Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Epictetus, gadfly of Rome

One of the most entertaining passages in the Discourses describes what happened when Epictetus decided to play Socrates among the Romans. The text is Discouses II.12, 17-25.

To set the scene, imagine Epictetus, a young freed slave of Asian Greek heritage, loitering in the Forum and trying to engage Romans of consular rank in discussion about whether they are neglecting the care of their souls. Farce, or tragedy, was the only possible outcome.

At first, says Epictetus, speaking of one encounter, things seemed to be going well. The wealthy consular listened to him and responded to his questions. But then, when we got to the meat of the matter and I suggested to him that he might be neglecting the care of his soul, the mood changed, and the patrician said to me, “Pray, sir, what business is this of yours?” And when I persisted with him, he raised his hand and began to box my ears.
Meeting with such difficulties, confesses Epictetus, I began to be less keen on pursuing this sort of inquiry among the Romans.

I am a little surprised that Epictetus was naïve enough to try this. If the young Domitian was one of those whom he accosted, some subsequent history finds an easy explanation.
But what genuinely puzzles me is why Epictetus thought Socratic elenchos would be successful amongst the Romans when it had been so spectacularly and universally unavailing in the hands of the master. Whom did Socrates ever make wiser or better by cross-questioning him?


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