Dedicated, with thanks, to Christopher Lee, who suggested a project on Jason Xenakis
This year, 2023, marks the centenary of the birth of philosopher Jason Xenakis (1923-1977). A member of a distinguished family (brother of Iannis Xenakis the composer, and Kosmas Xenakis the artist and architect), Xenakis was a thinker whose interests ranged widely, covering topics including logic, Plato, classical Stoicism, Cynicism, and suicide. He is probably best known, if known at all, for his book Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1969).
With a view both to marking Xenakis’s centenary and to stimulating renewed study, this article will present a survey of the 1969 work. Some two decades ago, John Sellars, reviewing A.A. Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, observed: ‘Only two monographs [on Epictetus] in English exist: B. Hijmans (Assen, 1959; restricted in scope); and J. Xenakis (The Hague, 1969; of limited value)’ (Sellars 2003, p. 65). Notwithstanding its limitations, I suggest that Xenakis’s book represented a ‘voyage of exploration’ into the waters of what would subsequently become known as the ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ revival. Xenakis’s book was not only an early contribution in respect of its content; its style, too, indicated a living commitment to Stoic philosophy. As Pierre Hadot, in his much more famous work, The Inner Citadel (1998), was to engage in exhilarating depth with Marcus Aurelius, so thirty years prior, Xenakis had shared his pages with Epictetus: at times, almost in direct confrontation, but even at his most combative, deferring to the great teacher and seriously interrogating philosophy’s claims to offer therapy.
The paucity of Epictetan work in English for much of the twentieth century – noted, as we have seen, by Sellars – is highlighted by the fact that Xenakis’s reading, in part, represented a reaction against that of W.A. Oldfather, which had appeared in the 1920s. Epictetus, through Xenakis, was freed from the ponderous interwar embrace of Oldfather, and summoned back, larger than life, into the Woodstock era. (This is not to disparage Oldfather, whose remarkable achievement deserves its own reassessment.) Lest this summary suggest a casual or slipshod treatment, Xenakis, even at his most conversational, remained scholarly, informed, and – that most elusive quality in scholarship – original.
Right from the outset, in the book’s title, Xenakis engaged with the therapeutic aspect of ancient philosophy. This, let us recall, was a quarter of a century before Martha Nussbaum’s groundbreaking treatment in The Therapy of Desire (1994) brought the tradition into focus. Xenakis was also concerned with another issue which, in the work of scholars such as Michael Chase and Gregory Sadler, has formed a front in Philosophy as a Way of Life: an attempt to negotiate the twentieth-century divisions between Anglophone and Continental philosophies. Thus, in his preface, Xenakis writes:
‘Since Epictetus combines interest in such questions as “What is the world about?” with logico-linguistic concerns and procedures, he might serve to show that the rift in current philosophy between (say) the existentialists and the analysts is largely unwarranted’ (p. ix).
In both these approaches – treating seriously philosophy as therapeutic, and bridging the Anglo-Continental divide – Xenakis was among the pioneers of the last half-century’s project of considering the ancient Stoics, as far as possible, on their own terms.
That this was indeed revolutionary can be appreciated from glancing at one or two mid-century treatments. Princeton classicist Whitney J. Oates, introducing a 1940 reissue of the George Long translations of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, appealed to Stoicism’s influence on historical liberalism and US democracy as offering limited compensation for its all-too-evident shortcomings:
‘In the Stoics we find a lack of systematic completeness, and a kind of rigour which often seems to advise men to curb and outlaw some of their most valued human emotions and relationships. Perhaps this goes back to their inadequate theory of evil…’ (p. xxiv).
Turning to the distinguished classicist Moses Hadas, introducing Seneca in a 1958 version reissued, presumably as still current, in 1968, we find this faint praise:
‘Derogatory criticism of Seneca is posited on the assumption that he is a corrupted Greek; it is fairer to look upon him as an embryonic Elizabethan’ (p. 5).
With defenders such as these, the ancient Stoics hardly needed detractors, and to such a stale atmosphere, Xenakis brought a breath of fresh air.
