A Curious Passage From Epictetus’ Enchiridion by Greg Sadler

Epictetus’ Enchiridion, along with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is one of the classic Stoic texts that beginners in Stoicism tend to read early on in their studies. And it’s also one that those of us still continuously deepening our engagement with Stoicism return to over and over again.

There are quite a few passages in that short work, arranged by Epictetus’ student, Arrian, that can be difficult to make sense of. Sometimes it’s a matter of the reader asking themself “can he really mean that?” and trying to wrap one’s head around the paradoxical assertions Epictetus makes.  The advice expressed in chapter 3 that when you kiss your spouse or wife, remember that they are a mortal human being, and you won’t be as upset when they die – that’s one of those cases for many readers (I’ve written about that here, for those who are puzzled or even offended by that passage).

In some other cases, it can be the terminology that ends up being confusing, at least until one acquires a solid idea about what Epictetus is actually saying.  Most of us are reading the Enchiridion in translation into a language different from his original Greek.  As a translator myself, I’ve learned over the years to be less judgemental about the translations others have put the labor into offering us.  It can be tricky to render a passage with even close to the same meanings as you find in the original.  To make matters more complicated, the Stoics developed and routinely used their own rather technical vocabulary.  And Epictetus himself was rather an innovator when it comes to that, for example, in the use he makes of a term that winds up being absolutely central to his thought, prohairesis, which has had a vast variety of English translations (sometimes even within the same edition!).

The passage I want to explore a bit, however, is one that people often ask about, because it is confusing for a different set of reasons.  It is the very short chapter 27, which runs like this in the Greek original (which you can find and read at the Perseus Project):

ὥσπερ σκοπὸς πρὸς τὸ ἀποτυχεῖν οὐ τίθεται, οὕτως οὐδὲ κακοῦ φύσις ἐν κόσμῳ γίνεται

We are going to look at a number of alternate translations in just a bit, but we do need some English-language starting point, so let’s take the one from the Everyman edition of Epictetus’ Discourses, Enchiridion, and Fragments (revised by Robin Hard, edited by Chris Gill):

Just as a target is not set up to be missed, so what is bad by nature does not occur in the universe.

My friend, colleague, and fellow editor of this blog, Harald Kavli, brought this passage up to me earlier this week, asking what I made of it.  My response was that it seemingly could mean a number of different things, and that the scholarship commenting on this passage provides a number of different explanations. And then I thought that, since this is a chapter in a work that most people interested in Stoicism do tend to read sooner or later, and which many people find puzzling, perhaps it might be of interest to review at least a portion of what people have made of that line for readers of Stoicism Today.  So I am making use of my prerogative as editor to slip in this piece, in hopes that you readers might find it interesting or useful!

Looking At More Translations Of Chapter 27

A natural starting point for thinking about this passage would be looking at how it could or should be translated.  What does this chapter, at just a literal level, mean?

I’ve already noted how the Everyman edition and Hard translation renders the Greek.  To my eyes, it seems a decent enough translation. Hard’s more recent translation in the Oxford World Classics edition is a bit more colloquially phrased, but also introduces a new formulation in the second part:

Just as a target isn’t set up to be missed, so nothing that is bad by nature comes into being in the universe.

What other renderings do we have? Robert Dobbin’s recent 2008 translation runs fairly similarly to Hard’s, but again has an important difference in the second part:

Just as a target is not set up in order to be missed, so evil is no natural part of the world’s design.

Going a bit further back in time, the Loeb edition, with W.A. Oldfather’s 1928 translation reads:

Just as a mark is not set up in order to be missed, so neither does the nature of evil arise in the universe.

Elizabeth Carter’s much older (1758) translation reads

As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

George Long’s 1877  and Thomas Higgison’s 1890 translations render that passage with wording identical to Carter’s. Percy Matheson’s 1916 translation, however, employs somewhat different wording:

As a mark is not set up for men to miss it, so there is nothing intrinsically evil in the world.

I should add one last “translation”, one by Stephen Walton, which he admits is a rendering … into modern, colloquial English” and a “pop version” (He also admits that he does not read Greek!). It is periphrastic rather than literal, diverging significantly from the text, and adding in a third part entirely absent from Epictetus’ original text.

No one establishes a goal in order not to achieve it. The same way, the purpose of the universe isn’t chaos or evil, and whatever happens can be used wisely and well.

Evaluating The Different Translations

What should we make of these different English versions of the passage?  In my view, the really key differences have to do with how to translate the second part of the chapter.  Whether it is a “mark” or a “target,” we get the idea. They are both perfectly fine ways to translate the Greek skopos.  All of the translations except Walton’s agree in translating tithetai as “set up,” and there’s pretty general agreement that apotukhein is “missing (the mark)”.  So far so good.  What about the second part?

