Quote by Epictetus (meaning “It is more necessary to heal the soul than the body, for it is better to die than to live badly”). Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.
I am excited to write this essay on Epictetus today, for I believe he has led one of the most interesting lives among philosophers. One can say that he has truly earned the right to call and consider himself a philosopher, for he used his philosophy to actually overcome the sufferings he faced in his life, thereby proving to everyone that it was practical and effective.
Epictetus himself put it best when he said, “Don’t explain your philosophy, embody it.”
In this essay, we will take a brief look at the life, philosophy, and legacy of Epictetus.
So who was this man named Epictetus whom many of us have heard of? Let me tell you. Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who was born into slavery in the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis, Phrygia (present-day Pamukkale in Western Turkey) around AD 50.
His actual birth name still remains unknown, and his acquired name Epictetus, derived from the Greek word Epiktetos (meaning acquired or gained), can mean the property that is added to one’s hereditary property.
Being born into slavery, Epictetus spent his youth in Rome as a slave to Epaphroditus, a wealthy freedman who was secretary to Emperor Nero. From an early age, Epictetus acquired an interest in philosophy, and with Epaphroditus’ permission, he began studying Stoic philosophy under the tutelage of Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus.
Stoicism not only provided him with the right philosophy and tools to survive as a slave but also gave him an opportunity to raise his social status due to his philosophical education.
Epictetus had a disabled leg, but no one knows for certain how it came to be disabled. Some say he was born disabled, while some believe that his master had broken his leg. The truth, unfortunately, may never be known to us today. All we can be sure of is that while he lived the life of a disabled slave, he continued to find solace in Stoic philosophy, which taught him to deal with his poor and desperate circumstances.
During his time as a slave, he acquired a deep understanding of Stoicism, which no doubt helped him to a great extent to gain inner peace and happiness regardless of the drudgery of his external circumstances. It gave him the ability to be somewhat indifferent and neutral to the sufferings and injustices he was forced to endure, compelling him to focus on his reaction to those events.
Epictetus realized that it was not what happened to one, but how one reacted to it that mattered, and he successfully applied this philosophy to his life.
Now, I admit that this may sound all fancy and easy when merely put in words, but one can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to remain indifferent and unaffected by where his fate had brought him – a disabled slave with no immediate opportunity to gain his freedom. For all he knew, he would have probably ended up spending the rest of his life in slavery, struggling to find peace and solace through philosophy.
However, fate gave him a break from his sufferings, and sometime after the death of Nero in AD 68, Epictetus, aged around 18, gained his freedom at last. He became a freedman and soon began teaching Stoic philosophy in Rome.
For the next 25 years, he continued to teach in this manner until circumstances once again took a turn for the worse.
Around AD 93, when Epictetus was around 43 years old, Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city of Rome, forcing Epictetus to flee to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Upon arriving in Nicopolis, Epictetus established a school to teach philosophy. It was here that his most famous student, Arrian of Nicomedia, began studying under him. Epictetus himself never wrote down his teachings, at least none that have managed to survive until the present day, and if it were not for Arrian who religiously took down notes during Epictetus’ lectures and wrote the famous works Discourses of Epictetus and Enchiridion, we would never have known of his philosophical teachings.
According to Arrian, Epictetus was a powerful and charismatic speaker, who had the ability to induce his listeners to feel just what he wanted them to feel. Arrian considered the Discourses of Epictetus to be on par with the dialogues of Socrates.
Here in Nicopolis, Epictetus lived a simple and ascetic lifestyle with very few material possessions to call his own. He lived alone for most of those years and dedicated his energies to teaching in his school. It is said that in his old age, he adopted a friend’s child who would have otherwise been left to die and raised him with the aid of a woman, to whom he may or may not have been married, no one knows for sure.
During those years of teaching his philosophy in Nicopolis, he began making a name for himself as a philosopher and gained a good reputation which attracted several eminent and influential figures of the time, such as Emperor Hadrian (who became his good friend), to seek him and have conversations with him.
Now let us shift our attention to the teachings of Epictetus as laid down by Arrian in the Discourses.
The Discourses originally consisted of eight books, out of which only four have managed to survive in their entirety, along with a few fragments of the others. The lectures presented in the Discourses take place in Epictetus’ own classroom in Nicopolis, attended by young students such as Arrian who are of high social standing and are considering entering the public service.
In these writings, Epictetus is shown to be conversing with visitors and exhorting, reproving, and encouraging his students. His classes involved the reading and interpreting of Stoic philosophical works, which included logic, physics, and ethics, the three main categories into which Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism) had divided his teachings.
Epictetus’ teaching style is portrayed as being informal, with friendly discourses and conversations with his students. His philosophy also comes across as being intensely practical in nature, focusing on conscious moral problems of right living and how life can be lived well.
The main purpose of his philosophy was to help people live a free and happy life and to achieve this end, he instructs his students to focus their attention on their passions, desires, anxieties, and opinions so that they may never fail to get what they desire nor fall into what they wish to avoid.
Epictetus divided his philosophy into three different fields of training – Desire, Choice, and Assent. He believed that a person who was going to be good and excellent must first necessarily have been trained in these three fields of study.
The primary and most important field is aimed at one’s desires and passions, which, as per Epictetus, were types of impressions that pressed and compelled us, and in order to oppose them continued practice was required.
The second field deals with cases of choice and refusal (that is, in general, meaning duty), so that one may act in an orderly fashion along with good reasons, and not carelessly.
And the third field deals with the avoidance of rashness and error in judgment, that is, with cases of assent.
