Introduction to Epictetus
Epictetus was born into slavery circa 55 CE in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that human beings cannot control life only their responses to it. By putting into practice the witty, wise, and razor-sharp insights and instructions that make up the surviving works of Epictetus one can learn to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace. Epictetus taught in Rome until the year 94 CE when Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from the city. In exile, he established a school of philosophy where his distinguished students included Marcus Aurelius who was the author of Meditations and became the Roman Emperor. Almost 1900 years after his death people are still turning to Epictetus for a source of inspiration.
Epictetus was a lecturer who left no philosophical writings. Fortunately, the main points of his philosophy were preserved for future generations by his devoted pupil, the historian Flavius Arrian. Arrian painstakingly transcribed a large number of his teacher’s lectures in Greek for a friend. These lectures known as the Discourses or (Diatribes), were originally collected in eight books, but only four have survived. Epictetus’s lectures are among the major sources for our present-day understanding of Roman Stoic philosophy.
Epictetus’s Manual (or Enchiridion) is a pithy set if excerpts selected from the Discourses that forms a concise summary of Epictetus’s essential teachings. It was roughly modeled on military manuals of the day and thus shares some of the bold simplicity of such classics as The Art of War. (Soldiers even carried the Manual into battle.) Across centuries and cultures, world leaders, generals, and ordinary folk alike have relied on the Manual as their main guide to personal serenity and moral direction amid the trials of life.
One of the reasons why Epictetus has enduring appeal is that he was not fussy about distinguishing between professional philosophers and ordinary people. Epictetus staunchly believed in the necessity of training for the gradual refinement of personal character and behavior. Moral progress does not belong to the highborn, nor is it achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself constantly moment to moment, day to day.
Epictetus would have had little appreciation for the aggressive position-taking and defending and verbal pirouettes that unfortunately sometimes pass for “doing” philosophy in today’s university. As a master of succinct explanations, he would have similarly suspicious of the murky verbiage found in academic, philosophical, and other dry texts. He passionately denounced displays of cleverness for its own sake, he was committed to non-patronizing explanations of helpful ideas for living your life well. He considered himself successful when his ideas were grasped easily and put to use in someone’s real life, where they could actually do good elevating that person’s character.
Epictetus undoubtedly understood the eloquence of action. He exhorted his students to shun mere clever theorizing in favor of actively applying his teachings to the concrete circumstances of daily life. Epictetus tried to express kernels of thought in a provocative way, one that will inspire others not only to contemplate but make the small, successive changes that culminate in personal dignity and a meaningful, noble life.
The Spirit of Epictetus
How do I live a happy, fulling life?
How can I be a good person?
Answering these two questions was the single-minded passion of the great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. He was as single-minded as a single mind could be. His works have become less well known today, due to the decline of classical education, they have had enormous influence on leading thinkers on the art of living for almost 2000 years.
As was mentioned earlier Epictetus was born a slave circa 55 CE in Hierapolis, Phrygia, in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. His master was Epaphroditus, Nero’s administrative secretary. Even in his youth, it was readily apparent that Epictetus exhibited superior intellectual talent, and Epaphroditus was so impressed that he sent the young man to Rome to study with the famous Stoic teacher, Gaius Musonious Rufus. Rufus’s works, which survive in Greek, include arguments in favor of equal education for women and against the sexual double standard in marriage, and thus Epictetus’s famous egalitarian spirit may have been nurtured under his tutelage. Epictetus became Musonius Rufus’s most acclaimed student and was eventually freed from slavery.
Epictetus taught in Rome until 94 CE when the emperor Domitian, threatened by growing influence of philosophers, banished him from Rome. He spent the rest of his life in Nicopolis, on the northwest coast of Greece. There he established a philosophical school and spent his days delivering lectures on how to live with greater dignity and tranquility. Among his most distinguished students was the young Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who eventually became ruler of the Roman Empire. He was also the author of the famous Meditations, whose Stoic roots were in Epictetus’s moral doctrines.
Even though Epictetus was a brilliant master of logic and disputation, he didn’t flaunt his exceptional rhetorical skill. His demeanor was that of a lighthearted, humble teacher urging his students to take the business of living wisely very seriously. Epictetus walked his talk; He lived modestly in a small hut and eschewed any interest in fame, fortune, and power. He died circa 135 CE, in Nicopolis.
Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs. His was a moral teaching stripped of sentimentality, piousness, and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. What remains is the West’s first and best primer for living the best possible life.
While many people have turned to Eastern sources for nonsectarian spiritual guidance, the West has had a vital, if overlooked, classic treasury of such helpful action-wisdom all along. One of the wittiest teachers who ever lived, Epictetus’s teaching rank with those contained in the greatest wisdom literature of human civilization. The Discourses could be thought of as the West’s answer to Buddhism’s Dhammapada or Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Those who fault Western Philosophy with being overly cerebral and inadequately addressing the non-rational dimensions of life may be surprised to learn that Epictetus’s philosophy is actually a philosophy of inner freedom and tranquility, a way of life whose purpose is to lighten our hearts.
An unexpectedly, East-West flavors enlivens his teachings. On the one hand, his teachings are unmistakably Western: It exalts reason and is full of stern, no-nonsense moral directives. On the other hand, a soft Easterly wind seems to blow when Epictetus discusses the nature of the universe. His depiction of Ultimate Reality, for instance, which he equates with Nature itself, is remarkably fluid and elusive: startling reminiscent of the Tao.
For Epictetus, a happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous. Happiness and personal fulfillment are the natural consequences of doing the right thing. Unlike many philosophers of his day, Epictetus was less concerned with seeking to understand the world than identifying specific steps to take in the pursuit of moral excellence. Part of his genius is his emphasis on moral progress over the seeking of moral perfection. With a keen understanding of how easily we human beings are diverted from living by our highest principles, he exhorts us the view the philosophical life as a progression of steps that gradually approximates our cherished personal ideals.
Epictetus’s notion of the good life is not a matter of the following a laundry list of precepts, but of bringing our actions and desires into harmony with nature. The point is not to perform good deeds to win favor with the gods or the admiration of others but to achieve inner serenity and thus enduring personal freedom. Goodness is an equal opportunity enterprise, available to anyone at any time: rich or poor educated or not. It is not the exclusive province of “spiritual professionals” such as monks, saints, ascetics, or mystics.
Epictetus advanced a conception of virtue that was simple, ordinary, and day-to-day in its expression. He favored a life lived steadily in accordance with the divine will over extraordinary, conspicuous, heroic displays of goodness. His prescription for the good life centered on three main themes: mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.
Epictetus recognized that everyday life is fraught with difficulties of varying degree. He spent his life outlining the path to happiness, fulfillment, and tranquility, no matter what one’s circumstances happen to be. His teachings, when freed of their ancient cultural trappings, have an uncanny contemporary relevance. At times, his philosophy sounds like the best of the contemporary psychology. The Serenity Prayer which epitomizes the recovery movement--- “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” could easily be a motto of Epictetus. In fact, Epictetus’s thought is one of the roots of the modern psychology of self-management.
In other important ways, however, Epictetus is very traditional and uncontemporary. Whereas our society, (practically, if not always explicitly) regards professional achievement, wealth, power, and fame as desirable and admirable, Epictetus views these as incidental and irrelevant to true happiness. What matters is what sort of person you are becoming, what sort of life you are living.