Item of the Day: Mrs. Carter’s Epictetus (1768)

Full Title:

All the Works of Epictetus, Which are now Extant; Consisting of His Discourses, preserved by Arrian, in Four Books, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. Translated from the Original Greek, By Elizabeth Carter. With An Introduction, and Notes, by the Translator. In Two Volumes. The Third Edition. Printed in London for J. and F. Rivington, 1768.

From the Introduction:

1. The Stoic Sect was founded by Zeno, about three hundred Years before the Christian Æra: and flourished in great Reputation, till the Declension of the Roman Empire. A complete History of this Philosophy would be the Work of a large Volume: and nothing further is intended here, than such a summary View of it, as may be of Use to give a clearer Notion of those Passages in Epictetus, a strict Professor of it, which allude to some of its peculiar Doctrines.

2. That the End of Man is to live conformably to Nature, was universally agreed on amongst all the Philosophers: but, in what that Conformity to Nature consists, was the Point in Dispute. The Epicureans maintained, that it consisted in Pleasure; of which they constituted Sense the Judge (a). The Stoics, on the contrary, placed it in an absolute Perfection of the Soul. Neither of them seem to have understood Man in his mixed Capacity; but while the first debased him to a mere Animal, the last exalted him to a pure Intelligence; and both considered him as independent, uncorrupted and sufficient, either by Height of Virtue, or by well-regulated Indulgence, to his own Happiness. The Stoical Excess was more useful to the Public, as it often produces great and noble Efforts towards that Perfection, to which it was supposed possible for human Nature to arrive. Yet, at the same time, by flattering Man with false and presumptuous Ideas of his own Power and Excellence, it tempted even the Best to Pride: a Vice not only dreadfully mischievous in human Society, but, perhaps of all others, the most insuperable Bar to real inward Improvement.

3. Epictetus often mentions Three Topics, or Classes, under which the whole of Moral Philosophy is comprehended. These are, the Desires and Aversions, the Pursuits and Avoidances, or the Exercise of the active Powers, and the Assents of the Understanding.

4. The Desires and Aversions were considered as simple affections of the Mind, arising from the Apprehension, that any thing was conducive to Happiness, or the contrary. The first Care of a Proficient in Philosophy was, to regulate these in such a manner, as never to be disappointed of the one, or incur the other: a Point no otherwise attainable, than by regarding all Externals as absolutely indifferent. Good must always be the Object of Desire, and Evil of Aversion. The Person then, who considers Life, Health, Ease, Friends, Reputation, &c. as Good; and their Contraries as Evil, must necessarily desire the one, and be averse to the other: and, consequently, must often find his Desire disappointed, and his Aversion incurred. The Stoics, therefore, restrained Good and Evil to Virtue and Vice alone: and excluded all Extrenals from any Share in human Happiness, which they made entirely dependent on a right Choice. From this Regulation of the Desires and Aversions follows that Freedom from Perturbation, Grief, Anger, Pity, &c. and in short, that universal Apathy, which they every-where strongly inculcate.

5. The next Step to Stoical Perfection was, the Class of Pursuits and Avoidances (b). As the Desires and Aversions are simple Affections, the Pursuits and Avoidances are Exertions of the active Powers towards the procuring or declining any thing. Under this Head was comprehended the whole System of moral Duties, according to their incomplete Ideas of them: and a due Regard to it was supposed to ensure a proper Behaviour in all the social Relations. The constant Performance of what these point out, natureall followed from a Regulation of the Desires and Aversions in the first Topic: for where the Inclinations are exerted and restrained as they ought, there will be nothing to mislead us in Action.

6. The last Topic, and the Completion of the Stoic Character, was that of the Assents (c). As the second was to produce a Security from Failure in Practice, this was to secure an Infallibility in Judgment, and to guard the Mind from ever either admitting a Falshood, or dissenting from Truth. A wise Man, in the Stoic Scheme, was never to be mistaken, or to form any Opinion. Where Evidence could not be obtained, he was to continue in Suspense. His Understanding was never to be misled, even in Sleep, or under the Influence of Wine, or in a Delirium. In this last Particular, however, there is not a perfect Agreement: and some Authors are so very reasonable, as to admit it possible for a Philosopher to be mistaken in his Judgment, after he hath lost his Senses (d).

7. The Subject of these several Classes of philosophic Exercise are, the Appearances of Things (e). By these Appearances the Stoics understood the Impressions (f) made on the Soul, by any Objects, presented either to the Senses, or to the Understanding. Thus a House, an Estate, Life, Death, Pain, Reputation, &c. (considered in the View, under which they are presented to the preceptive Faculties) in the Stoical Sense are, Appearances. The Use of Appearances is common to Brutes, and Men: and intelligent Use of them belongs only to the latter: a Distinction, which is carefully to be observed in reading these Discourses.