Epictetus believed that the avoidance of the bad, the desire for the good, the direction towards the appropriate, and the ability to assent or dissent, was the true mark of the philosopher. He espoused the idea of a universal system and said that the true position of a human is being a member of this great universal system. Due to this, humans are inevitably bound by the laws of nature with the whole fabric of the world.
According to Epictetus, human beings are placed by nature in certain relations to other persons, thereby determining our obligations to our parents, children, siblings, friends, relatives, fellow citizens, and to humanity in general.
Therefore, Epictetus directs one to be patient and charitable with the shortcomings of our fellow people and asks one to not grow indignant over them for they too, just like ourselves, are an integral element in the universal system.
This universal system, Epictetus believed, is wholly governed by divine providence, and all things created and all activities that take place in the universe are the will of this all-wise, all-powerful divine providence. Therefore, one must realize and understand that all events that take place, whether good or bad, are necessary and reasonable for the good of the whole. And when one realizes this, one shall feel no discontent with anything outside the control of moral purpose.
Keeping this in mind, Epictetus believed that the purpose and aim of a philosopher are to achieve such a state of mind which embraces the whole world for its good and bad. The preconceptions of good and evil (that good is to be desired and is profitable, while evil is hurtful and must be avoided) are common to all, and these preconceptions when applied to particular cases give rise to different opinions. In this way, people entertain different and conflicting opinions of good, and in their judgment of a particular good, they err and often contradict themselves.
Epictetus taught that this divine providence bestows upon us the soul and reason, measured by sentiments and knowledge and judgments, by which one can attain greatness and even equal the Gods. Therefore, he said, the mind must be carefully cultivated. If one wishes and desires as per the will of God, one shall truly be free and shall accomplish and gain everything one desired.
It is our opinions and principle that make us unhappy, Epictetus taught, and, therefore, one must realize the transitory character of all external advantages even while enjoying them and know that these external advantages do not really belong to us. When one truly realizes this, one will not be carried away by opinions.
This all comes down to an important aspect of his philosophy, that nothing beyond the use of our opinion is properly and truly ours. Therefore, every misfortune, quarrel, complaint, suffering, or any other trouble or loss, is merely an opinion based on the delusion that what is not subject to our own choice can either be good or evil, which is false. One can reject these opinions and seek good and evil in the power of choice alone, which may allow one to achieve peace of mind in every condition of life.
In short, one is not really troubled by the event itself, but by the meaning one gives it or the opinion one chooses to have of it.
The primary object of philosophy is to purify the mind, Epictetus said. And the one task that promises true freedom and peace of mind and command over emotions is that of repelling and rejecting evil and irrational opinions by good and rational reason, for reason alone is good.
One has no power over external things like possessions or glory or power, etc, he said. The only thing in one’s power is one’s opinions, desires, aversions, and impulses, and any delusion regarding this concept can lead to misfortunes, errors, troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.
According to Epictetus, we are not responsible for the ideas that present themselves to our consciousness but we are absolutely and solely responsible for the way in which we use them. The act of choice, as per him, was to choose between the truth or falsity of an external impression, and upon having made such a judgment, to reject the false impression, assent to the true one, and suspend judgment regarding the uncertain.
Only things subject to our choice are good or evil, while the rest are all neutral and indifferent, neither good nor evil, and are beyond our reach. Therefore, such things should not concern us. These choices and opinions that we have in our power are what make us truly free. And if one follows this principle, nothing external such as death or pain or exile or any other suffering can ever force us to act against our will.
Hence, the good that every human must pursue and strive for can only be found within oneself and nowhere else.
Basically, this can all be summed up by the following quote by Epictetus, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Now, I understand that this principle can be quite difficult to practice in reality and is easier said than done. After all, it is not easy for one to consider the death of a close one to mean nothing to them and to not have it affect or trouble one, solely on the premise that the close one’s death was beyond their control and not in their power to prevent.
Although it is true that one cannot really control or predict the hour of death, one is still bound to suffer at its occurrence. Sadness and grief will be felt, no matter how much one tries to apply this principle.
However, in the long run, I am sure that thinking of the event as something natural, inevitable, and beyond our control, can most definitely calm us down and give us more perspective and help us to deal with such loss.
Epictetus did not fail to maintain that the foundation of his philosophy, much like all philosophy, was self-knowledge. Without self-knowledge, one cannot strive for and achieve true happiness and peace of mind. Therefore, the conviction of our ignorance and gullibility should be the first subject of our study.
Sometime around AD 135, Epictetus, aged around 85, died in Nicopolis.
The teachings of Epictetus would go on to have a major impact on the thinkers, philosophers, writers, and leaders of subsequent generations such as Marcus Aurelius, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Baron d’Holbach, etc.
His name and philosophy have been referred to in several works of literature such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe.
Apart from this, Epictetus’ philosophy also influenced psychologist Albert Ellis by providing him with a foundation for his system of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
Through the Discourses, Enchiridion, and other works compiled by subsequent writers and historians, Epictetus’ philosophy has been kept alive and relevant to this very day. Countless translations, interpretations, and versions later Epictetus’ philosophy continues to influence people, providing them with a practical guiding philosophy to embody and live their life in accordance with.
To this day, books on him and his philosophy are discussed, studied, and analyzed in schools, colleges, and universities across the world, thereby influencing a whole new generation of children.
Most importantly, one must not fail to remember that Epictetus did not consider his philosophy to be merely a theoretical discipline to be studied, but a way of life that must be adhered to and embodied in order to attain a happy, peaceful, and meaningful life.
Epictetus is now widely regarded and acclaimed as one of the greatest and most influential philosophers in Western philosophy, even more than Zeno of Citium, the very founder of Stoicism. This feat, no doubt, speaks volumes of his achievements as a philosopher.