Context (World Philosophers and Their Works)
As far as is known, Epictetus left no philosophical writings. The Discourses is a transcription of some of his lectures made by a pupil, Arrian. Originally there were eight books, of which only four are known to modern scholars. The Encheiridion, a condensed selection from the Discourses, was also composed by Arrian. The Encheiridion is a good summary of Epictetus’s main doctrines, but the Discourses is rewarding for the vivid picture it calls up of Epictetus as a teacher. It catches the vigor and warmth of a wise and witty man in the act of informally expounding his philosophy. He wore his technical equipment lightly as he answered questions concerning practical difficulties, pointed out dangers in contemporary customs, and delivered short homilies suggested by current events.
For Epictetus, the goal of philosophy was not so much to understand the world as to achieve the good life, which, for him, consisted of inner tranquillity. The Stoics, of whom he was a representative, had a well-developed philosophy of nature, based on the Heraclitean doctrine that Logos, or Reason, governs all change. They were also competent logicians. However, their chief interest lay in personal ethics, to which they applied a knowledge of physics and logic. Inner serenity, they held, consists of conforming to nature (following reason) or discovering and living by the truth. Epictetus alluded to logic from time to time but rarely mentioned philosophy of nature. When he spoke of philosophy, he meant “philosophy of life.” In his view, the philosopher is the wise person.
Epictetus noted three stages in the achievement of the good life. The first concerns mastering one’s desires; the second, performing one’s duties; and the third, thinking correctly concerning one’s self and the world. He complained that students are prone to neglect the first two, which are the most important, and to overvalue the third because they are less concerned with achieving moral excellence than with gaining a reputation as disputants. As a result, the world is flooded with vain, passionate, fault-finding people who have so little self-mastery that a mouse can frighten them to death; yet they boast the name of philosopher.
Mastery of Desires (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Epictetus put the mastery of desires first because he regarded the main business of philosophy to be the achievement of a tranquil mind. In his view, all perturbations are the result of a disproportion between people’s wills and the external world. The natural person supposes that happiness is possible only when the external world comes up to the individual’s expectations. Philosophers know that this condition rarely exists and that if people build on any such hope, they are doomed to endless sorrow, which in turn leads to envy and strife. Instead of trying to bring the world up to their desires, people should bring their desires to the level of actuality. Happily, this is quite within the realm of possibility because people’s wants are in their power, although external things are not.
In effect, philosophers tell themselves that things that are not in their power are matters of indifference, and all that matters is the use they can make of these things. Philosophers may be exiled—that they cannot prevent—but does any person hinder them from going with a smile? They must die—but must they die lamenting? Their legs may be fettered—but not even Zeus can overpower their will.
Epictetus recognized the difference between saying these things and doing them, and he sought various means of inculcating the habits of self-mastery. One should daily write and meditate on extreme situations, such as how to comport oneself if subjected to a...
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Duties (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The second of Epictetus’s main concerns was duty. It was an important part of his teaching that a human being is not a detached entity but part of a whole. In a passage that is quite similar to one in the writings of Saint Paul (1 Cor. 12), Epictetus compares man to one of the organs of the human body: “Do you know that as a foot is no longer a foot if it is detached from the body, so you are no longer a man if you are separated from other men? For what is a man? A part of a state, of that which first consists of gods and men; then of that which is called next to it, which is a small image of the universal state.” The whole duty of humankind is inscribed here. A human being is, as Epictetus liked to say, “a citizen of the world” and, unlike the lower animals, is not one of the subservient parts but “one of the principal parts, for you are capable of comprehending the divine administration and of considering the connection of things.” The lower creatures fulfill their functions without knowing what they do. It is the prerogative of humankind to understand the “connection of things,” and in these connections lie an individual’s duties.
