- The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English Translation by Bonhöffer, Adolf Friedrich, Discourses Book I by Epictetus
Epictetus has made a comeback, among scholars on account of the resurgence of interest in Stoicism and among a broader reading audience on account of folks as divergent as Vice-Admiral James Stockdale and Tom Wolfe (See J. Stockdale, “Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London 2 : 1–13, and T. Wolfe, A Man in Full [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998]). And because the ninety-five extant Discourses of Epictetus follow upon each other in no obvious order and frequently exhort without explaining, a guide to their contents is urgently needed. So it is timely that we now have an English translation of Bonhöffer’s landmark 1894 study of Epictetus’ ethics and the first commentary in English on the Discourses. Unfortunately, neither work fully addresses the needs of scholars or of fresh students.
Bonhöffer argues in two important studies that the Discourses, written early in the second century C.E., essentially agree with the Stoicism of the third century B.C.E.: Epictet und die Stoa (1890) maintains this thesis for Epictetus’ epistemology and psychology, and Die Ethik des Stoiker Epictets (1894) extends the thesis to ethics. (Bonhöffer also [End Page 671] wrote a third study called Epiktet und das Neue Testament, which develops his frequent comparisons of Epictetan and early Christian thought.) Without Arnim’s Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, Bonhöffer reconstructs early Stoic doctrines, and against the then-prevailing view that “late” Stoics are all eclectic, he demonstrates Epictetus’ prevailing fidelity to early Stoic orthodoxy.
Occasionally, Bonhöffer’s zeal for his thesis outruns the evidence, although this complaint has been lodged against him more often unjustly than justly. Consider, for example, Bonhöffer’s treatment of to prosôpon (literally, the mask; figuratively, the role). In Discourses 1.2, Epictetus notes that “different people consider different things reasonable and unreasonable” and that to “bring our preconception of the reasonable and the unreasonable into conformity with nature … we consult not only the value of externals, but also what is in accordance with our prosôpon” (1.2.5–7, trans. Dobbin). At first glance, this seems to pick up on Panaetius’ theory of four prosopa (Latin, personae) recounted in De Officiıs I, according to which one ought to act in conformity with one’s own individual nature even though one’s primary responsibility is to the role assigned by universal nature. But Bonhöffer insists that Epictetus is not agreeing with Panaetius that individuality matters morally. Rather, Bonhöffer’s Epictetus says that our different characters “should be the same ⋯ it is simply a matter of whether one wants to be an educated person (philosophos) or an uneducated person (idiôtês)” (10–11, trans. Stephens, original pagination). Bonhöffer seems to have in mind the last sentence of Encheiridion 29 for the claim that there is just a philosophical prosôpon and an uneducated one.
This might seem to fit too neatly Bonhöffer’s thesis (and his general scorn for Panaetius). But a close analysis of Discourses 1.2 shows that Bonhöffer’s judgment cannot be so quickly dismissed. Epictetus says that we do consult our character (1.2.7), and that for those in the habit of doing so, individual character does make a huge difference (1.2.28). This comes up short of saying that we should consult our character and that it should make a huge difference. Bonhöffer might overstate Epictetus’ rejection of Panaetian prosôpa, but the relationship is surely complex.
For the translation Stephens and his editors thoughtfully provide the original pagination and...