Home: Hieropolis, Phyrgia
Religious Outlook: Pantheism
Influence: Epictetus’ fame in the second century is noted by a number of ancient sources, being hailed as the greatest of the Stoics (Aulus Gellius 1.2.6) and more popular than Plato (Origen Contra Celsus 6.2). Epictetus directly influenced Cicero, Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who were all major players in Roman thought and politics. Today, Epictetus has a profound influence on modern psychology. His works are a direct precursor of modern rational-emotive psychology. He also predated the "post-modernist" movement by about 1900 years.
Greatest achievement: Like other stoics, Epictetus is famous for spreading the truism that while man cannot control what ills may befall him from his environment, he can control his reactions to these terrible events.
Surviving works: It's quite likely that he wrote none. However, his words were written down by his students in various texts. His doctrines have been preserved in the Encheiridion (Handbook) and the four surviving books of Discourses of Epictetus.
Epictetus is the Greek Stoic philosopher who emphasized freedom, morality, and humanity. He taught philosophy in Rome until he was exiled by Emperor Domitian in AD 90. Epictetus asserted that humans are limited and irrational beings, but that the universe/God ruled only through pure reason and is therefore perfect. Because human beings can neither know nor control their destiny, they must cease striving for the attainment of worldly ends and calmly accept their powerlessness before fate. The heart of this philosophy is today found in rational-emotive therapy, which teaches us the ABCs, according to Epictetus: an Activating event creates a Belief over which we have some Choice. The secret is that it's not the activating event or the choice that we can control - it's the belief. If we can only change how we view events, we can make ourselves bear anything.
Epictetus' Humble OriginsEdit
Epictetus was born a Roman slave. The historian Origen relates an famous anecdote about Epictetus which tells us much about the fortitude of Epictetus: One day, when Epictetus was working as a slave in the fields chained to an iron stake, his master approached him with the idea of tightening his leg shackle. Epictetus suggested that making the shackle tighter was not needed to keep him from running away, but would merely break his leg. Epictetus's master ignored him and proceeded to tighten the shackles. Epictetus smiled and quietly said, "You will break it". When his master did break it, Epictetus only observed, "Did I not tell you that you would do so?" Epictetus did not protest or give any sign of distress. His master asked him why, and was told that since the leg was already irreversibly broken, there was really no point in getting upset about it.
Some historians say that his master was so impressed by this demonstration of unflappability that he eventually set Epictetus free, and sent him away with money so he could become an itinerant philosopher. Some historians argue this - saying it makes a great story, but is not necessarily fact. However it went down, Epictetus at some point was free, and he eventually went to Rome to philosophize.
In his later years, Epictetus led a life of exemplary contentment, simplicity, and virtue, practicing the morality which he taught. He lived in a small hut for a long while, with no other furniture than a bed and a lamp, and without an attendant. He benevolently adopted a child whom a friend had been compelled by poverty to give up; he also hired a nurse to look after the child. Epictetus was the most dominant teacher of Stoicism during the period of the Roman Empire. His lessons were principally, if not solely, directed to practical morality. His favorite maxim, and that into which he resolved all practical morality, was "bear and forbear,". He appears to have differed from the Stoics on the subject of suicide, which he condemned. According to the historian Origen (c. Cels. 7,ad. init.), his style was superior to that of Plato. It is a proof of the estimation in which Epictetus was held, that on his death, his lamp was purchased by an admirer for 3000 drachmas (several thousand dollars by today's standards).
While it is uncertain if Epicteus ever wrote, his Discourses were taken down by his pupil Arrian, and published after his death in eight books, of which four remain. Arrian also compiled the Euchiridion or "manual," an abstract of the teaching of his master, and wrote a life of Epictetus, which is lost. Some fragments have been preserved, however, by Stobaeus. Simplicius has also left an eclectic commentary on his doctrine.
