Metaphorical Structure of Epictetus' Encheiridion 1

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page revised September 7, 2004

In Philosophy in the Flesh (University of Chicago Press, 1999), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson propose a novel way of understanding philosophies through the study of the pervasive metaphors in them. Lakoff and Johnson discuss Presocratic philosophy, some aspects of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and analytic philosophy, among other things. But they do not discuss Stoicism.

I propose to try to use their method to shed some light on a text that is familiar to all readers of the classical Stoic literature, the opening chapter of Epictetus' Encheiridion. (I am using the translation provided with the Greek text in the Loeb Classical Library.) I invite readers to tell me whether they think this is an illuminating approach.

It seems to me that there are at least two complex metaphors at work in this chapter, one that treats the self as property-owner, and the other that relates the Stoic subject to impressions as one person is related to a second person who is trying to persuade the first person to engage in some action of pursuit or avoidance. We could call the second metaphor the Impression as Possible Tempter metaphor.

A third metaphor goes along with the first and conceives of property as contained in a physically limited space, with a boundary or perimeter.

To apply the sort of metaphorical analysis proposed by Lakoff and Johnson, one must trace philosophical claims back to primary experience, and the earlier it is likely to first occur in a person's life the better (preferably before age ten). Now, we do have the experience of ownership (toys, pets, etc.) at an early age. And we do have the experience of being approached by strangers who are not always trustworthy and who may try to mislead us.

My property is something I control. Because it is mine, I don't have to beg permission of anyone to use it. There is no hindrance to my use of it. But what is not my property typically belongs to someone else. If I want to use it, I must beg another for permission. To be forced to beg is to feel subservient, dependent, comparatively weak. (This is especially the case if I am a child and must beg Mommy or Daddy or a bigger kid for access to the things that are not strictly mine.) If I were somehow able to be concerned only about my property, what is in my power, then I would avoid this position of weakness and servility. I would be, by contrast, strong and free.

Epictetus conceptualizes the Stoic self (metaphorically) as a property owner. Of course, he metaphorically draws the line around this property in a way different from the way an ordinary person fences his plot of land or encloses his material possessions in his house. This property line encloses only conception, choice, desire, and aversion, while excluding body, physical possessions, reputation, office, etc.

The logic of the metaphor then kicks in. If we seek access to what is not ours, we'll be forced to beg, we'll be weak, we'll be unfree. Because slavery and weakness is conceived (even by non-Stoics) as a condition of misery, we'll be miserable. If I could only avoid seeking access to what is not mine, on the other hand, I am guaranteed the absence of misery, i.e., a good life.

The trick of course is not to want things that are not mine, not to want things that put me in a servile position (things that, for a reason I don't yet grasp, E. calls servile by transferring to them the quality of the person who desires them, as if to be the occasion for servility is to be servile).

But not to want those things requires that I not judge them to be good. And how does Epictetus understand judgement? We know this. He understands judgment as an assent to an impression. What is interesting is that he metaphorically treats impressions as persons making a claim.

"Make it, therefore, your study at the very outset to say to every harsh external impression, 'You are an external impression and not at all what you appear to be.'" I don't think the use of personification is entirely accidental or a mere literary flourish. What we are metaphorically being asked by an impression to do is to assent to it, i.e., agree with what it says. And agreeing is something we do originally with other persons.

But Epictetus wants to suggest that impressions, like other persons, frequently mislead us. A certain amount of healthy skepticism is in order. It is of course precisely at this point that the Stoics borrow the Skeptics' device of the epochê, the suspension of assent, not for the purpose of the Skeptics but for their own purposes, to give them the opportunity of examining the content of the impression for signs of unreliability or falsehood. And there are criteria (Epictetus refers to rules) for testing impressions. "Examine it and test it by these rules which you have . . . "

And it is at this point that the second metaphorical schema (impression as another person) links up with the first metaphorical schema (Stoic self as property-owner): The most important of the rules for testing impressions is "whether the impression has to do with the things which are under our control [our metaphorical property] or those things which are not under our control . . . "