The translation of Epictetus' Enchiridion, part 16 by Elizabeth Carter (http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html) seems to contradict that of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45109/45109-h/45109-h.htm).

E. Carter writes:

As far as words go, however, don't reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

But T. W. Higginson writes:

As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.

Both translations seem to suggest that the Stoic should not "moan inwardly" (roughly, not to feel bad about the event). However, one suggests that the Stoic should offer sympathy and comfort if need be and the other suggests that he should not.

I have a translation by George Long which agrees with Higginson. Which is the more Stoic position? To groan outwardly, or not?



The Stoic way includes empathetic reactions, i.e. groaning/moaning outwardly, in moments of shock. Both because it is a natural reaction even the perfect sage cannot help against and because he should help others to overcome their feelings.

Long answer

A.A. Long has something to say on this in his book Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (OUP: 2002).

First, let me give you his translation (p. 230):

Do not hesitate to sympathize verbally with a [distraught] person, and even, if the occasion arises, share in the person's groans. But take care not to groan also within yourself.
(Ench. 16)

He explains the text afterwards (pp.253-54):

Epictetus would not be a Stoic if he thought that the proper way to help a distraught person is to 'feel' that person's pain. The task of a Stoic comforter is not to become upset oneself but to try to assuage the afflicted person. But, as we see in the passage printed at the head of this chapter, Epictetus does recommend 'showing' sympathy in words and even 'sharing in another's groans', provided that one does not 'groan within oneself' (Ench. 16).

What are we to make of this controlled empathy? There are two sides to Epictetus' recommendation. First, an outward acknowledgement of the distraught person's distress, putting oneself in the other's position; and, secondly, an inward refusal 'to be carried away by the impression' that the other's situation is objectively 'bad'. Inwardly, comforters should say to themselves: 'It is not what has happened that is crushing this person but the person's judgement about what has happened.' Epictetus admits that no one, including the ideal sage, can fail to react emotionally to quite unexpected shocks, such as a thunderclap or sudden news of some catastrophe (fragment 9). Such things can happen too rapidly for any reflection or judgement to intervene. But he does not take such uncontrollable reactions to count against the difficult Stoic doctrine that dread and other debilitating passions fall within the scope of our volition. Even a wise man will blench under a sudden shock, but blenching is not an instance of dread, as the Stoics define that passion: 'judging that something terrible is looming.' Having experienced a terrifying shock, the wise man 'does not assent to such impressions or add that judgement to them, but rejects them and finds nothing to dread in them'.

Stoic comforters, then, will allow for shocks, but they will take prolonged distress and other passions to be self-inflicted, deriving not from events directly but from people's misjudgements about the harm or benefit they are experiencing or expect to experience. (bolded mine)

In short: While a good stoic should always be able to offer help and empathy to people who are in distraught, they should never be carried away by the experience of either the emotional distress of others or their own. Stoics know that the pain is not objective, but only arises because of the personal judgement of the situation, so judging the situation as not necessarily and persistingly affecting oneself - even if it does in a moment of shock - is the Stoic way. This includes helping others to do so. It prevents the persistent manifestation of negative emotions and enables us to be happy.

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