The Handbook of Epictetus Updated for the 21st Century

The Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus stands as one of the most influential and concise presentations of Stoicism ever published. Written by Epictetus’s student Arrian in 135 CE (Epictetus wrote nothing down himself), the Enchiridion is a succinct summary of Epictetus’s core ethical teachings.

A Field Guide To a Happy Life is modern Stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s attempt at updating the Enchiridion for the twenty-first century. In addition to translating the text into contemporary language with updated, modern examples, Pigliucci has also updated the philosophy itself—particularly in regard to metaphysics—replacing the older Stoic view of the cosmos as purposefully ordered according to divine principles with the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos as devoid of any ultimate purpose.

Unlike some, I have no objections with Pigluicci modifying the doctrine because (1) the Enchiridion is not a sacred text, and (2) Stoicism is not a religion; as a practical philosophy, Stoicism must evolve with our changing scientific and moral knowledge to retain its relevance and usefulness. This is, in fact, how Stoicism was originally envisioned by the early Roman Stoics. As Seneca himself said:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road—but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advance these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.”

The Enchiridion, for all its brilliant insights into human psychology, does stand in need of updating due to its scientifically naive metaphysical assumptions. Pigliucci, in making these metaphysical updates (along with several others he outlines in the book), creates what he refers to as Stoicism 2.0—all while retaining the core ethical components of the philosophy.

For all of the controversy that Pigliucci is claiming this metaphysical alteration is creating, to my mind it makes little practical difference in terms of the core Stoic principles. As the philosopher John Sellers wrote:

“Whether one believes in a benevolent deity, pantheistic order or atomic chaos, it remains entirely up to us whether we choose to see an event as a disaster or an opportunity.”

While one can raise the question as to which doctrines can really be changed before the philosophy ceases to be Stoicism, I believe that as long as the core ethical concepts are retained, one’s metaphysical views are of relatively little importance, granted they retain an element of free will (otherwise everything is outside of one’s direct control, and the dichotomy of control is an illusion).

In terms of what cannot be changed, Pigliucci is right to propose that the dichotomy of control represents the foundation of Stoic thought. In reading through the Field Guide (and the Enchiridion), one realizes that every example is essentially an application or manifestation of this one core principle. There are things we fully control—thoughts, desires, judgements, goals, and actions—and things we do not: everything else. By focusing only on the first category, and by extension the development of our character and virtue, we can learn to live an ethical, tranquil, and eudaimonic life—regardless of our metaphysical picture of the universe (so long as it preserves an element of free will) and regardless of external circumstance.

The best way to think about Stoic practice and the dichotomy of control is through an analogy developed by Cicero. Cicero compared the practicing Stoic to an archer who does all she can to take the best shot but who (counterintuitively) does not concern herself with hitting the target. As Pigliucci wrote:

“Consider carefully what is and is not under the archer’s control. She is in complete charge of selecting and taking care of the bow and the arrows; of practicing shooting at a target; of selecting the precise moment in which to let the arrow go. After that, however, nothing is under her control: the target, an enemy soldier, say, may become aware of the arrow and move out of range; or a sudden gust of wind may ruin the most perfect shot.”

This is Stoicism in a nutshell. One can aim for any targets they’d like (e.g., a promotion at work), but instead of setting the promotion as one’s goal, the Stoic would instead internalize the goal and simply try to become the best employee they can be, one worthy of a promotion. In this sense the promotion is the target, becoming the best employee is the goal, and the promotion itself becomes a “preferred indifferent” that, because it is not in the individual’s complete control, is simply preferred but not desired. I will admit that Pigliucci does a better job than Epicteuts of explaining this, of showing the reader that externals do not need to be despised but are instead needed as targets to pursue for one to live a worthwhile life.

Once you understand this one core concept, and start putting it into practice every day, you can start to see the benefit of living according to Stoic principles. Not only does this mindset create a greater sense of tranquility, it also paradoxically makes it more likely that you will hit your targets when you emotionally distance yourself from them and focus only on the things within your direct control.

Finally, there is the question as to whether you should read Piggliucci’s Field Guide or Epictetus’s Enchiridion. The Enchiridion, unlike most works in the history of philosophy, is not a difficult read, by any stretch. It is short, concise, and easy to follow, and even though the examples are outdated, the reader would easily get the point Epictetus is trying to make. And while the metaphysics is outdated, there is nothing stopping the reader from doing exactly what Pigliucci is doing himself—picking and choosing what to accept, what to reject, and what to modify. That is, after all, the whole point of doing philosophy (and what separates philosophy from religion), thinking for oneself and not simply following the dictates of someone else’s reason.

In this sense, it may be more beneficial to go straight to the original material, and then to read Pigliucci’s Field Guide to make your own comparisons. I didn’t find any of his modifications to be objectionable, but the only way you can make that determination is through a comparison of the original material. Since both books are very short, it’s worth picking up both, as you could easily read them in one or two sittings.