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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...

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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

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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 tyrant’s torture. When enjoying anything, one should form the habit of calling up contrary appearances; for example, when embracing one’s child, one should whisper, “Tomorrow you will die.” To overcome passions such as anger, each person should write down every offense in a daybook. These are the concerns that should occupy philosophers’ thoughts. “Study not to die only, but also to endure torture, and exile, and scourging, and, in a word, to give up all which is not your own.” Without such practice, people will not be prepared when unexpected trials descend upon them.

Epictetus liked to speak of the “handles” that things present to people. “Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not.” He cited the example of a man whose brother uses him unjustly: If the man thinks of the injustice, he will not bear it; if he thinks of him as a brother, he will.


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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 implications. One of these is that all people, in virtue of possessing reason, are “sons of Zeus.” Another is that all men are brothers. To the slave owner, Epictetus said, “Will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? . . . Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule, that they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus?” Conversely, the fact that a man happened to wear the emperor’s crown was, in itself, no reason for obeying him. One must examine the stamp on the coin, whether it be that of a Roman emperor such as Trajan—gentle, sociable, tolerant, affectionate—or that of an emperor such as Nero—passionate, resentful, violent.

Just as people have duties toward their fellows, said Epictetus, they have duties toward the gods: “to have right opinions about them, to think that they exist, and that they administer the All well and justly; and you must fix yourself in this principle, to obey them, and yield to them in everything which happens, and voluntarily to follow it as being accomplished by the wisest intelligence.” Epictetus spoke of the place appointed to an individual as being like the role assigned an actor. The actor should not complain about the role, whether it is the part of a lame man or of a magistrate. “For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part belongs to another.” In another figure, he spoke of God as resembling a trainer of wrestlers who matches athletes with suitable partners in order to bring out the best in them. Difficulties, in other words, are designed to test our souls. “For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.” Again he varied the figure: “Every man’s life is a kind of warfare, and it is long and diversified. You must observe the duty of a soldier and do everything at the nod of the general.”

Some of these thoughts seem far removed from the ideal of inner tranquility that Epictetus had as his ultimate goal. “Give me a man who cares how he shall do anything, not for the obtaining of a thing.” Such a passage seems close to the view that urges duty for duty’s sake. However, Epictetus also said that faithfulness is accompanied by the consciousness of obeying God and performing the acts of a wise and good man. What higher peace is there, he asked, than to be able to say, “Bring now, O Zeus, any difficulty that thou pleasest, for I have means given to me by thee and powers for honoring myself through the things which happen”?

Right Thinking

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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 richer than you are, therefore I am better than you.” This is invalid. Nothing follows necessarily from the premise except judgments on the order of “I have more possessions than you.” Epictetus explained the function of inference as establishing assent and that of critical thinking as teaching us to withhold assent from what is uncertain.

Finally, a philosopher needed to learn the art of testing whether particular things are good. According to Epictetus, all people are by nature endowed with common moral conceptions, such as of what is good and what is just, but nature does not teach people to apply these in detail. Individuals begin to be philosophers when they observe that people disagree about what is good or when they cast about for some rule by which they may judge between them. There is no simple rule, but there is what Epictetus called “the art of discussion,” which draws out the consequences of one’s conception so that one may see whether it agrees or conflicts with what one really wants. If it is maintained that pleasure is the good, one should ask such questions as these: “Is the good something that one can have confidence in?” Yes. “Can one have confidence in what is insecure?” No. “Is pleasure insecure?” Yes. Here is the answer: Pleasure is not the good. Epictetus supposed that his art of discussion was the same as Socrates’ dialectic, and he advised his pupils to read Xenophon’s Symposion (late fifth or early fourth century b.c.e.; Symposium, 1750, also known as The Banquet of Xenophon) in order to see Socrates in action and “how many quarrels he put an end to.”

Socrates was one of those held to be “saints” by the later Stoics. Another was Diogenes the Cynic. These men were, in Epictetus’s view, “messengers from Zeus to men about good and bad things, to show them that they have wandered and are seeking the substance of good and evil where it is not.”


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Additional Reading

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.

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