His opening section recounts standard biography, as well as a potted history of the Stoa. Xenakis emphasizes Epictetus’s use of medical analogies, quoting from Discourses III.23.30: ‘Men, the philosopher’s school is a clinic; you must not leave it in pleasure, but in pain’ (p. 6). Next we find Xenakis describing Epictetus’s method in a way entirely applicable to his own: ‘Epictetus is usually uncondescending and an arguer, going out of his way, as Colardeau points out, to find someone to discuss with and, when unsuccessful, taking up both sides of the imaginary dialogue himself’ (p. 9).
Before tackling any other of Epictetus’s themes, Xenakis devotes a section to the image of ‘Life a Game,’ as a unifying thread woven throughout.
‘His eudaimonism and his endorsement of suicide alike may well stem from a playful outlook on life. For, as I hope to show, when he compares life to a game he does so in the last analysis both to suggest that the point of living is fun and that nevertheless there is an escape if living is not fun…it would be inconsistent to compare life to a game and reject either eudaimonism or the right to suicide’ (p. 12).
Xenakis draws attention to Epictetus’s repeated use of images of play or recreation: ‘Being in a crowd, being bothered, being on trial, going to prison, risking death, and even predetermination, are all, at one time or another, said to be in the “game,” or incidents in a “festival,” “holiday,” “fair,” “pageant,” “dance”’ (p. 13). Not of course that he was the first to draw out this tone, but for Xenakis the imagery imparts a striking unity to aspects of Stoic thought which might be thought disparate.
Regarding Epictetus’s focus on freedom, too, Xenakis brought a new perspective, emphasizing personal rather than the legal freedom which had preoccupied earlier interpreters: ‘unhindered, unconstrained, unfrustrated, unobsessed, unneurotic, spontaneous’ (p. 15). Oldfather had attributed Epictetus’s frequent references to freedom as relating to his gratitude for legal emancipation from the condition of slavery. Xenakis, by contrast, observed with vehemence that Epictetus rarely used the term in a legal or political sense: ‘He seldom means emancipation from slavery; on the contrary (see, e.g. IV.1.8-60), while his usual meaning fits in very well with his eudaimonism and therapeutic ethics. So that to construe his typical use of freedom as an accident or an obsession is to misconstrue his main concern in life, as well as his use of a term’ (p. 16).
The final freedom is to commit suicide. Xenakis discusses sections where Epictetus seems to condone suicide, particularly where a person’s life is wracked by anxiety: ‘”Why then,” he says on another occasion to a man ridden with fears and inferiority complexes, “do you go on living if this is the kind of person you are?”’ (Disc.III.26.26; p. 18). Xenakis goes on to identify negative preconceptions about suicide as cases of impressions which, if assented to, can make a life worse.
‘To reject suicide is to turn life for the unfortunate into a trap. And this adds to the pain. Isn’t a miserable life enough? Must one compound the misery? This, as Epictetus would say, is a good example of how a preconception (“Suicide is bad”) can cause or increase suffering’ (p. 18).
Epictetus’s ideal freedom, Xenakis stresses, is to live ‘unfazed,’ which is how he translates the state of ataraxia:
‘Knowledge, then, has a liberating, as well as a healing force. But knowledge (“education”) means here primarily knowledge how, rather than knowledge of facts, knowledge of how to live, instead of knowledge about life or oneself. To be “educated” means to be a Stoic, and while the Stoic may be a polymath, he is first and foremost an individual who is not easily fazed. And this brings us to the most central kind of knowledge in Epictetus, namely skill in living: “What then is that which makes someone unhindered and unfettered in writing? Knowledge of how to write. And what in harp playing? Knowledge of how to play the harp. So too in living, it is knowledge of how to live (IV.1.63f)’ (p. 22).
Characteristically, Xenakis commences his chapter ‘Logical Topics’ with a genial permission:
‘Whatever in this chapter (or for that matter in the entire book) the reader finds unintelligible or uninteresting he can skip or reread. For Epictetus logical theory includes a study of proof, implication, contradiction, forms of argument, conditional reasoning, meanings, definition, truth, paradox, falsehood, fallacies, criteria, and “measurement and judgment”’ (p. 26).
Xenakis examines Epictetus’s criteria in detail, attempting to discern what kind of standards are key. He observes that Socrates’s example, as always with Epictetus, is relevant (p. 26). For the Stoics, logical studies were fundamental, ‘useful as well as basic,’ and ‘awareness of implications is as useful as truth-awareness’ (p. 28). Yet, Xenakis emphasizes, for Epictetus, the application of logical principles to life itself is critically important:
‘Clarity about logical theory is not enough. It must be supplemented by competence in reasoning, by the skill to discriminate between valid and invalid thought in the concrete’ (pp. 28-9).
