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From Vol. 3, Issue 6, June 2021

What Can the Stoics Teach Us About Creativity?


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“Writing was a spiritual exercise, a way of memorizing and internalizing the teachings so that they become a person’s default moral setting. It was a kind of paying-attention, an active, creative listening to others and to the self.”

Creativity and novelty

Neuroscientist Michael Grybko defines creativity as an idea that is “novel, good, and useful”. Novelty – originality in voice, style, and execution – is especially important in creativity. But it’s also one of creativity’s most elusive achievements, driving a lot of us quite mad in its pursuit.

Although the Stoics don’t offer us a comprehensive theory of creativity, what they offer those of us who seek to live a sane and joyful creative life, is their own good practice. I found novelty in Arrian’s work. In Arrian’s work, I found a model of creativity.

Arrian, the transcriber

When I first read the Discourses, I was struck by Arrian’s prefatory letter. Here was Arrian – one of the most distinguished authors of the Roman era, a man with great literary aspirations – attaching a note to his Epictetus manuscript in which he emphatically states he is not the author of the enclosed work.

I did not write the Discourses in the way that you expect a writer to write such books, he begins before explaining his process. He says,

I tried to write down for myself what I heard Epictetus say so that I might remember his thoughts and directness.

He had produced faithful transcriptions of Epictetus discoursing with students. This doesn’t sound very novel at all. So, why is he my model of creativity?

Hypomnemata As Creative Listening

Arrian explains that the Discourses are ὑπομνήματα – writing for the purpose of study, memorization, philosophical training, and self-improvement. As a student of Epictetus, Arrian would have been instructed to keep hypomnemata:

You need to keep these teachings πρόχειρα ἔστω (at hand) day and night. So, write them down…

Hypomnemata were meant to be useful texts, not creative texts. But this sort of philosophical writing was not just a matter of passive note-taking as we tend to do today. Writing was a spiritual exercise, a way of memorizing and internalizing the teachings so that they become a person’s default moral setting.

It was a kind of paying-attention, an active, creative listening to others and to the self.

As writers, we are meant to pay attention, but we often listen with one ear to the world of character and conversation and the other ear to our own voice: Is this a novel idea? Will this help me write an original novel?

By relinquishing authorial control and focusing on doing the work of a good student, Arrian must have really paid attention.

In so doing, he not only produced the definitive Epictetus, he produced a novel literary work.

The Novelty in Arrian’s Writing

The Discourses are dramatic and vivid; not like formal philosophical discourse at all.

Arrian explains that his hypomnemata are a novel literary style for a philosophical work: What you’ll find here are the words that one might say on the spot, rather than the words one might carefully compose for a later readership.

Was his intention to rework the notes into a more eloquent, more formal manuscript in his typical style before publication?

How did he create this transcription? Did he have an extra speedy note-taking system – a stenographic technique, a speedy handwriting method, a shorthand code – or did he imaginatively rework the text, late into the night, to capture the style, syntax, vocabulary, tone, and drama of Epictetus in the classroom?

Writing in Koine Greek, he was now given new creative choices. This Greek was less eloquent than the Greek he normally wrote in but it gave him shorter, simpler, punchier, and clearer sentences, plus the use of more personal pronouns, rhetorical choices that contributed to the dramatic vividness of Epictetean discourse.

Something Novel, Good And Useful

Still, Arrian wonders whether these very characteristics of the work might make people think he’s not good enough or capable enough to author a proper philosophical book and that, because of this, people might not find Epictetus’ teachings useful.

So be it, he concludes, that does not matter to me… nor does it matter to Epictetus.

Epictetus’ aim was to speak (not write) in ways that inspired excellence. Arrian’s was to make a true and useful record of that.

This is excellent creative advice: Write towards excellence. Write to be useful. And, if novelty comes, it comes.

Kathryn Koromilas once lived in Preveza not far from Epictetus' school in Nicopolis.She holds a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing, leads The Stoic Salon, a group dedicated to reading and writing with the Stoics, hosts The Stoic Salon Podcast, and will be speaking on creativity and Stoicism at Stoicon-x Women: Practical Paths to Flourishing.