“Duties,” Epictetus said, “are universally measured by relations.” Among the most important for the ordinary person he listed “engaging in public business, marrying, begetting children, venerating God, taking care of parents, and generally, having desires, aversions, pursuits of things and avoidances, in the way in which we ought to do these things, and according to our nature.” The Cynics, who were in some respects the predecessors of the Stoics, used to place nature and society in opposition and to make a great issue of obeying the former and flouting the latter. That the Stoics of Epictetus’s day should see their way to including society as part of nature is noteworthy.
However, Epictetus was not ready simply to follow conventional conceptions as to what people’s duties are. The view that an individual was a citizen of the cosmos before that person was a citizen of Rome has important...
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Right Thinking (World Philosophers and Their Works)
The third stage in the education of a philosopher, in Epictetus’s program, concerns the discipline of logic and disputation. Because right thinking is a prerequisite both to the rational control of appetite and to discovering one’s duty to God and humankind, it is imperative that every individual should study to avoid “deception and rashness of judgment.” However, how far formal logic is necessary for this purpose was, for Epictetus, an open question. Mostly, logic was useful in debating with Sophists and rhetoricians—and with Epicureans. A knowledge of elementary fallacies seemed to him sufficient for most purposes.
Of the problems that arise in connection with moral judgments, three were particularly noticed by Epictetus. The first had to do with right names. If man’s duty is prescribed by relations, it is important to see things as they are. “Does a man bathe quickly? Do not say that he bathes badly, but that he bathes quickly.” The right name puts the thing in the right light. Like Confucius in his Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861), Epictetus urged his disciples to consider what is meant by “father,” “son,” “man,” and “citizen.” Right names disclose true relations.
Similarly, inferences should be studied, so that people do not conclude from a proposition more than it really says. Epictetus used as an example the inference “I am...
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Bibliography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Arnold, Edward Vernon. Roman Stoicism. 1911. Reprint. New York: Arno, 1971. This book focuses on the Stoics of Epictetus’s era. Chapter 4 discusses Epictetus’s life and influence, and later chapters emphasize his views on religion, morality, duty, and death. Includes bibliography.
Barnes, Jonathan. Logic and the Imperial Stoa. New York: Brill, 1997. A detailed examination of particular texts from Discourses.
Bonhèoffer, Adolf F. The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English Translation. Translated by William O. Stephens. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A look at Epicurean thought. Contains a bibliography and index.
Hicks, R. D. Stoic and Epicurean. 1911. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. An excellent discussion of some of the tenets within Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptical thought. Chapter 4, “The Teaching of the Later Stoics,” is a thorough discussion of Epictetus’s beliefs and three-stage method of instruction. Contains time line and bibliography.
Inwood, Brad. Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Traces the development of ethics in Stoics, including Epictetus. The emphasis is on textual analysis and interpretation of key terminology. Includes bibliography.
Lebell, Sharon. A Manual for Living: Epictetus. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. An excellent introduction to the wisdom of Epictetus. This new translation relates his sayings to modern life.
Rist, J. M. Stoic Philosophy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. A chronological narrative of all Stoic philosophy. Rist discusses Epictetus’s speculation on phenomenology, suicide, and metaphysics.
Sandbach, F. H. The Stoics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. An introductory summary of the history of Stoic philosophy that pinpoints areas such as ethics, fate, and logic. Epictetus is granted a section that clearly describes his most significant insights. Includes annotated bibliography, glossary of Greek and Latin terms, and time line.
Stadter, Philip A. Arrian of Nicomedia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980. A look at the man known for the transcription of Epictetus’s lectures, the only extant examples of Epictetus’s thoughts. Chapter 2 details Arrian’s time as a student of Epictetus. Includes a map that shows Epictetus’s homeland Phrygia, present-day Turkey.
Xenakis, Iason. Epictetus: Philosopher-Therapist. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969. The first book-length commentary published in English devoted solely to Epictetus. Includes a brief biography. Chapters discuss Epictetus’s view on practical living, logic, religion, values, ethics, and the study of human personality and behavior, thus connecting his observations with modern psychology. Includes bibliography.