The Greek houtōs tells us that there is a comparison or an analogy being made, so “as” or “just as” work well for that.  Here’s where things start to diverge a bit, where the translators have to make some tougher choices. And there’s three main differences to note.

The first one has to do with the en kosmō.  Some render this as “in the world” and others as “in the universe”.  That doesn’t seem to be too vital a difference, unless a reader mistakenly assumes that the “world” is different from the universe, say if they thought that “the world” just refers to the planet Earth, and not the totality of the universe.  We should point out Dobbin’s addition of a word that is not translating something actually there in the original Greek, namely, “design”. He writes of “in the world’s design.”  This “design” could plausibly be read in, to be sure, by the reader or translator, but if we want to remain as close as possible to what is actually written, one must admit that it does take a little liberty.

The second has to do with the oude. . . ginetai. It does seem to be significant that Epictetus chooses this very ginesthai, which we often translate as “to become,” “to arise,” “to occur,” rather than some of the other Greek verbs he might have used, for instance einai (“to be”).  Hard’s translations – “does not occur” and “nothing. . . comes into being” – retain this sense, as does Oldfather’s “neither does . . . arise”.  Notice, though, that Hard’s second’s formulation adds something here, namely the “nothing”.  All the other translators opt for more static “is” or “exist” language.

The third is perhaps the most critical for understanding the passage.  How should we translate kakou phusis?  Lexically the phusis (“nature”) has a priority over the kakou (the “bad” or “evil”) in the text. It is the phusis that is said to not arise or exist by Epictetus, and the kakou (in Greek, in the genitive case) is connected to it by the nature being “of” the bad or evil. So the translations that say “nature of evil” are closest to the original.  “Bad by nature” or “intrinsically evil” aren’t bad translations, but they do reverse this original priority.  Dobbin’s “evil is no natural part” and Walton’s “the purpose. . . isn’t chaos or evil” are taking considerably more liberties with the text.

So in all of these translations we have a comparison being made, an analogy that is supposed to illuminate a key assertion about the nature of things, a moral and metaphysical truth. The one side is clear enough. We don’t set up targets in order to miss them.  The other side is the confusing one, involving an assertion that has to do with three things

  • its scope is the entirety of the universe
  • something not arising, occurring, or being the case
  • what is not doing so is the nature of the bad or evil, or something evil by nature

This leaves a number of questions open of course.  How is the nature of evil (or what is evil by nature) not arising in the universe like not setting up a target (or mark) in order for it to be missed?  This makes it sound – not unreasonably, given that classic Stoics do believe this – as if there is some teleology at work, that the universe has been set up in a certain way so that something(s) isn’t “missed” or doesn’t go off the mark, doesn’t it?

Interpreting The Passage – Preliminaries

Rather than immediately taking a stab at analyzing, explaining, or interpreting the passage – this is a prime opportunity to do as classic Stoics counsel and suspend our own judgements rather than shoot from the proverbial hip – it might be worthwhile to consider what thoughtful views others have expressed about it.

Footnotes provide us with one set of leading clues.  The Loeb edition contains an interesting footnote from Oldfather:

That is, it is inconceivable that the universe should exists in order that some things may go wrong; hence nothing natural is evil, and nothing that is by nature evil can arise – Thus in effect Simplicius, and correctly, it seems.

George Long’s translation also provides an interesting footnote.

This passage is explained in the commentary of Simplicius . . . and Schweighaeuser agrees with the explanation, which is this: Nothing in the world (universe) can exist or be done (happen) which in its proper sense, in itself and in its nature is bad; for every thing is and is done by the wisdom and will of God and for the purpose which he intended: but to miss a mark is to fail in an intention; and as a man does not set up a mark, or does not form a purpose for the purpose of missing the mark or the purpose, so it is absurd (inconsistent) to say that God has a purpose or design, and that he purposed or designed anything which in itself and in its nature is bad. The commentary of Simplicius is worth reading. But how many will read it? Perhaps one in a million.

So far, you notice two references back to Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus’ Enchiridion, a work we will look at shortly.  As G.J. Boter observed in a fairly recent article (1992), “Epictetus, ‘Encheiridion’ 27:” “Modern interpretation lean heavily on Simplicius” (p. 476)  and he goes on to cite the commentator and editor Long referenced, Schweighaeuser, in a Latin passage, which I translate as:

For indeed I agree with Simplicius, that Epictetus has said: Nothing in the world (in this entire universe of things that are generated and administered by God) is or comes-to-be, that on its own, [quod proprie] through itself or its nature [per se ac sua natura] would be evil. . . . Whatever is or comes-to-be in the world, they are are or come-to-be through the intention or will of God, and tend towards [pertinent] the aim that he planned [proposuit] for them. (p. 476)

The passage goes on further, but this provides us with enough of an idea of Schweighaeuser’s reading, about which Boter rightly observes:

Now, although the notion that God cannot have had the intention to introduce evil in the cosmos is good Stoic doctrine, it is to my mind impossible to extract this meaning from Ench. 27, in which nothing is said about God and the aim he sets himself (p. 476)

Boter also notes that whatever portion of what we believe to be eight original books of Epictetus’ Discourses this chapter 27 of the Enchiridion came from, we don’t have it and can’t find it. So we don’t know whether Epictetus provided any explanation or contextualization of the analogy between setting up a target and things in the world.

