views updated Jun 11 2018


A younger contemporary of St. Paul, b. Hicropolis of Phyrigia, c. a.d. 55; d. c. 130. He was taken as a slave boy to Rome by Epaphroditus, a servant of the Emperor Nero, and sent to study under M. Rufus, the Stoic. As a freedman Epictetus opened his own school, but in a.d. 90 he was exiled with all the philosophers of Rome by domitian. He went to Nicopolis of Epirus near the Ionian Sea; and although Hadrian lifted the ban in 117, Epictetus remained in Asia till his death. Arrian, his devoted pupil, prepared and published his class notes as eight Discourses. Four are extant along with a summary, the Enchiridion, and some fragments. There is no trace of Christian influence in his thought although he certainly knew of the "Galileans" (Disc. 4.7). Among the ancients who admired him are M. Aurelius, origen, St. augustine, and St. gregory of nazianzus. His influence on Christian thought has been subtle and profound.

Philosophy begins, for Epictetus, when one realizes the enormous confusion among men about right and happy living. Trained men are unanimous in ideas such as right angles and halftones, to which the ignorant lay no claim. But since everyone is born with some notion of what is good or bad, fine or shameful, right or wrong, each one acts according to his own private impressions as if he knew all. So the philosopher must go in search of what is common to all, the universal basis of judgment, the universal good. He will find it in his own will ultimately, for good and evil are determined by what he can control. Everything else is neutral. The universal good is the truth about human freedom; the essence of good and evil lies in the attitude of the will (Disc. 2.92). Men are slaves while ignorant of the true nature of their psychic impressions and their sphere of power; when they choose according to what seems to be, nature resists them and they are frustrated. Men are free when they choose according to the true nature of things; e.g., they cannot resist death, but they can die in peace.

Epictetus's course was divided into three stages similar to the earlier Stoic division into ethics, physics, and logic. The first teaches how to have one's desires in accord with reason, i.e., the right attitude of mind toward external things and events. The second teaches how to conform one's actions to the order of divine providence manifest in creatures. The third stage, for proficients, is a rigorous training in logic to ensure unerring judgment against sophisms and fallacies.

Bibliography: Works. The Discourses with the Encheiridion and Fragments, tr. g. long (New York 1890); Complete Extant Writings in Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. w. j. oates (New York 1940). Literature. a. jagu et al., Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire (Paris 1932) 4.1:822854. m. spanneut, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum (Stuttgart 1950) 5:599681, bibliog. 678681. r. d. hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (New York 1910). d. s. sharp, Epictetus and the N.T. (London 1914). b. l. hijmans, Askesis: Notes on E.'s Educational System (Assen, Neth. 1959). w. a. oldfather, Contributions toward a Bibliography of Epictetus (Urbana, Ill. 1952).

[m. j. giacchi]


views updated Jun 27 2018


c. 55 c.e.–c. 135 c.e.


Source of Stoicism.

Given the small number of surviving writing by the early Stoics, the works of Epictetus take on a particular importance as a major source of modern knowledge of Stoicism. He wrote nothing himself, but he was fortunate enough to have as a student Flavius Arrianus, or Arrian as he is usually known. Arrian was a Roman citizen who served as governor of the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor under the emperor Hadrian (117–135 c.e.). He transcribed the Discourses of Epictetus, which seem to have been conversations between Epictetus and his students after the formal lectures were over for the day. It is hard to believe that they are an actual stenographic record of what Epictetus said, though it is not impossible, for a man of standing such as Arrian might well have had at his disposal a slave trained in shorthand. There is one shred of evidence that would indicate that the Discourses do represent the actual words of Epictetus; another work of Arrian—a history of Alexander the Great—differs markedly in literary style from that of Epictetus' Discourses, indicating that two different authors are responsible.

From Slave to Philosopher.