Here Xenakis commences a debate with his subject:
‘[Epictetus] would not deny, I take it, that ethical principles must be consistent and as a result must rest on logic (or deontic logic). Otherwise they would be useless as guides for conduct or even harmful, since they would be proposing incompatible courses of action, and thus would make for indecision instead of decision, and for perplexity and anxiety rather than peace of mind…In other words, Epictetus would not deny that ethical theory presupposes logical theory, and consequently that it is less basic than logical theory; rather, that it is more important than logical theory. This follows necessarily, if happiness (the distinctive concern of ethics) is more important than consistency (the distinctive concern of logic). “More important” means here something like “more wanted.” If happiness is more wanted than consistency, then necessarily it is more important than consistency’ (pp. 29-30).
It is difficult to overstate the value of Xenakis’s train of thought here, in identifying key principles governing the Stoic hierarchy of concerns. His emphasis on Stoic ethical decision-making is one which has begun to receive careful and comprehensive scrutiny, specifically in Jack Visnjic’s The Invention of Duty (2021). Xenakis goes on, in his intimate, idiosyncratic, penetrating style:
‘Happiness is more important than consistency even if consistency is indispensable to happiness, though I don’t think that consistency is indispensable to happiness. I mean I don’t think that happiness necessitates thought of any kind. Epictetus however might disagree…’ (p. 30).
A careful discussion follows of Epictetus’s resistance to the Academic Skeptic position on epistemology. Xenakis suggests that Epictetus’s resort to ad-hominem caricature of the Skeptic – ‘”Who among you, when he wants to take a bath “goes to a mill instead”…Did you ever “call a pot a plate”? [I.27.15-20] – may simply miss the Skeptic point. The Skeptic point of view had developed in reaction to both ‘the Stoic idea of incontrovertible apprehension (phantasia kataliptikē [sic, usually today rendered kataleptikē]) and Plato’s indubitable noetic intuition or intellectual beholding of essences’ (p. 32). The Skeptic simply challenged the idea of the incontrovertible, not (as a rule) the evidence of sense-perception altogether. The Stoics too, and even Epictetus himself (Xenakis goes on to point out), regarded some perceptions as mistaken, and spoke of ‘training perceptions,’ which surely implies that perception can be deliberately improved (e.g. at IV.4.26). With typical care, Xenakis adds: ‘Of course, if by phantasiai he means data of consciousness, he is right but uninformative, for this reduces to the tautology that what we already notice we can’t fail to notice’ (p. 33).
Xenakis proceeds to tease out logical concepts which are referenced – necessarily, given the way in which Epictetus’s words survived – only in schematic or allusive ways: disjunction and conjunction; conditionals; and the problem of self-refuting statements.
‘Epictetus renders the universal and categorical-looking sentence, “No universal statement is true” into the hypothetical sentence, “If a statement is universal, it is false.” “For,” he adds, “what else” does the former mean if not the latter (II.20.3f). This may not prove that he was fully conscious of the import of his translation for logical theory. Yet others of that era, such as Chrysippus and possibly Sextus, so construed universals, or some universals, in a rather deliberate fashion’ (p. 38).
In the section ‘Nature and God,’ Xenakis stresses Epictetus’s conception of the world as a unity. Society is conceived as an organism; the individual is as a body part such as a foot (p. 40). Xenakis has little patience with one key aspect of Stoic doctrine: the importance of gratitude for an ordered cosmos.
‘Yet, can’t one understand the workings of nature with only sympathy? Why should admiration and gratitude be required? Besides, gratitude to whom and for what? To Zeus? For Providence? Evidently Epictetus begs the question’ (p. 41).
Notwithstanding his impatience, Xenakis gives a detailed account of the Stoic view of providence as expressed in Epictetus. On the theory of roles, as in Epictetus’s famous image of men and women having parts to play as if in a performance, Xenakis queries: ‘But how is one to tell whether one is playing the “right” role, or whether one is obeying God instead of the Devil? Not that Epictetus speaks of the Devil’ (p. 43) – a strange gloss, considering how unlikely it would have been for such a Christian concept to have appeared in our writer.