If Epictetus did do so, it could very well have been along the sort of lines that interpreters reading God’s plans and will into the passage have outlined,  That would be consistent with the general tenor of Epictetus’ thought, wouldn’t it. But in point of fact, we simply don’t know. We can’t say for certain that’s what Epictetus meant. And claiming that such a theistic interpretation is what he must have meant is more reflective of the desires or assumptions of the interpreter than of what the passage actually does say.

So far, if we’re being careful interpreters, we’re left in a bit of a quandry. We have a solid understanding of what the passage means at its literal level, and we have some idea about how best to translate it properly.  We know that Epictetus doesn’t mention God at all in the passage, but we also know that the Stoic God is always lurking in the background of Epictetus’ thought. We see that some commentators and interpreters do tend to read God into the meaning of the passage

Simplicius’ Commentary Perspective

Since the main commentary we have on Epictetus’ Enchiridion that references this passage in late ancient times is that of Simplicius, and since as Boter notes many modern interpreters more or less follow Simplicius’ lines, we should take a look at what he has to say.  Before that, though, there are three things that would be useful to point out to the reader.

First, Simplicius’ commentary became available in a 2-volume modern English translation by Tad Brennan and Charles Brittain twenty years ago, published by Bloomsbury, and is presently available in a rather affordable softcover version.  So if you’re intrigued by what he has to say, you might consider getting a copy, or looking to see if your local library has it or can order it.

Second, Simplicius himself is not a Stoic, but rather a neo-Platonist.  This is important to keep in mind, because he is situating Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy within a larger framework of neo-Platonic ideas, concerns, and assumptions.  This was a fairly common approach in both middle and neo-Platonism – adapting what was viewed as largely correct and useful from other schools (particularly Aristotelian, Stoic, and neo-Pythagorean) within an overarching Platonic context.

Third, you might be surprised to learn that Simplicius devotes a little over 14 pages of commentary to this one-sentence chapter!  He unpacks an awful lot from that passage, but he arguably also reads quite a lot into it that perhaps was not intended by Epictetus.  And his discussion of the passage and its implications situates these in relation to – or more precisely in opposition to –  what he takes to be mistaken viewpoints on evil, the universe, and god, most notably the Manichaeans, who he criticizes as having “fashioned monstrous things which it is not even right to call mythical” (vol. 2 p. 39).

In order to keep this from getting overly long, and perhaps unduly dry, I am not going to summarize or quote from the whole of Simplicius’ long commentary on this chapter.  Instead, let’s look at just a few key points from it.

Simplicius frames evil within the universe as something that does not have its origin or cause in God, since that would mean either that something supremely good generates its own opposite or that there would be something evil within God itself that could then be a cause for evil in the world.  He quickly goes beyond this, however, to make an equally metaphysical and moral claim.  Evil as such does not share an ontological parity or priority with goodness.  There is no such thing as evil as such.  There can be evil things within the world, but evil or badness itself does not have independent being. He argues:

[T]here is no primary nature or subsistence of the bad, as there is of the good; rather it has a derivative existence, derived from the good, as a falling away and a deprivation of it. The vice or badness of the soul is related to virtue as disease is related to health. Just as walking correctly is a primary activity of an animal, which it sets as a target and has an impulse towards, whereas liming and lameness happen instead of the primary activity and derive their existence from it (since they are motions contrary to nature), so the same holds for every bad with respect to the good contrary to it. Hence you can’t say that there are alike, or of equal standing with each other…. (p. 42)

He goes on to connect this to the target side of Epictetus’ analogy:

[O]ne couldn’t say that attaining the target derives its existence from failure to attain it, or health from disease, but that rather that failure derives its existence from attaining it, and likewise disease from health.  After all, the primary goal of the archer is attaining his target, since it’s on account of attaining it that he shoots….Failure happens instead of the target of attainment when the activity doesn’t achieve its target or acquire the goal on account of which it acts, but acquires a failure instead of the thing itself. (p. 42)

Another set of considerations Simplicius brings up stem from a possible objection that once again seems to put God on the hook:

All right, someone may say, maybe the bad is an accident, a failure to attain the good. But granted that’s the kind of thing it is, what can its cause be?  For the question under discussion is this: given that everything generated is generated by some cause, where did the bad get any sort of entrée whatsoever into existent things, if God…. is good? (p. 43)

His answer is that God is not only the origin, cause, and generator of the highest or first goods, but also the “intermediates”, and even the lowest goods.  This move on Simplicius’ part would seem at first to be counter-productive as a strategy to defend God against the charge of producing things that are evil.  But it actually opens the way to doing precisely that.  The lowest goods – those within the imperfect, changing, sublunary realm of our worldly experience and existence – are capable of “turning away from the good”. (p. 44)

When that occurs, this doesn’t mean that those things that have turned away and become bad or evil are intrinsically or per se evil.  To go back to Epictetus’ own formulation, there may be plenty of things in the world that we consider (and sometimes wrongly) bad or evil, kakon, but there is no “nature of evil,” no kakou phusis.

