Herodes Atticus on Fake Stoicism

In this excerpt from Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, relates an amusing anecdote. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Sophist, known for his eloquence but also his violent temper. He was family friend of Marcus Aurelius, but also a critic of Stoicism.

The apt use made by Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, in reply to an arrogant and boastful young fellow, a student of philosophy in appearance only, of the passage in which Epictetus the Stoic humorously set apart the true Stoic from the mob of prating triflers who called themselves Stoics.  

While we were students at Athens, Herodes Atticus, a man of consular rank and of true Grecian eloquence, often invited me to his country houses near that city, in company with the honourable  Servilianus and several others of our countrymen who had withdrawn from Rome to Greece in quest of culture. And there at that time, while we were with him at the villa called Cephisia, both in the heat of summer and under the burning autumnal sun, we protected ourselves against the trying temperature by the shade of its spacious groves, its long, soft  promenades, the cool location of the house, its elegant baths with their abundance of sparkling water, and the charm of the villa as a whole, which was everywhere melodious with plashing waters and tuneful birds.

There was with us there at the time a young student of philosophy, of the Stoic school according to his own account, but intolerably loquacious and presuming. In the course of the conversations which are commonly carried on at table after dinner, this fellow often used to prattle unseasonably, absurdly, and at immoderate length, on the principles of philosophy, maintaining that compared with himself all the Greek-speaking authorities, all wearers of the toga, and the Latin race in general were ignorant boors. As he spoke, he rattled off unfamiliar terms, the catchwords of syllogisms and dialectic tricks, declaring that no one but he could unravel the “master,” the “resting,” and the “heap” arguments,  and other riddles of the kind. Furthermore, as to ethics, the nature of the human intellect, and the origin of the virtues with their duties and limits, or on the other hand the ills caused by disease and sin, and the wasting and destruction of the soul, he stoutly maintained that absolutely no one else had investigated, understood and mastered all these more thoroughly than himself. Further, he believed that torture, bodily pain and deadly peril could neither injure nor detract from the happy state and condition of life which, in his opinion, he had attained, and that no sorrow could even cloud the serenity of the Stoic’s face and expression.

Once when he was puffing out these empty boasts, and already all, weary of his prating, were thoroughly disgusted and longing for an end, Herodes, speaking in Greek as was his general custom, said: “Allow me, mightiest of philosophers, since we, whom you call laymen, cannot answer you, to read from a book of Epictetus, greatest of Stoics, what he thought and said about such big talk as that of yours.” And he bade them bring the first  volume of the Discourses of Epictetus, arranged by Arrian, in which that venerable old man with just severity rebukes those young men who, though calling themselves Stoics, showed neither virtue nor honest industry, but merely babbled of trifling propositions and of the fruits of their study of such elements as are taught to children.

Then, when the book was brought, there was read the passage which I have appended, in which Epictetus with equal severity and humour set apart and separated from the true and genuine Stoic, who was beyond question without restraint or constraint, unembarrassed, free, prosperous and happy, that other mob of triflers who styled themselves Stoics, and casting the black soot of their verbiage before the eves of their hearers, laid false claim to the name of the holiest of sects:

‘Speak to me of good and evil.’ — Listen: The wind, bearing me from Ilium, drove me to the Cicones. Of all existing things some are good, some evil, and some indifferent. Now the good things are virtues and what partakes of them, the evil are vice and what partakes of vice, and the indifferent lie  between these: wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain.— ‘How do you know this?’ — Hellanicus says so in his Egyptian History. For what difference does it make whether you say that, or that it was Diogenes in his Ethics or Chrysippus or Cleanthes? Have you then investigated any of these matters and formed an opinion of your own? Let me see how you are accustomed to act in a storm at sea. Do you recall this classification when the sail cracks and you cry aloud? If some idle fellow should stand beside you and say: ‘Tell me, for Heaven’s sake, what you told me before. It isn’t a vice to suffer shipwreck, is it? It doesn’t partake of vice, does it?’ Would you not hurl a stick of wood at him and cry: ‘What have we to do with you, fellow? We perish and you come and crack jokes.’ But if Caesar should summon you to answer an accusation…”

On hearing these words, that most arrogant of youths was mute, just as if the whole diatribe had been pronounced, not by Epictetus against others, but against himself by Herodes.

One reply on “Herodes Atticus on Fake Stoicism”

Hm. I am new to the topic of Stoicism, but heard about it before. I am not sure if I understand what Epictetus wrote. Could you tell me if I am close? In the passage, the guy was talking of all these grand concepts, and quoting someone else’s sayings as if they were the only one worthy to quote them, he reacts largely to a storm that is out of his control. He was startled/angry?

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