Epictetus - Biography
Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He practiced and taught his Stoicism about four hundred years after the institution of Stoic belief with Zeno was established in Athens and taken up by a few other notable Stoics including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. As with many ancient philosophers, many of Epictetus' writings and teachings come to us through second hand and it is greatly debated whether the writings we have are written by Epictetus' own hand or by his pupil, Arrian. Whether or not they were explicitly recorded by one or the other, the partial works that survive of Epictetus' are entitled the Discourses and the Encheiridion or, in Enlglish, the Handbook.
'Epictetus' was probably not the name that this Stoic philosopher was given at birth as the Greek 'epiktetus' means 'acquired' a term that would have applied to him as he was a slave during his youth. He was born in Hierapolis, a Greek city in Phrygia within Asia Minor and owned by Epaphroditus, an administrator in Nero's court. They mostly resided in Rome although there was a point when Epaphroditus had to leave due to conflict but probably returned when Domitian came into power. The position of his master may have been what allowed Epictetus to study some with Musonius Rufus, who taught the Stoic school of philosophy as well as held a position as a Roman senator. At some point, Epictetus gained his freedom and began to teach philosophy. When Domitian banished the philosophers from Rome (89 AD), Epictetus left and built his own school in Nicopolis in Northwest Greece. His school was popular among well-to-do Romans (one being Flavian Arrian who was instrumental in preserving Epictetus' teachings) and Origen claims that the popularity of Epictetus in his own time surpassed that of Plato.
The Byzantine scholar, Photius, records that there are eight books in the Discourses which would mean that what we have to study from Epictetus' teachings are incomplete. The nature of the Discourses in their seemingly haphazard arrangement of topics, however, doesn't preclude an estimation that there are in fact missing pieces since the picture they paint appears rather complete in itself. The Discourses handle subjects of varying types from fear to illness to poverty to anger. This is in part due to Epictetus' take on philosophy, that (like many Stoics) philosophy is a way to live a proper life, to better one's life and achieve eudamonia – happiness or sometimes translated as flourishing. The Encheiridion is practice of this for-everyday-life approach as it is a distillation of the teachings in the Discourses. This Handbook or Manual served as just that for Christians and Pagans for centuries and included aphoristic takes on his practical philosophy. The opening of the Encheiridion outlines the major tenet of Epictetus' teachings:
Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement towards a thing, desire, aversion, turning from a thing; and in a word, whatever are our acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance; but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then, that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men; but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another's, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.
This paragraph outlines the major structure of Epictetus’ application of philosophy. Like many Stoics and other philosophers of the Hellentistic period, he expounded a moral philosophy that was directed towards the use to better one’s life. Philosophy was to be used on a practical basis and the teachings of the Stoics often turned toward moral consultation although this rarely was a means for judgment as it was more of a set of guidelines to achieve eudomonia. The main emphasis of morality for Epictetus was to be a rational mortal creature. By the use of 'rational' Epictetus meant to highlight the capacity (prohairesis) that human beings have to reflect upon their impressions. As in the above paragraph, there are things that we can change and things we can't. What a person can change is internal and the things that are not changeable are external. For instance, if something were to frighten a person, the fear is not bad or good, but how he chooses (this capacity of choice being prohairesis) to react can be favorable or unfavorable for himself and others. The something that was frightening is not necessarily 'good' or 'bad' either. A passage from 5 in Encheiridion that elucidates this follows:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.
Epictetus is one of the important Stoics, to be sure, but the evidence of his direct influences is unknown. He does specifically mention Chrysippus and works by Zeno as well as a couple of other founding Stoics, but he may have developed some of his strong Stoic philosophy on his own. Another possibility for his intellectual background is the shorter works of Plato, especially the Gorgias dialogue as well as possible studies of Aristotle since Epictetus' term for the capacity of choice, prohairesis, is one that Aristotle used in ethical discourse that we have available to us today. As for concurrent schools of Cynicism and Epicureanism, Epictetus found Cynicism to be more of a vocation and way of life rather than being able to lay down a doctrine and Epicureanism to centered on the pleasure principle.