Authors: Epictetus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek Stoic philosopher.

c. 55

Hierapolis, Phrygia (now Pamukkale, Turkey)

c. 135

Nicopolis, Epirus (now in Greece)

Biography

The two leading figures of Roman Stoicism, a school of philosophy that posited the existence of divine providence and human brotherhood, occupied opposite ends of the social spectrum: Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was an emperor, Epictetus (ehp-ihk-TEET-uhs), who had preceded him and whose teachings had greatly influenced him, was a slave. The social gulf separating these two individuals gives some indication of just how widespread the appeal of Stoic philosophy was in the troubled years of the second century.

Epictetus.

Because of Epictetus’s low status in society, relatively little is known about his life. Born to a slave woman in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis (now in Turkey), Epictetus is traditionally represented as having been lame, possibly because of mistreatment as a child. Early in his life he became the slave of Epaphroditus (c. 30–95 CE), Nero’s secretary, who is said to have treated him kindly. Sensing Epictetus’s keen intelligence, Epaphroditus allowed Epictetus to attend the public lectures of the influential Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. 30–c. 100 CE) and later set him free. In time Epictetus began to earn his living by offering his own series of lectures in Rome. The rise of the emperor Domitian (51–96 CE) proved disastrous to Epaphroditus and Epictetus alike. Nero’s secretary was killed, probably for his role in helping the emperor to commit suicide, and the philosopher was sent into exile during one of Domitian’s general expulsions of scholars from Rome.

Around the year 90 CE, Epictetus went to Nicopolis in Epirus (northwestern Greece), where he established a philosophical school that became his home for the rest of his life. Because Domitian continued to expel philosophers from Rome, Epirus attracted a large number of scholars trained in logic, physics, and ethics, including many representatives of the Stoic school. Epictetus’s lectures brought him a substantial following, and he created a burst of renewed interest in the philosophical principles of Stoicism during a period of strong imperial resistance to all types of philosophy.

Epictetus married late in life. One of his friends was about to expose an unwanted child and, acting out of humanitarian impulses, Epictetus married a young woman in order to adopt the child and rear it as his own. His house is said to have been simple, furnished with little more than a straw mattress, plain wooden furniture, and an iron lamp. When this lamp was stolen, Epictetus replaced it with one made of earthenware, resolved to make do with even less than before.

Writing no works himself, several of Epictetus's lectures were preserved by his student Arrian (Flavius Arrianus Xenophon). Arrian was also the author of the Anabasis Alexandri (The Campaigns of Alexander), an important history of Alexander the Great’s military expeditions. Arrian took seriously the historical parallel that he had with his namesake, the fourth century polymath Xenophon (c. 428–c. 354 BCE). Just as the earlier Xenophon had written an Anabasis that detailed an expedition of Greek mercenaries to Asia Minor, so did Arrian write his own Anabasis. Just as Xenophon preserved the teachings of Socrates, a philosopher who had left behind no book of his own, so did Arrian record the teachings of a philosopher whose sole medium had been the lecture. Arrian’s Discourses was a collection of Epictetus’s philosophical discussions. Originally written in eight books, only half of them have survived. Encheiridion, which means handbook or manual, is a more systematic summary of Epictetus’s teachings. Because both works are based exclusively upon Epictetus’s philosophy, they are traditionally attributed to the philosopher himself even though they were actually written by his pupil. Arrian’s transcriptions of Epictetus’s teachings are in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, although at least some scholars believe that Epictetus himself may have lectured in the older Attic Greek of Plato and Aristotle.

Both the Discourses and Encheiridion (also known as Manual) are based upon the premise that there is a divine plan for the universe and that it is good. As a result of this initial postulate, Epictetus views human beings as confronted with a choice: They may either accept the divine plan, living in accordance with it, or they may vainly attempt to rebel against it, causing themselves only misery and frustration. Most events of this world are determined by providence and thus are beyond human control. What is under human control is the manner of reacting to the events that occur. By railing against the inevitable and attempting to alter events beyond their control, people merely cause their own unhappiness and waste energy that could be directed toward more fruitful purposes. By accepting the goodness of providence and discovering that there is benefit even in events that appear to be tragic, people can find happiness and assist the deity by advancing the good of all humanity.

Author Works Nonfiction: Diatribai, second century CE (Discourses, 1670) Encheiridion, c. 138 CE (English translation, 1567) Bibliography Arnold, Edward Vernon. Roman Stoicism. 1911. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1971. This book focuses on the Stoics of Epictetus’s era. Chapter 4 discusses Epictetus’s life and influence, and later chapters emphasize his views on religion, morality, duty, and death. Includes a bibliography. Barnes, Jonathan. Logic and the Imperial Stoa. New York: E. J. Brill, 1997. A detailed examination of particular texts from Discourses. Bonhöffer, Adolf F. The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English Translation. Translated by William O. Stephens. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A look at Epicurean thought. Contains a bibliography and an index. Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. 1911. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. An excellent discussion of some of the tenets within Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical thought. Chapter 4, "The Teaching of the Later Stoics," is a thorough discussion of Epictetus’s beliefs and three-stage method of instruction. Contains a time line and a bibliography. Inwood, Brad. Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Traces the development of ethics in Stoics, including Epictetus. The emphasis is on textual analysis and interpretation of key terminology. Includes a bibliography. Lebell, Sharon. A Manual for Living: Epictetus. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. An excellent introduction to the wisdom of Epictetus. This new translation relates his sayings to modern life. Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. A chronological narrative of all Stoic philosophy. Rist discusses Epictetus’s speculation on phenomenology, suicide, and metaphysics. Sandbach, F. H. The Stoics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. An introductory summary of the history of Stoic philosophy that pinpoints areas such as ethics, fate, and logic. Epictetus is granted a section that clearly describes his most significant insights. Includes an annotated bibliography, a glossary of Greek and Latin terms, and a time line. Stadter, Philip A. Arrian of Nicomedia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. A look at the man known for the transcription of Epictetus’s lectures, the only extant examples of Epictetus’s thoughts. Chapter 2 details Arrian’s time as a student of Epictetus. Includes a map that shows Epictetus’s homeland Phrygia, present-day Turkey. Xenakis, Iason. Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist. The Hague, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969. The first book-length commentary published in English devoted solely to Epictetus. Includes a brief biography and a bibliography.

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