Xenakis critically discusses the Stoic views about animals, before addressing the inference of divine creation from the evidence of an orderly cosmos (pp. 44-45). He brings forward a key critique, characteristically coining terms, ‘cacodicy’ and ‘algodicy,’ to draw attention – tongue in cheek, no doubt – to what the opposite inference might look like:
‘If providence is postulated because some aspects of nature are good (beautiful, etc.), there are other aspects which are “bad,” and which therefore should prove the existence of malevolence’ (p. 46).
In this connection, Xenakis discusses, before dismissing, three arguments prominent in the ancient traditions: that evil is (1) (only) appearance; (2) non-existent; or (3) existent but necessary for the existence of good. Clearly, not only the Stoics argued for one or more of these positions (and for a thorough and updated discussion of Stoic views on evil, see Sellars 2019): precursors can be found in Plato, and versions not only in later Platonists such as Boethius, but wholesale in Christian tradition.
There are indications, Xenakis says, that Epictetus does not express (1), and voices (2) explicitly, but (3) only implicitly. (2), Xenakis concludes, being ‘not very plausible,’ it will be (3) which is the most prominent. Such a ‘justification of evil (a cacodicy),’ Xenakis writes, makes more sense than the usual formulation of ‘theodicy.’
‘For to justify is (among other things) to make good or excuse, and what sense is there to excusing good? Notice, on the other hand, that it is quite all right to speak of excusing evil and pain; which shows that neither is wanted if it can be helped, that evil as well as pain implies undesirable…’ (p. 48).
Xenakis – a bull in the china shop which is the two-and-a-half-millennia of ‘theodicy’ – warms to his theme with a volley of rhetorical questions. He cites the passages in which Epictetus describes the annoying features of travelling to Olympia to view the statue of Zeus by Pheidias:
‘”You swelter, you’re cramped for space, you bathe with difficulty, you get wet whenever it rains, and even shouted at; but I fancy you put up with all these nuisances because of the magnificence of the spectacle.” But does this meet the objection? Not at all. On the contrary, the fact that Epictetus admits the existence of inconveniences – in Nicopolis or Olympia (cp. 10.5) – subverts the very thing he is anxious to prove, namely that everything is divine, all right’ (p. 49).
Xenakis has, without doubt, treated cavalierly both the Stoic position and the broader thrust of historical ‘theodicy,’ but it is his gift that his sweeping brush usually affords, at the same time, a penetrating interrogation of the issues.
One case where it does not, is in the following section on logos. ‘Obeying Zeus boils down to obeying logos. Zeus is reason because reason is deified (cp. Aristotle). Reason is turned into a cosmic principle, ethics into metaphysics, with Zeus as the Sage, or Ideal, or personified Ideal’ (p. 54). Even more so: ‘Logos in Stoicism is also susceptible of a scientific interpretation or reduction. Logos and fire, reinterpreted, are metaphors for material principles or scientific presuppositions; for change, energy, lawfulness, predictiveness, intelligibility’ (ib.) Whereas Xenakis usually argues carefully, if concisely, for his conclusions, here he has failed to do so. Why should we accept that Stoic logos and fire are to be interpreted as metaphors, particularly when he has begun by suggesting a scientific interpretation? Nor have we encountered elsewhere the notion that Zeus represented the Stoic sage, notwithstanding the fact that Epictetus sometimes presents the god as delivering counsel.
A clue lies towards the end of this section, where Xenakis clarifies what he has been attempting:
‘To toy a moment longer with this project of “demythologizing” Epictetus and still retain recognizably Epictetan tenets, the role-analogy can similarly be redefined to refer to capacities rather than to metaphysical repertoires, and thus reduced to a plain ethics of realism, which says that goals should be proportioned to capacities instead of to wishes and fantasies (cp. Perhaps III.23.4-8). As a matter of fact, according to Laertius (7.160)…Ariston, a Stoic turned independent, and the Cynic Bion apparently so construed the role-analogy’ (pp. 54-5).
At least now we are clear: Xenakis seeks to ‘demythologize’ Epictetus. Here, at any rate, he has ceased to treat Epictetus on his own terms. The extent to which the ancient Stoics themselves accepted (or ‘believed,’ however that is understood) traditional mythological accounts, as opposed to applying rationalizing interpretations, is a very complex matter (see, e.g., Domaradzki 2012); and Xenakis’s ‘demythologizing’ project is unlikely to find explicit support today, when readers are attempting serious engagement with ancient Stoic metaphysics and theology.
