Epictetus (55 CE–c. 135)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

EPICTETUS
(55 CEc. 135)

Epictetus became a slave of Epaphroditus, himself a freedman who was secretary to Nero. After being freed by his master, Epictetus studied with the Stoic Musonius Rufus, and he taught in Rome until Domitian banished the philosophers in 89 CE. He then established a school in Nicopolis in Epirus, a town in northwest Greece founded by Octavian to commemorate his victory at Actium. Epictetus was lame, perhaps because of his sufferings as a slave, but was a renowned teacher.

Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote nothing, but his pupil Arrian compiled a record of his oral teachings. Four books of these Discourses survive, together with a digest of central points known as the Manual. Although these works reveal that Epictetus taught his students through the careful study of Stoic doctrine (II 13.21, III 16.910), they also make it plain that the goal of philosophical learning is not to be an exegete of Chrysippus (I 4.69, I 17.1318). In fact, the discourses themselves do not offer much exegesis, nor do they often develop heavily theorized explanations, careful distinctions, or involved arguments, as a usual philosophical treatise would. For years, scholars explained this by the hypothesis that Epictetus's teachings fit a particular genre of "diatribes"the Greek title of the Discourses is Diatribai but, because the evidence of such a genre is very thin, the hypothesis is no longer widely accepted.

It now seems, instead, that the discourses simply teach in the ways that Epictetus associates with his three philosophical heroes: They manifest the examining role of Socrates when Epictetus refutes unnamed interlocutors by question-and-answer; they display the rebuking and kingly role of Diogenes the Cynic when Epictetus hectors pupils and exemplifies haughty leadership; and they take on the teaching, doctrinal role of the founding Stoic, Zeno of Citium, when Epictetus offers terse, straightforward principles for the guidance of life (III 21.1819). In all of these ways, the Discourses and Manual are concerned primarily with the concrete task of helping others live better lives.

So, when Epictetus outlines the "three topics" on which a person must train to become good, they are not abstruse philosophical matters or even the broad parts of Stoicism, logic, ethics, and physics. Rather, he insists that one must study, first, desires and aversions; second, impulses, rejection, and in general, appropriate action; and third, infallibility in assent (III 2.12). He counsels that the first step is to extinguish desireto rein in the passions and to free one to do what is appropriate (III 2.34, Manual 2). Epictetus here supposes the Stoic views that passions are defective judgments about what is good and bad for one, and that desire is an impulse for what is good. To eliminate desire, then, is to free oneself from making so many judgments of what is good and bad for one. This freedom from passionate attachments, in turn, frees one to consider coolly what is merely appropriate and act accordingly. Without passions and desires, one lives by weaker impulses, in terms of what is merely appropriate. The last topic is reserved for those who have already made substantial progress in taming their desire and managing their impulses (III 2.5).

This focused deployment of Stoic ideals without the full discussion of logic and physics recalls the Cynics, who traditionally offer the Stoic a "shortcut to virtue." Epictetus does in fact endorse a brand of Cynicism (III 22), and his Stoicism is much more austere than that of, say, Cicero's On Duties. Nevertheless, Epictetus is not hostile to all conventional roles and the activities appropriate to them, and he does not reject logic and physics so much as he keeps the focus away from them in the Discourses, to keep his pupils concentrated on bettering themselves.

Accordingly, the special features of Epictetus's Stoicism serve his practical aim of helping people, and most are probably due more to it than to any doctrinal disagreement with other Stoics. Among these features, perhaps the most prominent is the oft-repeated distinction between what is up to us and what is not. This distinction, which is highlighted in the first sentence of the Manual, tells one to care only for one's mind or soul. Often, Epictetus puts this by saying that our volition (prohairesis ) is up to us (see, for example, I 1.23). Because the word prohairesis is common in Aristotle's ethics but not among early Stoics, who used it to pick out a limited sort of impulse, some scholars see Epictetus's concentrated concern for prohairesis as an especially innovative suggestion of a will, inspired by Aristotle and perhaps by debates about freedom and determinism. But this interpretation is hard to support, for the resources Epictetus uses to explain what he means by prohairesis do not much stretch the boundaries of earlier Stoicism, and the freedom that he connects with prohairesis is just the moral freedom familiar from earlier Stoicism.

Another special feature of Epictetus's Stoicism is its intensely personal theology. Stoics always locate divinity in the cosmos; they attribute the orderly workings of nature to the divine reason in which all humans have a share. Epictetus personalizes all of this. He considers the goal of living to be to follow the god or gods (I 12.5, I 30.4), and he considers himself a servant of god (IV 7.20). Moreover, he refuses the picture of servitude to a distant king: on Epictetus's view, Zeus has stationed a divinity within each of us, a "god within" (I 14.1214, II 8.1214).

According to this thought, which clearly reinforces the emphasis on what is up to us, we all have the resources we need to live well within us. Two additional ways in which Epictetus develops his appeals to our inner resources are among the most innovative features of his Stoicism. For one, he regularly insists that we have capacities of trustworthiness and self-respect that cannot be taken from us (see, for example, I 25.4). This appeal to personal integrity and to an ability to evaluate reflectively what is appropriate to oneself suggests the modern notion of conscience, and it clearly invokes a notion of self-respect (aidôs ) that is distinct from what is attested for earlier Stoics. Epictetus makes another interesting departure from earlier Stoics when he insists that our notions of good and bad and the like are innate (II 11.18). Although earlier Stoics insist that human minds are blank slates at birth, Epictetus encourages us to take heart in our substantial inheritance from the gods.

Epictetus's Stoicism is fully realized for the purpose of encouraging others to progress as Stoics. His articulation of self-reliance has attracted many readers over the centuries, and his subtle moral psychology has deservedly found a wide audience, from the second-century emperor Marcus Aurelius to the sixth-century Neoplatonist Simplicius (who wrote a massive commentary on the Manual ) and from the sixteenth-century neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius to the twentieth-century American prisoner of war James Stockdale.

See also Cynics; Diogenes of Sinope; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; Simplicius; Socrates; Stoicism; Zeno of Citium.

Bibliography

works by epictetus

Dissertationes ab Arriano Digestae, edited by H. Schenkl. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1916.

works by epictetus in translation

The Discourses, as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments. 2 vols., edited and translated by W. A. Oldfather. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19251928.

works by epictetus in partial translation with commentary

Discourses: Book One. Translated, with an introduction and commentary, by R. F. Dobbin. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

works about epictetus

Bönhoffer, A. Epictet und die Stoa. Stuttgart: F. Enke, 1890.

The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. Translated by W. O. Stephens. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

Long, A. A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.

Eric Brown (2005)