The Main Concepts of Epictetus' PhilosophyEdit
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have accepted this fundamental rule, and learned to distinguish between what you can and cannot control, that inner tranquillity and outer effectiveness become possible. This today is incorporated into the Alcoholic prayer - or soriety (sic) prayer - "Grant me the power to change what I can change, accept what I cannot, and to know the difference."
The True Cause of Emotional Woes
What happens to us - the things in themselves - don’t bother us. How we view things and people, and how we interpret outcomes, is what causes us woe. It is our own attitudes and reactions that are at fault. We cannot always choose our external circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them.
Legislating for the world
Circumstances do not arise to meet our desires or expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave according to their own inclinations and what they are faced with — which we may not even be aware of. Don’t try to make your own rules that the world is supposed to follow. That is a recipe for frustration. Exercise what influence you can, then accept what you actually get and make the most of it.
Nothing to lose
Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Everything, including one's own life, is on loan from the world. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, "I have lost it," and instead say, "It has been returned to where it came from." The important thing is to take great care of what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes care of a room at an inn.
We are creatures of habit, reacting automatically to events as they happen. It thus matters greatly what our habits are. They are mostly a matter of practice. The oftener we do something, and the more circumstances in which we do it, the more it becomes a habit. Therefore, to make something a habit, do it. To make something not a habit, don’t do it. To change a habit, do something else instead.
Epictetus' Methods of Study - The Three topoi ('Areas')Edit
Central to Epictetus’ philosophy is his method of study. He suggests that the apprentice philosopher should be trained in three distinct areas or topoi (see Epictetus Discourses 3.2.1-2):
Desires and aversions
Impulses to act and not to act
Freedom from deception, hasty judgement, and confusing value-laden observations for objective observations.
These three areas of training correspond to the three types of philosophical discourse referred to by earlier Stoics; the physical, the ethical, and the logical/epistemlogical (see Diogenes Laertius 7.39). For Epictetus, it is not enough merely to discourse about philosophy. The student of philosophy should also engage in practical training that allows the philosopher to transform philosophical principals into actions. Only this will enable the apprentice philosopher to transform himself into the Stoic ideal of a wise person or sage (sophos). It is to this end that the three topoi are directed and it's clearly for this reason, amongst others, that the Romans praised Epictetus over Plato. (This ideal was fulfilled in the personage of Marcus Aurelius - see my entry on him.)
The first topos concerns the conflict between what we desire the world to be and what it actually is. It is not enough for the philosopher to know how Nature works; he must train his desires in the light of that knowledge so that he only desire what is in harmony with Nature - what is real. For the Stoic, Nature is a complex inter-connected physical system, identified with God (pantheism), of which the individual is but one part. What might be called the practical implication of this conception of Nature is that an individual will inevitably become frustrated and unhappy if they desire things without taking into account the operations of this larger physical system. Thus, in order to become a Stoic sage – happy and in harmony with Nature – one must train one’s desires in the light of a study of Stoic physical theory.
The second topos concerns the conflict between impulse and ethics. The Stoic training to be a sage seeks to translate theories of ethics into ethical actions. In order to transform the way in which one behaves, it is necessary to train the impulses that shape one’s behavior. By so doing the apprentice philosopher will be able not merely to say how a sage should act but also to act as a sage should act.
The third topos concerns the conflict between 'assent' and logic (and epistemlogical validity). According to Epictetus every impression that an individual receives often includes a value-judgement made by the individual. When an individual accepts or gives assent to an impression, assent is often given to the value-judgement as well. For instance, when one sees someone drink a lot of wine, one often judges that they are drinking too much wine (see e.g. Epictetus Handbook 45). Epictetus suggests that, in the light of Stoic epistemological theory, the apprentice philosopher should train himself to analyze his impressions carefully and be on guard not to give assent to unwarranted value-judgements. This viewpoint neatly summarizes postmodernism, save for the postmodernist's claim that all views are value-laden.
For Epictetus, then, the student of philosophy must not only study the three types of philosophical discourse but also engage in these three types of philosophical training or exercise in order to translate that theory into actions.
For more on Epictetus' philosophy, read The Golden Sayings of Epictetus here.