Epictetus was born in Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale in Turkey) and as a boy he went to Rome as a slave where he was purchased by a secretary of the emperor Nero named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was himself an ex-slave who had gained his freedom and rose through the ranks of the imperial civil service until he became the official in charge of receiving petitions for his master, the emperor Nero. There were stories told that he treated Epictetus cruelly; he did, however, allow him to attend the lectures of the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. During his mid-twenties, shortly after the suicide of Nero in 68 c.e., Epictetus was manumitted, thereby becoming a freedman. It was then that Epictetus began his own lecturing and philosophizing, much of it focusing on the Stoic philosophy. About 89 c.e. the emperor Domitian expelled the philosophers from Rome, including Epictetus who migrated to Nicopolis in north-west Greece, an area that attracted many upper-class Romans including Arrian. Although there were originally eight books of Epictetus' Discourses, only four survived to record the philosopher's thoughts for posterity. A manual of personal conduct for the adherent to Stoic doctrine, the Enchiridion, also survived, giving readers a synopsis of the key themes of Epictetus' teaching.


A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002).

William O. Stephens, "Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14 (1996): 193–210.


views updated May 29 2018


Epictetus (ca. 50-ca. 135) was a Greek philosopher who believed that man should concern himself only with what he can control and suffer what he cannot influence.

Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis, Asia Minor. Early in life he was brought to Rome and, while still a slave, was sent by his master Epaphroditus (probably the famous freedman of Nero) to study under the Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus. Some time after the death of Nero (68) Epictetus was freed. He had a physical disability from an early age, and one ancient source suggests that this was the result of brutal treatment received while he was a slave.

Perhaps as a result of criticizing the tyranny of Emperor Domitian, Epictetus along with other philosophers was expelled by the Emperor, probably in 89. He settled in the town of Nicopolis in Epirus, and soon people from all over the Roman world were coming to hear him. One of these was apparently Emperor Hadrian, another was the young Arrian, the future historian.

Epictetus seems to have lived in great simplicity and abstemiousness. Whether he ever married is in doubt; one late source says he married in old age so as to have help in bringing up a child whom its parents were about to abandon.

Philosophical Teachings

Though one source says that Epictetus wrote a good deal, nothing is extant; instead there are four books of Discourses, written by Arrian from lecture notes, and a synoptic version of his basic teaching, called the Manual, also written by Arrian.

Epictetus's philosophical and religious beliefs, drawn from Musonius Rufus, are a combination of Stoicism and Cynicism. Man can achieve complete freedom (specifically from pain, fear, and passion) if he confines his desires (positive and negative) to areas laid down by nature and by what lies within his power. Anything outside of these limits should be "indifferent" and of no concern. The world is under the control of providence, and the good man will consequently acquiesce in all events beyond his control. Within the specific realm of "what is in his power," man is free in an unqualified sense and completely responsible for his own moral progress or regress. Any harm done to his mind, or real self—the body is of negligible importance—is self-inflicted; in this sense he is the master of his fate.

Further Reading

Percy E. Matheson edited and translated, as well as wrote the introduction for, Epictetus: The Discourses and Manual (trans., 2 vols., 1916). There is a short biography of Epictetus in Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (1883; trans. 1890; 13th rev. ed. 1931). For the philosophical background see Ludwig Edelstein, The Meaning of Stoicism (1966). □


views updated May 21 2018


Mid first to second centuries c.e.

Slave, stoic philosopher


Practical Philosopher. Epictetus was born in Phrygia in the middle of the first century c.e. and taken to Rome, where he was sold as a slave. He was later freed and studied philosophy under Gaius Musonius Rufus the Stoic. When the emperor Domitian banished philosophers from the city in 89 c.e., Epictetus went across the Adriatic Sea to Nicopolis on the west coast of Greece and established his school there. His disciple Arrian published his teachings, contained in the Discourses and the shorter Manual. Epictetus was very much a practical philosopher. He argued that philosophy must be applied in daily lives, not undertaken as an abstract study only. The moral choices one makes, how one comes to terms with those things that are not in their power, how one forms their character, these were the issues that most concerned Epictetus. On these points Epictetus looked back to Panaetius as his model. In many ways the Stoicism of Epictetus was highly compatible with the tenets of early Christianity, and had considerable effect on the future emperor Marcus Aurelius.


Jonathan Barnes, Logic and the Imperial Stoa (Leiden & New York: E. J. Brill, 1997).

Adolf Friedrich Bonhöffer, The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English Translation, translated by William O. Stephens (New York: Lang, 1996).

Lason Xenakis, Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969).