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Exploring Encheiridion 7 – Episode 38


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When you are on a voyage and the boat is at anchor, if you disembark to get water, you may pick up a little shellfish and vegetable on the way, but you need to keep your mind fixed on the boat and keep turning around in case the captain calls; and if he does call, you must drop all those things, to avoid being tied up and stowed on board like the sheep. That’s how it is in life too. If you are given a little wife and child, instead of a little vegetable and shellfish, that will not be a problem. But if the captain calls you, run to the boat and leave all those things without even turning around. And if you are old, never go far from the boat in case you are missing when he calls. (Ench 7) This parable is interesting, and I cannot find a similar story anywhere in Stoic texts. However, the fact that Arrian would include it in his Handbook for Stoic practitioners tells us its meaning would have been clear to the students of Epictetus. Since no story like this appears in other surviving Stoic texts, Epictetus is likely drawing on a commonly understood cultural reference. I am not an expert in Greek culture, literature, or history. Nevertheless, I found the following connections that appear to add some meaning to this passage. The imagery in Encheiridion 7 is similar to that of the ancient Greek myth of Charôn, the ferryman. He transported the souls of the deceased over the river Styx to the underworld. The Greek poet Euripides, who was writing almost 500 years before Epictetus, has his character Alcestis say: I see him there at the oars of his little boat in the lake, the ferryman of the dead, Kharon (Charon), with his hand upon the oar and he calls me now. ‘What keeps you? Hurry, you hold us back.’ He is urging me on in angry impatience. (Euripides, Alcestis 252) Likewise, Machon, a writer of comedies, who was writing approximately 300 years before Epictetus, wrote the following in his Philoxenus: But since Timotheos' Kharon (Charon), the one in his Niobe, does not let me dally but shouts that the ferry-boat is leaving, and gloomy Moira (Fate), who must be obeyed is summoning me. (fragment 786) Machon, the writer of this passage, is quoting from a work by Timotheus of Miletus titled Niobe, written approximately 200 years earlier and 500 years before Epictetus. Note the reference to a piece titled Niobe. There are several versions of the myth of Niobe, the bereaved mother whose children were killed by Apollo as punishment for her hubris. The story of Niobe is not essential for our discussion; however, as I will point out in a minute, the reference to Timotheus’ Niobe is important. First, I also want to point out that Seneca references Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, several times in his literary writings. This supports the idea this imagery was commonly used and understood during the time of Epictetus. So, how does all of this relate to Encheiridion 7? I think you’ll begin to see the connections after I tie it all together in an often-overlooked passage by Diogenes Laertius’ on the death of Zeno, the founder of the Stoa: The manner of his death was as follows. As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking a toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line from the Niobe: I come, I come, why dost thou call for me? and died on the spot through holding his breath. (DL 7.28) I’m going to set the details of Zeno’s manner of death aside because that is relevant to our discussion. However, Zeno’s response to his imminent death is noteworthy. We can infer two different attitudes from Zeno’s words in this story of his death. First, we could infer some resistance to death from his last words: “why are you calling me?” Alternatively, we can infer an attitude of bewilderment. The Greek word used in this passage means to “cry out, shout, call aloud.” Therefore, Zeno could have been saying, “I’m coming, of course, I’m coming; there’s no need to shout at me?

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