is your brother, that you were brought up together, and then you will be laying hold of the matter by the handle by which it ought to be carried.”

In the following Chapter 44 he points out that:

“The following statements constitute a non sequitur: ‘I am richer than you, therefore I am superior to you’; or ‘I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you’. But the following conclusions are better: ‘I am richer than you, therefore my property is superior to yours’; or ‘I am more eloquent than you, therefore my eloquence is superior to yours’. But you are neither property nor eloquence.”

Then in Chapter 49 he says:

“When a person gives himself airs because he can understand and interpret the books of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ‘If Chrysippus had not written obscurely, this man would have nothing about which to give himself airs.’

“But what is it I want? To learn nature and to follow her. I seek, therefore, someone to interpret her; and having heard Chrysippus does so, I go to him. But I do not understand what he has written; I seek therefore the person who interprets Chrysippus. And down to this point there is nothing to justify pride. But when I find the interpreter, what remains is to put his precepts into practice; this is the only thing to be proud about....” 

I’ve quoted from pages 527, 529, and 533 of W. A. Oldfeather’s 1928 translation of the Enchiridion. Reading a book by Henry Petroski, the Duke University professor of both civil engineering and history, got me to look up Epictetus. He used another translation of the first quote at the beginning of Chapter 2 in his 2006 book Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design.

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