Tone of voice is a powerful writing tool. It’s the building blocks of how ideas are shared, how information is digested. Ancient philosophers had their own unique tone of voice for connecting with their students and Epictetus stands out.
Stoic philosopher, teacher and slave, Epictetus’ work has influenced countless generations and his tone of voice comes to life in the pages of The Discourses and Enchiridion.
It’s worth noting Epictetus didn’t write down his teachings. Instead, they were recorded by his student Arrian. I’ve set out to deconstruct Epictetus’ voice across language, cadence and tone and unearth his philosophical style.
In a writing context, language refers to metaphors and symbolism and the language of The Discourses can be split into three different sections:
Epictetus frequently compared philosophy to medicine, encouraging his students to find a remedy for their sickness. And curing an illness shouldn’t be pleasurable. It demands work, dedication and swallowing things that you may dislike in the pursuit of becoming better.
“The philosopher’s school, ye men, is a surgery: you ought not to go out of it with pleasure, but with pain. For you are not in sound health when you enter.”
Epictetus’s remedy comes through in athletic imagery. He suggests students better themselves like an Olympic athlete, always pushing to get to the next stage.
“What will be required of you? And what else follows from that? Is this whole course of action really beneficial to you? If so, carry on. If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance.
You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.”
“No man is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.”
“Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.”
He also encourages discipline in the sense of not showing off your athleticism.
“For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion.”
He’s saying that if you’re an athlete you shouldn’t have to showboat or point everyone to your collection of protein powder. It’s in the act of training and demonstrating how you overcome challenges that count.
Epictetus is also fond of using military metaphors in guarding against unnecessary emotions and defending your character from harm. The mind should be shielded, protected and cultivated with good deeds and action.
“Fortify yourself with contentment for this is an impregnable fortress.”
“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.”
Stylistic cadence to educate and persuade
Cadence refers to the flow of sentences and how words are shaped. Epictetus’ cadence is inspired by the didactic method of teaching. This means providing instruction directly from teacher to pupil and creating structured or unstructured lessons.
“Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot.”
Theory plays a strong role in didactics, which brings up interesting thoughts of how Epictetus learned Stoic theory from his own teacher Musonius Rufus. We can imagine Epictetus developing an understanding of how to teach Stoicism from Musonius, with both struggling how to show others to put theory into practice.
It wasn’t enough for Epictetus to teach his students theory. The Discourses reveal a man who wanted his pupils to practice what they preached, meaning there are two other conversational styles that influenced his cadence. They are:
The protreptic style is designed to persuade and can be compared to a modern day motivational speech. As researcher and philosopher Michael Tremblay said in an interview with Stoic Athenaeum:
“I think to understand Epictetus’ ‘voice’ you have to understand the function of what he is doing. He is teaching young men at his school about how to adopt Stoic values. In ancient philosophical education, there is something called a ‘protreptic’ style. This word means to ‘turn someone towards’ something.
In modern day we can think of it like a motivational speech. A lot of what Epictetus says is in this style. It is meant to shock you out of a life of passivity, and towards a life of Stoic action.
This is why he does things like call his students idiots, and even ‘slaves’, even though they would have been from the upper class. He’s insulting them, and challenging their intelligence and freedom, not because he is some grumpy old man, but because it serves an educational purpose.”
Also known as the Socratic method, elenchus teaching was popularised by Socrates. It’s a type of cooperative dialogue which Epictetus used to put the emphasis on his students. It’s a kind of verbal sparring contest where he picks apart beliefs and urges you to be responsible for doing the work.
“Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law.”
A tone that strikes like a hammer blow
Tone revolves around the emotions of the writer or the emotions being evoked in the reader. Epictetus’ tone can come off as blunt and aggressive. He routinely called his students idiots and slaves, admonishing them. Examples include:
“Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad?”
“Man, what are you talking about? Me in chains? You may fetter my leg but my will, not even Zeus himself can overpower.”
“God save me from fools with a little philosophy—no one is more difficult to reach.”
As Tremblay pointed out, Epictetus is deliberately shocking his students into action with a protreptic cadence. It’s all for an educational purpose. His tone evolves to become measured and pragmatic.
Defining Epictetus’ tone of voice
- Down to earth
- Impressive use of universal themes across medical, military and athletic symbolism
- Inspiration-led sentences
- Open ended
Thank you to Michael Tremblay for helping with the background research for this article. To learn about the writing styles of other great Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, check out these articles: