Epictetus’ Handbook has been one of the most influential Stoic works. A heavily annotated version of the Handbook was the introductory text in ethics for the Neoplatonists who studied under Simplicius of Cilicia (c. 490 – c. 560 AD), it served as a manual for upholding discipline in some monasteries during the medieval period, and it played a key part in the development of CBT during the 20th century. Today, it is often either one of the first or the first original Stoic text that people in and outside of academia read when they try to approach Stoicism.
While there are several good translations freely available on the internet, many of them are getting a bit old, and the English can be a bit dated, and therefore I thought that it might be a good idea to create a translation that will be available to the general public in modern, colloquial English. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to perhaps bring those who cannot yet read Greek a bit further to the original text by explaining some of the translation choices that may be especially controversial, and thus make the text more transparent.
It is also an opportunity to solicit the input of our readers and ask them to share their experiences with the text. Are there some passages that have been especially important to you? Are there some you struggle to understand? Perhaps even some that seem weird, or even coldhearted.
Hopefully, this post will be the beginning of a longer project which will end with a short annotated new translation which, with your input, can serve as a very good first introduction to Stoicism for the coming generations of modern Stoics. The Greek text is available from the Perseus project.
 There are things that depend on us, and things that do not depend on us. Judgement, impulse, desire and aversion, and, in a word, that which is our own doing depends on us. Our body, belongings, reputation, job and position and in a word, that which isn’t our own doing does not depend on us.  That which depends on us is by nature free and not subject to hindrance or embarrassment, while that which does not depend on us is weak, servile, subject to hinderance and not our own. Remember, then,  that whenever you consider that which is servile by nature to be free, and that which is not your own to be your own, then you will be hindered, you will complain, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and humans. But if you only consider that which is your own to be your own, and consider that which isn’t your own to be not your own, which is really the case, then you will not be forced by anyone at any point, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, nor will you accuse anyone, you will do nothing unwillingly and no one will hurt you. You will not have any enemies, and you will not suffer anything harmful.
 Since you are aiming for so great things, remember, that you cannot hold back in your effort to get these things, and that there are certain things that you must give up completely and other things that you must put aside for the moment. If you want the great things, as well as positions and wealth, you might end up failing in getting the smaller things because of your pursuit for the greater, and you will certainly fail to get the greater, which are the only things that can bring about freedom and happiness.
 Therefore, habituate yourself so that whenever you are bothered by a troubling impression you will immediately say “you are just an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.” After that, examine the impression by the rules and standards that you have, and first of all – and most importantly – examine whether the impression is about the things that depend on us or the things that do not depend on us. If it is about the things that do not depend on us, be ready to say “you are nothing to me”.
Comment to chapter 1.
This chapter contains several key Stoic concepts. One of the more controversial one is eph’hemin. The phrase consists of a preposition (epi) contracted with a pronoun (hemeis) which is here in the dative case (hemin). In Greek, the prepositions can have several meanings depending on the case of the word that is governed by the preposition. So, for instance, meta ton andra (ton andra is accusative) means “after the man”, while meta tou androu (tou androu is genitive) means with the man. When epi takes the dative, it can mean, amongst other things, “in dependence upon…” or “in the power of…” , according to the LSJ dictionary.
I have, like Bobzien (1999), chosen to translate it as “depend on us”, rather than more common “in our power”. Whether Epictetus is arguing for, or taking for granted, that humans have a free will is a question that is too big to be answered here, but interested readers are encouraged to read Michael Frede’s A Free Will (2011) and Susan Bobzien’s Determinism and Freedom in Stoicism (1999).
Other key terms are hypolepsis, horme, orexis and ekklisis which I have translated as “judgement”, “impulse”, “desire” and “aversion”. These terms are all relevant for understanding the Stoics theories on action, emotion and their epistemology.
“…our own doing…” is a translation of “ouch hemetera erga” which can be translated very literally as “not our own function” or “work”. The singular of erga is ergon, and this is a key concept in Aristotle (see especially the Nicomachean Ethics, I.7) and ancient ethicists often tend to think that there is some distinct human function which is importantly related to both determining what is right and wrong and what constitutes a good life for humans.
“…job and position…” is a translation of archai (sg. arche) which can mean, amongst other things, both job and position.
“…not our own…” is a translation of ta allotria (sg. to allotrios), which is the antonym of “oikeion”, which is in turn related to “oikeiosis”, which is a key term in Stoic ethics. Oikeiosis is the process of making something oikeion. Oikeion is related to the word oikos, which means “home” or “household”. This concept features frequently, either explicitly or implicitly in several Stoic texts, amongst them Seneca’s letter number 121.
