Review of Epictetus: The Complete Works
One note, the authors claims Arrian wrote The Discourses over four books, but in reality it was eight and only four survive. This calls into question the scholarship here.
The gall of a modern academic to downplay the teachings of one of the greatest philosophers in history, himself a former slave, in these childish terms really shouldn't surprise me, but it still does. One of the most privileged and spoiled classes of people in history, and they just can't seem to help themselves but to attack those that actually accomplished things.
Having grown up poor (but checking some privilege boxes), when I first discovered stoicism it really helped me comes to grips with an unjust world. As I have climbed the social ladder, I find that the more things/privileges I have the harder it is to be stoic. I suppose this is why I like Seneca so much. He feels like a rich dude (I’m not rich but comparatively well off) who is working on not being a bad person. A lot of what I have taken from stoicism and Buddhism are lessons on how to develop a compassionate and just mindset.
I’m fairly skeptical of reading ancient philosophy through a modern lens. This critique had a weird tone and it seems the author might be have an issue with modern proponents of pop-stoicism and a lack of impetus for collective action. I have seen a couple similar arguments going on in Buddhism around the idea of “big-tent” Buddhism and the question of whether or not Buddhism advocates for activism.
Epictetus is by far my favourite of the Stoics I've read. The Enchiridion is short, acerbic, enlightening and funny. You don't get that much in philosophy, and I think that author clearly appreciates that.
That said, in the end I think Nietzsche is right in his criticism: Stoicism works, but it limits one's capacity for joy because to tools you use to combat negative emotion unintentionally, but necessarily, limit positive emotion.
I practiced Stoicism pretty seriously for a few years and it definitely improved my life, but once you've used it to build a solid emotional foundation, the Stoic tactics (which essentially involve always watching yourself for deviations from the Stoic path) limit your ability to experience extremes of joy.
There are elements of Stoicism (like negative visualisation) that are easy to integrate into life and are pretty much only positive, but for me, full-blown Stoicism is something I only bring out when I need to re-establish that solid baseline.
It's an interesting piece, it tells you a lot, and clearly Emily Wilson has a warm appreciation for Epictetus.
But the overall framing seems to be guilty of the condescension of posterity. Specifically, the tone is: "isn't it a shame that Epictetus, despite his wisdom, wrote for other male slave-owners?"
There is probably a ton to say about the exact nature of slavery in Ancient Rome, how bad it was, etc. I'm not an expert but for sure everyone can agree that by modern standards slavery was not an acceptable employment institution. Set that to one side.
Essentially nobody in Rome believed slavery could be abolished. And everybody in Rome wrote for privileged men. (Maybe because being able to read was, like owning a private jet today, a very expensive privilege.)
So if you criticize someone for that, you have to explain why everyone else had the same blinkers. One answer is "of course that's because they were all privileged themselves!" Except Epictetus wasn't! And Romans did challenge slavery, but in different ways. St Paul doesn't say "let us have a revolution to abolish slavery" but he does say that in Christ there is neither slave nor free.
It seems pretty likely that a Roman analogue of the Communist Manifesto - a call for the political reorganization of society - simply could not have been written. Perhaps Roman society was not centralized in the way that 19th century capitalism was, and so simply wasn't amenable to top-down regime change in the way modern societies may be. Or perhaps the intellectual resources of modern social science simply weren't available that would enable people to think in this register.
If so, complaining that Romans didn't write the Communist Manifesto seems ahistorical, and kind of silly.