enchiridion

This is a big word for a small thing, a fancy word for a thing that may well be plain. It has an air of encyclopedic enquiry, but if you are enriched by an enchiridion it is because it is condensed, information-rich. The word may look a little out of hand, but it is all about keeping things well in hand – literally: its Greek source is a word made of ἐν en ‘in’ plus χείρ cheir ‘hand’ (you see this also in words such as chiropractic) plus a diminutive suffix ιδιον idion. It names a handbook, a little manual, a concise treatise on something. Rather than hacking through the dense bush of an encyclopedic disquisition for the birds of enlightenment, an enchiridion gives you a bird in the hand.

The word pushes off with a kick from the back and then dances on the tip of the tongue; the chi rhymes with “sky” and the the stress is on the rid. The printed form looks a bit like a stretched-out accordion, but in the meaning, as with accordions, it is the compression that produces the effect.

There are several books of note that call themselves enchiridions. Perhaps the most noted of these is the Enchiridion of Epictetus, written by a Roman philosopher who had been a slave but was freed when his master was executed. It expounds stoic philosophy – a philosophy perhaps best expressed in the modern time by the prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Enchiridion is actually condensed notes by a student of Epictetus, and it cuts to the chase, starting off by telling us that we can change the things that are within our power, and can’t change the things that aren’t within our power, and if something is not in our power, we have no reason to attach our happiness or unhappiness to it, and if it is in our power, we should simply do what will achieve our goals. Do not desire; simply act, or be detached. It seems at first like good, practical philosophy, and is in line with insights offered by Buddhism, among other lines of inquiry, but it does run into the problem of discernment of what is and is not within our control – and there is also the fact that sometimes we enjoy our attachments to things beyond our control, even if we risk negative feelings should we lose them. Most people will find stoicism is very useful much of the time – but sometimes you just want to let things get a little out of hand, just as you sometimes want to use a fancier word than you need to.

6 responses to “enchiridion

  1. No discussion of “enchiridion” would be complete without mentioning “Adventure Time,” which has introduced the word to a whole new generation (including my 7-year-old son).

  2. This was an excellent read and time well spent up early in the morning when an over active mind refused to allow me to sleep. I love your blog. It’s so well written and contains so many beautiful words! You make me want to write better.

  3. I like to use “enchiridion”, and if anyone asks what it is, I say it’s Greek for “vade mecum”.

  4. Pingback: The Manual, or Enchiridion – A look at Epicetus’ Stoic Guidebook | The Leather Library

  5. Pingback: The Leather Library / The Manual, or Enchiridion - A look at Epictetus

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