“….which are the only things that can bring about freedom and happiness”. Happiness is a translation of eudaimonia, perhaps the key concept in ancient ethics. The word itself is a combination of the word for good (eu) and a word that can mean god/goddess, deity or some semi-divine or spiritual being. Some have objected to translating eudaimonia and prefer other translations like “flourishing”. I have chosen to stick with happiness, although the Greeks had some ideas about happiness that are quite different from some of the ways we use the word in English. Very briefly put, eudaimonia is not a brief, pleasant feeling of elation, but is something closer to what we mean by living a good life.
“…you are just an impression…”. “Impression” is a translation of phantasia, which is another key concept in Stoic epistemology. The word is related to the verb phainomai, which amongst other things mean “I appear”. An impression is, briefly put, some kind of mental content, either a sense impression, or a thought or idea, which we may either assent to, reject or suspend judgement to.
Remember that promise of desire is that you will get what you desire and that the promise of aversion is that you will not fall into that which you have aversion to, and the one who does not get what she desires is unfortunate, while the one who gets what she has aversion towards is miserable. So, if you only have aversion to the things that are contrary to nature which depends on you, you will not fall into anything which you have aversion towards. But if you have aversion towards disease, or death or poverty, you will be miserable.
 Remove, therefore, your aversion from all that does not depend on us, and move it to the things that depend on us and that are contrary to nature. Give up desires completely for the time being. If you desire something that does not depend on us, you will necessarily end up unfortunate both with regards to that, and also with regards to the things that do depend on us, which it would be good to desire, but the things that are good to desire are not in any way available to you. Make only use of your impulses and repulsions, but do so lightly and with reserve and ease.
Comment to chapter 2.
The expression “contrary to nature”, or para phusin in Greek is the opposite of the more known expression “in accordance with nature”, or kata phusin in Greek. Nature, and what accords with nature, is key idea that deserves a book length treatment and seems to go back to the earliest days of Stoicism (see for instance Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Philosophers VII, 88, where Zeno is quoted to having said that the goal of human life is to live in agreement with nature). Interested readers are encouraged to check out this article by Greg Sadler.
“…do so lightly and with reserve and ease”. “Reserve” is a translation of hypexaireseos (nominative, hypexairesis). This term is related to the so called reserve clause, which is more fully explained by Epictetus in chapter 4.
With each of the things that leads us astray, or is useful, or which we care for, remember to say to yourself what kind of thing it is, and begin with the smallest things. If you love a jar, say to yourself “I love a jar”. Then you will not be disturbed when it is broken. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that you are kissing a human being. Then you will not be disturbed when the child or the wife dies.
Comment to chapter 3.
“…the things that lead us astray…”. The Greek here is psychagogounton, which is a participle of the verb psychagogein, “to lead the soul”.
Whenever you intend to commit yourself to some task, remind yourself about what kind of task it is. If you are going for a bath, then think about all the things that happen in a bath, the people who splash you with water, those who bump into you, those who are abusive and those who steal. And by doing so, you will commit yourself more securely to the task if you straight away say that “I want to take a bath, but also to preserve my will in accordance with nature”. Do the same for each task. If something hinders you from taking a bath, you will be ready to say “I did not just want to take a bath, but also to keep my will in accordance with nature. If I do not preserve it, then I will be bothered by the events”.
Comment to chapter 4.
“Will” is my translation of prohairesis. The word has been translated in multiple ways up through the years, for instance “volition”, “moral purpose”, “faculty of the will”. The term does not seem to have been used extensively by the Stoics prior to Epictetus, and very rarely by Marcus Aurelius. It is, however, an important term in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The word itself is a combination of the preposition pro and the noun hairesis, which in turn comes from the Greek verb haireo, which means “I take/choose”. For a longer discussion of the term, it’s meaning and translation, see Epictetus. A Stoic and Scoratic Guide to Life, by A. A. Long (2002).
Humans aren’t bothered by events, but rather about their opinions about the events. Something like death is nothing terrible, (if it had been, it would have seemed so to Socrates as well), but it is rather the opinion about death, the opinion that death is terrible, which makes death terrible. So, whenever we get hindered, disturbed, or bothered, let us not blame anybody else, but rather ourselves, or rather our own opinions. An uneducated person accuses someone else for what he himself has done badly. The one who has begun his education blames himself, and the one who is educated blames neither anyone else, nor himself.
Comment to chapter 5.
The verb which I have translated as “bother” is tarasso, which means amongst other things, “I disturb/bother”. This verb is the root of the word ataraxia, which is another important concept for the Hellenistic ethicists, and means something like serenity, peace of mind, and so on.
Harald Kavli is the assistant editor of Stoicism Today. He studies philosophy at the University of Oslo.