I still can find these in old record stores and at antique stores. They were big in the 50’s and during the Memory Wars.
An acquaintance of mine recently got me a copy of the Enchiridion, containing recorded teachings of the stoic philosopher Epictetus. As I have no acquaintance with his works, I expect it to be informative – but I want to talk about the delight I take in the book’s name.
As I understand it (between the book and quick research), “enchiridion” translates roughly as “a thing in the hand” or “something you hold in one hand.” It usually applies to two things – a manual or a dagger.
When referring to a book, it implies a manual, a concise guide – something small enough to hold with one hand while you read it. That take on the word reminds me of how many books I like are essentially manuals. The Tao Te Ching, The Secret of the Golden Flower, and of course many small publications in my library. “A useful thing that fits in one hand” gives the feeling of conciseness, focus, and a lack of epehemra.
Enchiridion also means a one-handed dagger or sword – a term I was not familiar with and have mostly seen used in games if at all. It’s also an understandable use of the term – a weapon that fits in one hand.
Both takes put me in mind of a single word – tool. Either use of the term Enchiridion implies something simple, focused, and useful.
This reminded me of how books, pamphlets, and zines can be made so they’re tools. Focused, precise, useful – and not over large. A book can overstay it’s welcome, or one book is best as several. A good manual, an Enchiridion if you will, should be something that does the job, just like the term meant a book that fit in one hand (before tablets, that’s cheating).
It’s OK to write something small. One of Epictetus’ students did, and it’s survived to this day, so I can sit here and ruminate on the very name it holds
Go write yourself your own Enchiridion, your own special tool for people.
Around 2003, remarking upon the all the mystical and meditative books available, I said “someone could probably achieve enlightenment on their own.” The remarkable rare texts, deep analyses, and thoughtful translations were stunning to me. No monk, magician, or meditator could match what we could get with a trip to the right bookstore, a catalog, and a few clicks online.
This is not to say it would be easy – one would need dedication and research. One could doubtlessly make mistakes, as I did examining various Taoist practices (let’s just say physical pain and leave it at that). This is also not to say that learning from a person is inferior, it’s merely that enlightened teachers seemed in short supply. But the knowledge was there, and it was impressive and humbling.
At least one could get pretty far along, I’d figure.
(The fact I am of the opinion there is an identifiable form of enlightenment is something for another time, of course. I like to keep these columns of a reasonable size).
As time went on, I came to realize that even if I was right – and I arrogantly assume I am more likely right than not – it’s gotten harder because of all the damn stuff out there.
How much could a seeker dig up that is Theosophy wearing a funny hat and carrying a fake ID? What books are out there that are merely well-designed rehashes, Robin Hood’s barn’s of meditation and contemplation? How much is manipulative near-criminal bullshit designed to pull you into a very criminal cult – or help you found one?
Then you’re up to your armpits in podcasts, TikTok videos, and people trying to sell you something! There’s distractions beyond books – and things that may be helpful that look like distractions! Even if Sturgeon’s law wasn’t true, it’d all be more than a bit much.
It makes me understand why some sages and such grab a pile of books and high-tail it to a shack. Or the modern equivalent, which I guess is a studio apartment.
For modern seekers of spiritual knowledge, sincere people who want to learn and grow and attain some kind of Enlightenment, you can’t rely on the market. You have to research and talk, be skeptical and test, and above all walk that line of skepticism and enthusiasm. We’ve given the spiritual seekers all the tools the could need, and scattered them inside a junkyard.
In many ways, this just reveals the value of having fellow spiritual seekers to work with and consult with. We need people to talk to, to recommend things to us and to recommend things to. We need people to sort through the bullshit for us and with us, people we can trust.
Any enlightened teachers out there are probably pretty busy not just teaching but helping people avoid and filter bullshit on a level unseen in history.
Maybe it’d make them harder to recognize because they’re helping clean up the trash.