Later in his commentary, Simplicius reconstructs Epictetus’s analogy in the form of two arguments, the first of which runs like this:

[1] The bad is a failure to attain its target
[2] What occurs in the cosmos primarily and in accordance with nature is a target for the agent, and its attainment is the goal (and when that happens, the agent strikes the target.
So if [2] what occurs in the cosmos primarily and in accordance with nature is not the failure to attain the target but rather its attainment, and yet [1] the bad is a failure to attain the target, it’s clear that
[3] the bad does not occur in the cosmos primarily. (p. 50)

And the second like this:

“[I]f a target is not set up to be missed, there is no nature of the bad in the cosmos.”  Then when the antecedent is taken as the minor premiss, the consequent is secured. It is plain that “a target is not set up to be missed” and hence that “there is no nature of the bad in the cosmos.” (p.50-51)

By itself, this argument would be pretty unconvincing, but Simplicius continues:

And the truth of the conditional is also clear. . . If there were [a nature of the bad], it would have been the target for the agent, which he looked at when he acted. But it would have been a target for avoiding, since the bad is something to shun; so it wasn’t set up for attaining but rather for missing. (p. 51)

Wrapping Up

Perhaps the Stoic reader is attracted to the interpretations of this passage provided by Simplicius or later commentators.  I suspect that the more one leans towards a theistic conception of Stoicism as we do find in the classic Stoics, and robustly so in Epictetus, the more one would be willing to view God like the archer who doesn’t set up any targets in order to miss them, doesn’t create anything evil per se. It is possible of course to read the passage in a more literal manner that doesn’t bring in God, but then perhaps the analogy (or, if Simplicius is right, the argument) seems to lose a bit of its force or persuasiveness.

Boter has a number of interesting things to say in his article, both about previous interpretations and about the passage itself.  He argues that his “survey shows that a satisfactory explanation of the comparison still remains to be given, even if the philosophical interpretations of what Epictetus means are by and large correct.” (p. 478).

He also provides his own additional interpretation which “is in perfect accordance with Simplicius’ contention that evil is only a parupostasis of good.” (p. 479)

The image that someone aiming at a target and missing it does not reach other target, but simply misses the target he is aiming at: the will, of course, arrive somewhere, but this somewhere is qualified by not being the target, and does not have autonomous status itself. The situation is the same in the cosmos: good is compared to a skopos…that is, it has a phusis of its own; evil can only be qualified by stating that it is not good, and thus it has no existence of its own. (p. 479)

He also provides a useful amplificatory comparison of his own:

In Dutch, there is an expression “een bok schieten”, literally, to shoot a billy-goat; it means to make a terrible mistake. In this expression someone who makes an awful mistake does hit some- thing, namely the billy-goat. And this is exactly what is denied in Ench, 27, so that a Dutchman could paraphrase our text as: “Just as there are no billy-goats to be hit by your mistakes, there is no nature of evil in the cosmos”. 

You might be wondering whether or not I have worked out my own take on this passage. As it so happens, I did take a stab at it in my 21-video-long commentary on Epictetus’ Enchiridion. My own interpretation (found in this video) is perhaps more humble and pragmatic, and it runs in part like tis

Things are not set up in such a way as to make them necessarily go bad. The universe is not there looking for an opportunity to kick you in the teeth when you’re down. That’s not the way things are actually set up. In fact for the most part things go along pretty well, don’t they? You know, you can always find something to to be upset about or complain about, if your desires are large and have to do with outside things. But for the most part, we have a lot of things in our control. We we can decide how we want to approach matters.

We can decide whether we want to work on our personality, on the structure of our desires and aversions, choices and rejections, viewpoints on things. All of that is within our control and so it’s actually a pretty good place to be this universe. Things are not set up just to screw with us. It is not some sort of plot, the way the paranoid person thinks, to persecute them. In fact we are being offered this this golden opportunity to take what we have and work upon it, and in fact to be happy.

There’s a lot more to be said about this, because this has drawn a lot of commentary down the ages, in part because of the somewhat enigmatic framing of the sentence. But I think that’s a good way to interpret it as you’re going through this this work as a whole.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

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