Elizabeth Carter Slams Epictetus’s Door: Stoic Suicide in the Eighteenth Century by Judith Stove

The translation by poet and linguist Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) of Epictetus’s Discourses and Enchiridion appeared in 1758, to rave reviews (Wallace 2003, 328). Yet the project of bringing Epictetus to a new English readership had not been without problems. The ancient Stoic acceptance, even endorsement on occasion, of suicide, was deeply confronting for Carter and her circle. This article will explore Carter’s engagement with the ‘open door’ doctrine as an important aspect of her groundbreaking work of Stoic reception.

The translation of Epictetus, the great work of Carter’s life, came about through a female friendship. Catherine Talbot (1721-1770) was also an author, and a student of science; it was her astronomy tutor who introduced her to Carter. A foreword took the form of a poem by a third scholar, Hester Chapone, which was dedicated to her friend:

To E.C. who had recommended to me the Stoic Philosophy, as productive of Fortitude, and who is going to publish a Translation of EPICTETUS.

The ‘Stoic Philosophy,’ then, had been discussed by the women, and was seen as a useful tool for life. But it could not replace Scripture, and this tension penetrates Carter’s work.

We should not think that the translation of Epictetus was motivated by a ‘pure love of scholarship or philosophy,’ whatever that might be. It is important to be aware that very many of the important scholars of history lived and worked well outside the formal university structure. That setting was closed to women in the period.

Elizabeth Carter and Catherine Talbot were scholars, but just as importantly, they were fully enculturated in the Church of England hierarchy. Carter’s father was a minor clergyman in Canterbury, Kent, while Talbot lived in the home of Thomas Secker, Bishop of Oxford and later Archbishop of Canterbury. The idea being presented in Secker and Talbot’s plan for Carter’s project was that Epictetus was a ‘plain preacher,’ in Secker’s phrase. On such a plan, Epictetus’s ‘homely,’ ‘direct’ teachings could be seen as supplementing Christian ethical stances.

Yet this very forthrightness of Epictetus made for inevitable difficulties. The translation was introduced by a learned essay by Carter, including a thorough summary of Stoic doctrine, referencing Cicero, Diogenes Laertius and other secondary authorities, as well as the surviving Stoic writers themselves. She went to great lengths to distance her reading from those elements of Epictetus’s counsel which could not in any way be aligned with Anglican tenets.

This proved to be harder than we might think. It turned out that even certified Church Fathers, such as Tertullian (a generation younger than Marcus Aurelius), had argued for a corporeal soul, in part because sinners had to be punished after their deaths (Kitzler 2015, 55). Carter writes:

Tertullian…inconsiderately followed [the Stoics] in this very unphilosophical Notion, that what is not Body, is nothing at all vol. I, p. xii

Fortunately (she adds):

[Tertullian’s] Christian Faith secures him from the Imputation of Impiety: and the just and becoming Manner, in which the Stoics, in many Instances, speak of God, should incline one to form the same favourable Judgment of them: and those Authors seem guilty of great Injustice, who represent them, as little better than Atheists’ (pp. xii-xiii)

Carter’s readiness to tackle this problem head-on, and her honest praise of the Stoic perspective while acknowledging its incompatibility with Christian doctrine, are refreshing.  Christopher Brooke has explained how Christian reception of Stoicism in the previous century had largely sought to obscure the glaring discrepancies arising from even a cursory attention to Stoic physics; by the 1750s, such equivocation would have been pointless, where not entirely discredited. Carter’s attitude is the more impressive given that even recent writers, with considerably less excuse than those of former centuries, have interpreted Epictetus – on the slender basis of Discourses bk. II, ch. 1.17, and his pervasive allegiance to Socrates – as supporting a mind-body dualism (discussion at Stephens 2014, 20-23).

Carter could heartily champion the Stoics when it came to the issue of combating Epicurean error.

Of all the Philosophers the Stoics were the clearest and most zealous Assertors of a particular Providence: a Belief, which was treated with the utmost Contempt by the Epicureans. As this Principle is, of all others, the most conducive to the Interest of Virtue, and lays the Foundation of all true Piety, the Stoics are intitled to the highest Honour for their steady Defence of it; and their utter Rejection of the idle, and contemptible Notion, of Chance (p. xiv).

On the other hand, the Stoics’ failure to conceive of a ‘future state’ in which rewards and punishments would be allocated, along with their insistence that virtue is sufficient for happiness, was rejected.

