A brief introduction
The period of composition
Written in Greek by an unknown author, the consensus of scholars now holds that this dramatic dialog was composed in the first century A.D. Its theoretical background is clearly stoic, and the Cebes of the title is not the Cebes who appears in Plato’s ‘Phaedo’.
The meaning of the work
First of all I must duly inform the reader that this dialogue is a highly dangerous thing, because it’s a matter of life or death. Anyone who runs into it will actually experience what Oedipus experienced when, on his way to Thebes, he ran into the Sphinx.
This dialogue and the explanation that it contains are highly dangerous matters, because if the reader pays attention and understands what is said, he is, or is destined to become, a wise and happy man; otherwise he already is, or is destined to remain, an unwise, unhappy, bitter and uncultured human being and will live very badly. The reason for this is that the explanation is similar to the riddle that the Sphinx propounded to people. If one was able to understand it and gave the right answer, he was saved; otherwise, he perished at the Sphinx’s hand.
The same thing holds true with regard to this explanation. For Foolishness is like a Sphinx to people. The ‘Table of Cebes’ hints like in a riddle at what is good, at what is bad and at what is neither good nor bad in life. He who does not understand these things perishes at Foolishness’ hand; not at once, like the one who died devoured by the Sphinx, but ruined little by little during his entire existence, like people handed over to an endless punishment. If, on the contrary, he understands these things, Foolishness dies whilst he is saved and becomes blessed and happy for life. The reader is therefore invited to pay the utmost attention and not misunderstand what is said.
On the other end, it’s difficult to understand ‘The Table of Cebes’ if one is not acquainted with my translation of the works of Epictetus. The concepts of ‘proairesis’ and of ‘diairesis’, of ‘culture’ (that is ‘education to diairesis’) and of ‘pseudoculture’ (that is ‘education to all other kinds of knowledge’), of ‘human being’ and of ‘man’, of ‘happiness’ and of ‘unhappiness’, of ‘virtue’ and of ‘vice’, of ‘good’, of ‘bad’ and of ‘oudeterous’ find, in this dialogue, a pictorial representation of amazing and everlasting up-to-dateness, in the explanations that an old man gives to some foreigners about the meaning of a painting on a wooden panel that stood in an ancient temple of Cronus.
Dealing with a work of rather small size, I did not need to prepare a true Index Verborum, and a reasonable amount of page-border notes has been enough to make my translation possible.
Unlike ‘The Diairesis tree’, which is the faithful recording of Epictetus’ live talking, this ‘The Table of Cebes’ is a literary text. Granted my scrupulous care in translating all the key-words endowed with philosophical relevance, I am aware that I have not refrained from taking those liberties of style that the nature of the text allowed me to take.
The present translation has been carried out using the Greek text published by D. Pesce in: ‘La Tavola di Cebete’ Paideia Editrice, Brescia 1982, in the series ‘Antichità classica e cristiana’. This text is basically a reproduction of the critical edition of the ‘Cebe’s painting’ prepared by K. Praechter (Teubner, Lipsia 1893). I have introduced only one minor variation.
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