Franco Scalenghe: ‘”Nature” and the “Nature of Things” in the Stoic Philosophy of Epictetus: A Synopsis’


I just began reading a new publication from our esteemed colleague Franco Scalenghe. Franco is a skilled linguist and student of philosophy. One of his several foci is translations of Greek technical vocabulary in Italian and English. In the linked document, Franco takes aim at φύσις ( “physis” ), which is often translated simply as “Nature” in English by pretty much every translator across all time periods.

Franco offers that “the nature of things” is often (about 40% of the time) the clearer reading. This document is a discussion on that very topic.

Enchiridion 1 and what’s up to us.


Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

In Enchiridion 1, Epictetus through Arrian discusses which things are “up to us,” (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν).  He does not provide a definition, although we can use the short hand and definitive prohairetic things.  Instead, Epictetus gives us a list of examples, whereby we can infer the general rule or type of things he’s discussing.

He ends this list, which I interpret not to be a closed class, with what’s often translated as “whatever are our own actions/works.” Oftentimes, this word ἔργα (erga) is translated as actions, works, deeds, etc.  A literal reading is often “works.”

It is not the person who eagerly listens to and makes notes of what is
spoken by the philosophers who is ready for philosophizing, but the
person who is ready to transfer the prescriptions of philosophy to his
deeds (erga) and to live in accord with them.

— Arius Didymus

I came across another interesting translation which uses “whatever we bring about.” That’s an interesting take, probably closer to the spirit of the passage in Ench.1.  As Stoics, we’re more concerned with the intent of a thing than its results in the world.  We’re more concerned about how we handle judgments and impressions than how the results of those go out from us.  “Whatever we bring about” then encompasses these internal things, our actual focus, better than do the English words “works,” “actions,” or “deeds.”

Stoicism and the war against (some) desires.


The tagline of this blog for the past few months has been ἀνέχου καί ἀπέχου.  This can be translated (more poetically to my mind, and carrying some of the symmetry present in the Greek) as “bear and forebear,” or in a more approachable fashion as “endure and renounce.”

epictetus-6A pretty stern admonition it seems.  This is often reported as the slogan of Epictetus (seen on the book on which he’s lounging), and its Latin counterpart (sustine et abstine) can be seen often in other venues as well.  So the assumption that Stoicism is about quashing all desire seems just a quick step away.  But, we’d be missing an important issue.  Epictetus does tell us to abandon somethings, and postpone others for the present, but the issue is more complex.

There’s an interesting issue here which gets lost in the English translation.

There’s more than one word for desire used in the Stoic sources. One (ὄρεξις) which is used in the context of desire for virtue, or good things. And a second word for desire (ἐπιθυμία) which is inordinate desire for vicious things or pleasures, lust.

ὄρεξις is one of the things listed as “up to us” in the Enchiridion 1, by the way.  So it clearly can’t be one of those things we’re supposed to abandon or postpone, right?  It’s what we’re training with and for.  Here is why the English “desire” as a catch-all for both Greek terms is a problem for we English speakers.  We might end up making a (reasonable mistake in this case) misapprehension because we’re using the same word for two different lexemes in the Greek.  We may not even know this is occurring, if we don’t read Greek or have it pointed out to us.

So, when we are trying to switch our focus from lusting-desire (for pleasures) to grasping-desire (for virtue), we’re not trying to quash “desire” per se, but we’re trying to quash this yearning or hankering for vicious things.

We should have a grasping-desire for progress, for virtue, for wisdom.  We should grasp for courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control.

We should avoid lusting after body-pleasure, social-rank, intellectual-pride, etc.

Using our ὄρεξις is an entirely acceptable place to be, while we avoid the dangers of ἐπιθυμία.

**cue shooting start**



Perseus, ὄρεξις
Perseus, ἐπιθυμία
Strong’s, ὄρεξις
Strong’s, ἐπιθυμία