Another section seems to confirm what Xenakis is attempting here. Under the title ‘Value Theory,’ he asserts: ‘Divinity Epictetus associates with value…He also thinks of god and the holy in terms of advantage…Men, he says,
conceive of whatever has the power over the greatest advantage as divine (IV.1.61). For wherever interest lies there is also religion (or piety, M31.4). That is why [when things go wrong] the farmer, and sailor and merchant, and those who lose their wives and children, revile the gods (ib. cp. II.22.17f). In sum we should remember this, that unless religion coincides with interest, it cannot endure in a man (I.27.14)’ (p. 56).
Xenakis, radically, concludes that Epictetus held Epicurean-style views about the gods as indifferent to human welfare; he thinks Epictetus should have gone further, to view the gods simply as ‘ideals or projections, the outcome of reifying attributes or wishes’ (p. 57). Here Xenakis has imposed his own preoccupations on his subject. No scholar today would discount Epictetus’s piety, which resembles in large part that characteristic, in Plato’s account, of Socrates (a fact Xenakis overlooks). Yet in the following sections, Xenakis reverts to a far more nuanced account of ‘protoconcepts,’ his useful way of understanding Stoic preconceptions.
In Section VI, ‘Pain and Training,’ Xenakis interprets Epictetus’s therapeutic practice in a detailed and sensitive way. He sees the ‘negative training’ as separable into ‘preventive’ and ‘remedial,’ with the former more important, as resulting in less need for the latter. Like Aristotle, Epictetus recognizes the key role of habit: skills are developed through the repetition of right actions (p. 74). Actions, after all, identify the philosopher, who ‘embodies [Xenakis’s emphasis] a way of life’ (p. 76).
Xenakis takes what he calls ‘the Control test’ (i.e. the determination as to whether a problem is within our control to fix) to be part of Epictetus’s ‘preventive ethics.’ It is ‘designed to forestall disappointment and frustration by checking desire and aspiration…Another function of the Control test is to forestall fear and anxiety’ (p. 87). As often, deriving his point logically by analogy or symmetry, Xenakis declares: ‘If preventive medicine and insurance of all kinds are feasible and desirable, so is preventive ethics’ (p. 97). Further:
‘If it is admitted that unfavorable self-talk, like “I am a coward, I am stupid,” does make a difference to how one feels, it seems arbitrary not to ascribe the same power to lenitive [i.e. relieving] talk’ (p. 99).
In concluding, Xenakis notes the work of Viktor Frankl as bearing echoes of Stoicism (p. 127, although as we know Frankl did not appear explicitly to refer to Stoic writers). He points out that the founder of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Albert Ellis – who had openly credited Epictetus – misinterpreted the ‘open-door’ metaphor as referring to ‘life, rather than to freedom to depart from life, or suicide’ (p. 128). If Xenakis is correct here, this represents a rather important misunderstanding on Ellis’s part. Finally, he writes:
‘Analytic and nonanalytic philosophy complement rather than compete with each other…[and as we find in Epictetus] can coexist in the same thinker and moment of thought’ (p. 130).
It is hoped that this survey has conveyed some of the detailed, stimulating, and original flavour of Jason Xenakis’s monograph. While A.A. Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (2002) has deservedly become our jumping-off point for the study of Epictetus, Xenakis’s book remains fresh and almost undated, a remarkable achievement in the prehistory of Modern Stoicism.
Domaradzki, Mikolaj. ‘Theological Etymologizing in the Early Stoa.’ Kernos 25, 2012, pp. 125-148 https://doi.org/10.4000/kernos.2109
Hadas, Moses (transl.) The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters. New York, Norton, 1968 (copyright 1958).
Oates, Whitney J. (ed.) The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. New York, Random House, 1940.
Sellars, John, ‘Review, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by A.A. Long.’ The Classical Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (April 2003), pp. 65-7.
Sellars, John. ‘The Stoics.’ In T. Angier (ed.), The History of Evil in Antiquity, 2000 BCE-450 CE (Abingdon, Routledge, 2019), pp. 175-86.
Visnjic, Jack. The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology. Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2021.
Xenakis, Jason. Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1969.