Epictetus Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Epictetus revived early Greek Stoicism, emphasizing tolerance of pain and the freedom of the soul. His teachings were admired by early Christians, who found them consonant with their own reactions to persecution.

Early Life

Epictetus was born a slave around the year 55 in the commercially significant city of Hierapolis between the rivers Maeander and Lycus in the country of Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), which was the eastern stretch of the Roman Empire. His master, Epaphroditus, was a freed slave who worked under Emperor Nero as an administrative secretary. The name Epictetus is Latin from the Greek word for “acquired,” and Epictetus’s master may have given him this name as a joke about his slave status, or it may have been a nickname Epictetus either chose or accepted.

Epictetus was a frail, bashful, feeble man who had a pronounced limp. Some observers claimed he was only weakened late in life with rheumatism or that he had always walked with a limp. A legend persists, however, that Epaphroditus once twisted Epictetus’s leg in anger. The fledgling Stoic warned his master that he would break the leg by using so much force. The leg then broke, and Epictetus merely noted that he had been correct.

Slaves were prevalent in the late Roman Empire, and masters often educated or trained their slaves to be tutors or craftspeople in order to rise in prestige among their peers. Epaphroditus took Epictetus to Rome while he was still a minor so that he could attend lectures by the most prominent Stoic teacher of the time, Musonius Rufus, who was imprisoned for the crime of being wise, according to the writer Philostratus. According to Epictetus, Rufus was an overbearing, intense lecturer who held the class’s attention by making each student feel chastised for having great ignorance.

Epictetus continued to serve under Epaphroditus, who allegedly accompanied Nero when he was forced to flee Rome in the year 68. Epaphroditus then assisted Nero in his suicide, and for this crime, the new emperor Domitian had him killed some time before the year 89. At his master’s death, Epictetus was presumably freed, although no record of a manumission exists. He remained in Rome until around the year 94, when Domitian exiled all philosophers and teachers from Italy. The reason for this action is usually seen as Domitian’s fear of their influence on Romans’ minds and his belief that intellectuals favored republicanism over a dictatorship. Epictetus subsequently left Rome and settled in Nicopolis in Epirus on the northwest coast of present-day Greece, where he founded a Stoic school for elite young men that soon became large and famous.

Life’s Work

Epictetus spent the rest of his career as a teacher in Nicopolis, making short visits to Athens and Olympia. A contemporary of Plutarch and Tacitus, he wrote nothing, perhaps in acknowledgment of his hero Socrates, whom he emulated by questioning people in the streets before founding his school. Many of his lectures and conversations, however, were recorded by one of his students, Arrian of Nicomedia, who prepared an eight-book transcription of lectures entitled Discourses (only four books of which are extant) and a shorter list of aphorisms from the Discourses entitled Encheiridion (manual). Arrian wrote down the lectures when he was a student around the age of twenty during the years around 110 and published his work after Epictetus’s death after he noticed unauthorized copies in circulation. The delay was occasioned by the supposed subversive nature of Epictetus’s lectures. Arrian also wrote a biography of Epictetus, which has since been lost.

Epictetus read from the writings of Stoics, and he would assign papers on technical Stoic subjects, which would be read and criticized in class. Epictetus’s classes, however, were usually characterized by informal discussions in which he would try to shock the students and encourage them to argue with him. Students observed that he had a strong personality and was an enthusiastic lecturer. Epictetus would relate homilies as he taught ethics, and he constantly brought up current events or well-known recent historical events to show examples of human behavior. Sometimes he would relate anecdotes about himself, his master, or other people he knew to prove a point. When presented with a recalcitrant class, Epictetus would forgo arguing with his students and create dialogues in which he would argue with himself. Because some of the dialogues concern visitors from Rome speaking with Epictetus, some scholars have suggested that Epictetus would not have private conversations with these visitors, but that he would argue with them in front of the class for Arrian to record. Others claim that Arrian fictionalized these dialogues, though he wrote using the Greek dialect in which Epictetus spoke, a dialect different from that in which Arrian usually wrote, indicating their probable authenticity.

Because of the nature of Epictetus’s lectures, many readers find it hard to determine when Epictetus is being truthful to his own beliefs and when he is inventing a ridiculous argument that he intends to refute. For example, Epictetus is generally believed not to condone suicide except in extreme cases, yet at one point, he advocates suicide rather than having one’s beard cut off. After careful study, however, some consistent beliefs do emerge. Epictetus taught as if education were defined as a painful alteration of attitudes. He taught his students to be independent. He wanted to guide their natural sense of the good into a mature acknowledgment of virtue, with ethical actions determined through the use of...

(The entire section is 2346 words.)