8. That Judgment, which is formed by the Mind concerning the Appearances, the Stoics termed Principles: and these Principles give a Determination to the Choice.

9. The Choice, among the Stoics, signified, either the Faculty of Willing; or a deliberate Election of some Action, or Course of Life.

10. As the Appearances respect particular Objects, the Pre-conceptions are general innate Notions, such as they supposed to take original Possession of the Mind, before it forms any of its own (g). To adapt these Pre-conceptions to particular Cases, is the Office of Reason: and is often insisted on by Epictetus, as a Point of the highest Importance.

11. By the Word, which throughout this Translation is rendered Prosperity, the Stoics understood the internal State of the Mind, when the Affections and active Powers were so regulated, that it considered all Events as happy: and, consequently, must enjoy an uninterrupted Flow of Success: since nothing could fall out contrary to its Wishes (h).

These, which have been mentioned, are the technical Terms of the greatest Consequence in the Stoic Philosophy: and which, for that Reason, are, except in a very few Places, always rendered by the same English Word, There are other Words used in a peculiar Sense by this Sect: but, as they are not of equal Importance, they are neither so strictly translated, nor need any particular Definition.

12. The Stoics held Logic in the highest Esteem: and often carried it to such a trifling Degree of Subtility, as rendered their Arguments very tedious and perplexed. The frequent References to logical Questions, and the Use of syllogistical Terms, are the least agreeable Part of the Discourses of Epictetus: since, however well they might be understood by some of his Hearers, they are now unintelligible to the greatest Part of his Readers. Indeed, with all his Strength and Clearness of Understanding, he seems to have been hurt by this favourite Science of his Sect. One is sometimes surprised to find his Reasoning incoherent and perplexed: and his Scholars rather silenced by Interrogatories, which they are unable to comprehend, than convinced by the Force of Truth; and then given up by him, as if they were hopeless and unteachable. Yet many a well-meaning Understanding may be lost in the Wood by the Confusion of dialectical Quibbles, which might ahve been led, without Difficulty to the Point in view, if it had been suffered to follow the Track of common Sense.

(a) Sensibus ipsis judicari voluptates. Cic. de Fin. L. II. By Pleasure the Epicureans sometimes explained themselves to mean, only Freedom from Uneasiness: but the Philosophers of other Sects in general, as well as Cicero, insist, producing their own Expressions for it, that they meant sensual Delights. This, indeed, was more explicitly the Doctrine of Aristippus, the Father of the Cyrenaics: a Sect, however, which sunk into the Epicureans; whose Notions plainly led to the Dissoluteness so remarkable in the Lives of most of them.

(b) The Stoics define these Terms: the one, a Motion, by which we are carried toward some Object; the other, a Motion, by which we strive to shun it. The original Words, by a Happiness in the Greek Language, are properly opposed to each other; which the English will not admit. I have chosen the best I could find, and wish they were better.

(c) It seems strange, taht the Stoics generally put the Assents last: since both the Affections and Will should be governed by the Understanding; which, therefore, should be rectified, in order to do its Office well. Epictetus seems to be of this Opinion in B. I. c. 17. But, perhaps, they thought common Sense, or natural Logic, which they meant, but did not express clearly, by the Word Assents, necessary as a Guard only against Sophistry. Yet their mentioning it, as a Guard also against being misled, when they were in Drink, and even in their Dreams, leaves but little Room for this Conjecture.

(d) [Quote in Greek] DIOG. LAERT. in ZENO.
Nam si argumentaberis, sapientem multo vino inebriari, & retinere rectum tenorem, etiamsi temulentus sit: licet colligas, nec veneno poto moriturum, &c. SEN. Epist. 83.

(e) The original Word is of peculiar Signification among the Stoics: and I wish it could have been rendered into English, in a manner less ambiguous, and more expressive of its Meaning. But the Stoic Language perished with the Stoic Sect: and scarcely any of its technical Terms can now be rendered intelligible, except by a Paraphrase, or a Definition.

(f) [Quote in Greek] DIOG. LAERT. L. VII. 45.

(g) [Quote in Greek] DIOG. LAERT. L. VII. 54.

(h) I am sensible, that Prosperity, in common Use, relates wholly to external Circumstances: but I could find no better Word to express the internal good Condition of the Mind, which the Stoics meant by [Greek]. There is an Instance of the like Use, 3 John ver. 2.


1 Comment

Filed under 1760's, Greek/Roman Translations, Language, Philosophy, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Women

One response to “Item of the Day: Mrs. Carter’s Epictetus (1768)

  1. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out how to render the Greek characters in WordPress. If anyone knows, please comment here!

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