December 9, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

The Woman Epictetus Made Rich

Chuck Chakrapani

Epictetus was well-known during his lifetime and presumably taught many rich and powerful people (such as his student Arrian). Many of his students came all the way to Nicopolis in Greece from Rome, Italy, to study with him. And yet Epictetus lived a simple life. It is said he lived in a place with just a bed, a lamp and a cooking utensil. Here is how Epictetus, comparing himself to a beggar in Homer’s Odyssey, described himself:

I, Epictetus,

born a slave, and lame,

as poor as Irus,

am dear to gods.

Elizabeth Carter – Extreme right
Richard Samuel (floruit 1770-died 1787), National Portrait Gallery

Yet he made a woman who lived 17 centuries after him rich. If not rich, at least financially very comfortable. Such were his priceless words, preserved mostly by the work of his distinguished student Arrian.

Enter Elizabeth Carter

During the 1700s, there was no English translation of Epictetus’ Discourses, which was not a well-known work – until Elizabeth Carter entered the scene.

Who was Elizabeth Carter?

Elizabeth Carter was born in 1717 CE in Kent, England. Her father, Rev. Nicholas Carter, encouraged his daughter to study languages. She had such difficulty learning languages that her father advised her to give up learning classical languages. Elizabeth Carter wouldn’t give up. She rose early, took snuff to keep her attention from flagging at night, tied wet towels round her head, and chewed green tea and coffee. Such persistence paid off and she mastered many classical and modern languages including Latin, Greek, Hebrew,Arabic, Italian, French, and Portuguese, (in addition to science). She was also a writer and a poet.

She came to be known as an intellectual and was a friend of Samuel Johnson. She was a member of the Blue Stocking Circle, an informal women’s social and educational movement in England in the mid–18th century that emphasized education and mutual co-operation. Of the members of the Blue Stocking Circle, none was more “darkly, deeply, beautifully blue” than Elizabeth Carter. Although she was not married she took the rank of matron and was referred to Mrs. Carter.

A friend’s request

Catherine Talbot, a friend of Carter and an accomplished woman, wrote in 1743 to Mrs. Carter that she was “vastly curious” to read the precepts of Epictetus that had not been translated. Elizabeth Carter didn’t do anything about her friend’s request until 1749. Then, to please her friend, she began to translate Discourses. Initially her translation was ornate. But she was persuaded by Bishop Secker and Catherine Talbot to preserve the simplicity and directness of Epictetus. When Talbot requested Carter to add a biography of Epictetus, she replied,

“Whoever that somebody or other is, who is to write the life of Epictetus, seeing that I have a dozen shirts to make, I do opine, dear Miss Talbot, that it cannot be I.”

She, however, added the Enchiridion and notes. It was all done by 1756, seven years after she started.

The first English translation of Discourses

Elizabeth Carter’s translation was published in 1758. It was in one volume, large quarto, and the first printing was 1018 copies. But there was so much demand for it that 250 more were printed a few months later. It was issued by subscription, and the price was a guinea (1 pound and 5 pence) in sheets.

Her printing bill was £67. 7s, but she made made nearly a thousand pounds profit. £1,000 was no small amount then. In current dollars it is equivalent to $300,000!

Two further editions were printed in her life-time, and, for many years, it remained a good selling book at a high price. It is said that Tsarina had read the translation and thought highly of it.

While Elizabeth Carter was a Greek scholar of note, she was not a philosopher. This led the contemporary Neo-Platonist Thomas Taylor to say “[The translation] is as good as a person ignorant of philosophy can be supposed to make.” Still, it was the standard translation for a long time.

Elizabeth Carter did not have an unquestioning admiration for Epictetus either. She was a devout Christian woman and was disappointed that Epictetus (who lived a few decades after Christ) wasn’t seen to be influenced by Christ. At another place, she considers a passage by Epictetus lacking in modesty (which was later disputed as incorrect by William Oldfather.)

A comfortable life

For the rest of her long life, Elizabeth Carter settled down and enjoyed the fruits of her fame and fortune. Her influential friends invested her money well. During the summer months, she lived with her father at Deal, or visited her friends in their country houses. She spent the winter in London in elegant and comfortable flats in Clarges street and almost always dined out with her friends.

An extraordinary story

This is an extraordinary story for several reasons. First, the very first English translation was by a woman, second, the translator was a non-philosopher and third, the author made money that was – and is – very unusual for a translation of an ancient work.

And this is also a story of a simple living philosopher enabling someone to earn a tidy sum several centuries later through his works!