God alone, infinitely perfect, is happy in, and from Himself. The Virtue of finite Beings must be defective: and the Happiness of created Beings must be dependent. (p. xxi).

The most sensitive matter pertaining to the Stoics as guides to life, was their open acceptance of suicide as a ‘final option.’ Carter was severe on their endorsement of a practice which, in her day, was considered as a terrible sin, and a legal crime, as well as a personal tragedy.

It is remarkable, that no Sect of Philosophers ever so dogmatically prescribed, or so frequently committed, Suicide, as those very Stoics, who taught that the Pains and Sufferings, which they strove to end by this Act of Rebellion against the Decrees of Providence, were no Evils. How absolutely this horrid Practice contradicted all their noble Precepts of Resignation and Submission to the Divine Will, is too evident to need any Enlargement (p. xxiii).

On one level, this was simply a rhetorical thrust on behalf of the Christian perspective. But on another, it was a critical cultural signal. The issue of suicide was a key battlefield in the culture wars of the long eighteenth century. For decades, it had been reported in books, articles, letters and sermons, both by English people and by European visitors, that there was a higher suicide rate in England than anywhere else. (In the absence of formal statistics, the facts of the matter remained controversial.) It was thought that the gloomy climate had a contributing role. As an issue, it sat close to the national heart.

At the same time, the endorsement of suicide as a moral option by several French philosophes fed into the perennial cross-Channel rivalry over what constituted progress. Montesquieu and Voltaire both commented on the reputation of the English for suicide. As with every aspect of the century’s culture war, the influence of the ancient writers loomed large: the figure of the younger Cato, Stoic sage and self-killer, appeared from time to time as a potent icon in the ‘suicide wars.’

There were also legal dimensions in England. The surviving relatives of persons who took their own lives were penalized, as the law (not repealed until 1870) required that the property of a suicide was forfeited to the crown. Some commentators recommended that the corpses of suicides should undergo public mistreatment in order to dissuade others from attempting self-harm (Bartel 1960, 151). Adam Smith would protest against this in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (published in 1759, the year after Carter’s work, Part VII, Section II, p. 420). Cesare Beccaria was to combat the view in his groundbreaking work on crime and punishment (1764), pointing out that such laws were unjust, as well as unlikely to prevent the act itself (Crocker 1952, 66). There was also – as ever in a culture war – debate about the role of the media in either reporting, or exacerbating, the situation. Tragedy, then as now, sold newspapers. Suicide notes, either fictional or real, featured in the popular press (Parisot 2014).

It was Catherine Talbot who was particularly worried about whether her friend’s new edition of Epictetus might have a detrimental effect. She wrote to Carter that it was Epictetus’s repeated insistence that ἡ θύρα ἤνοικται, ‘the door stands open’ (Discourses book 2, ch.1.19, and elsewhere), which was of particular concern. In response, Carter tried to soothe, while to some degree sharing, her friend’s disquiet.

The point which gives me the most uneasiness is that detestable θύρα ἤνοικται. And yet how very inconsistent in this article is Epictetus with himself! In an address to his scholars he expressly bids them wait for God [I.9.16 in modern versions], and not to depart unless they had a signal of retreat like Socrates: now Socrates did not kill himself. And in several places I think the θύρα &c. means only a natural departure out of life, or a violent death inflicted by others. In passages where the permission seems most plainly given, it is sometimes (if not always) in some ironical way (Pennington vol. I, p. 200).

Suggesting that Epictetus had been (a) inconsistent, and (b) employing irony, were two positive ways of defusing any potential negative impact. In parallel, Carter also employed the less direct means of treating as unworthy of comment – translating without explanatory notes, thus effectively passing over – several of Epictetus’s instances of what Adam Smith, writing around the same time, called the Stoic ‘gaiety and even…levity’ about voluntary departure from life (VII.II, 411). For his part, Smith concluded that suicide did not, in fact, appear to have been very common among the ancient Greeks: he questioned the accounts which asserted that Stoic founder Zeno himself had committed suicide (416-7), while conceding that the practice appeared to have been much more common, even fashionable, at Rome (418-9).

In his biography of Elizabeth Carter, which appeared in the year following her death (1807), her nephew Montagu Pennington (1762-1849), vicar of Northbourne in Kent, was able to conclude with satisfaction that the suicide scare had been a false alarm.

Now that half a century has elapsed since the publication of the book, which has gone through several editions, I believe it will hardly be affirmed, that any infidel has quoted it as having influenced his mind to unbelief, that any vicious man has produced it in excuse of his immorality, or that any suicide has left it on record, that he received a bias toward the fatal act from the perusal of Epictetus (vol. I, p. 198).

As it happened, the ever-perceptive Voltaire had, well before the mid-century, concluded that the moral panic around suicide in England had been amplified solely because of Britain’s relatively free press. His observations had been made as early as the 1730s, but may not have been read in English until his Philosophical Dictionary appeared in 1764 (Bartel 1960, 156).

These tragical stories, which swarm in the English newspapers, have made the rest of Europe think that, in England, people kill themselves more willingly than elsewhere. However, I know not but there are as many madmen or heroes to be found in Paris as in London. Perhaps, if our newspapers kept an exact list of all who had been so infatuated as to seek their own destruction, and so lamentably courageous as to effect it, we should, in this particular, have the misfortune to rival the English. But our journals are more discreet. In such of them as are acknowledged by the government, private occurrences are never exposed to public slander (vol. II, 99, s.v. ‘Cato’).

Voltaire also noted that human nature itself operated against the likelihood of a ‘suicide epidemic’: ‘Hope and fear are too powerful as inducements, not to frequently stop the hands of a wretch about to terminate his own life.’ His final reflection was a reminder that ‘the pagan religion forbade suicide as well as the Christian; it even appropriated particular places in [the underworld place of punishment] Tartarus to self-destroyers’ (vol. VI, 208-9, s.v. ‘Suicide’).

It can be tempting to consider our own receptions of Stoicism today as having a more objective or better-founded status than the ways in which earlier students viewed it. But this conviction, itself, can mislead. While we might not today regard suicide as such a pressing matter for modern Stoicism to address (although we might also ask why not, given that the suicide rate remains a serious matter of public concern), writers and speakers within the modern Stoic movement regularly engage in a parallel way on different fronts in the current culture wars: the environment, animal welfare, or gender roles. It is an aspect of the vitality of the Stoic tradition that each new translation and interpretation can deepen our understanding of issues relevant to audiences in what in the eighteenth century was a European, and is now a global, public square.

Works Cited

Bartel, Roland. ‘Suicide in Eighteenth-Century England: The Myth of a Reputation.’ Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2 (February 1960), 145-158.

Brooke, Christopher. ‘How the Stoics Became Atheists.’ The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), 387-402.

Carter, Elizabeth. The Works of Epictetus, Consisting of his Discourses, in four Books, preserved by Arrian, The Enchiridion, and Fragments. Translated from the Original Greek by the late Mrs Elizabeth Carter. Fourth edition, two vols. London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1807.

Crocker, Lester G. ‘The Discussion of Suicide in the Eighteenth Century.’ Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 13, no. 1 (January 1952), 47-72.

Kitzler, Petr. ‘Tertullian’s Concept of the Soul and his Corporealistic Ontology,’ in J. Lagouanere – S. Fialon (eds.), Tertullianus Afer: Tertullien et la Littérature chrétienne d’Afrique. Turnhout: Brepols, Instrumenta Patristica et Mediaevalia 70 (2015), 43-62.

Parisot, Eric. ‘Suicide Notes and Popular Sensibility in the Eighteenth-Century British Press.’ Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 47, no. 3 (Spring 2014), 277-291.

Pennington, Montagu. Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, with a New Edition of Her Poems, Including Some Which Have Never Appeared Before, to Which Are Added, Some Miscellaneous Essays in Prose, Together with Her Notes on the Bible, and Answers to Objections Concerning the Christian Religion. 2nd ed., vol. 1, F. C. and J. Rivington, 1808.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Dugald Stewart. London: George Bell & Sons, 1887.

Stephens, W.O. ‘Epictetus on Fearing Death: Bugbear and Open Door Policy.’ Ancient Philosophy 34 (2014), 1-27.

Voltaire, M. de. A Philosophical Dictionary from the French of M. de Voltaire. Second edition, six vols. London: for John and H.L. Hunt, 1824.

Wallace, Jennifer. ‘Confined and Exposed: Elizabeth Carter’s Classical Translations.’ Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 22, no. 2 (Autumn 2003), 315-334.


Judith Stove is a writer and researcher based in Sydney, Australia, author of two books on Jane Austen’s life and times. Her current research interests include classical virtue ethics and their later receptions, and women writers of the long eighteenth century. Judith spoke on ‘Women and Stoicism’ as part of Stoicon-X Australia 2020. Further information and a selection of Judith’s articles can be accessed here, and she may be emailed here.


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