Epictetus Additional Biography


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Epictetus’ ethical system identified areas where personal freedom and individual responsibility coexisted with a deterministic universe. His approach resembled that of earlier Stoics: The purpose of life is happiness, which is reached through conformity with a pantheistic natural order. Reason makes the good life possible by disclosing those things that are beyond human power and those that are not. Environmental forces such as health and status belong to Providence; freedom and responsibility operate in matters of opinion, aim, and desire. Attempts to dominate outside forces produce frustration and unhappiness. Disciplined impulses directed toward proper ends bring liberation, establish a proper relationship between the self and the cosmos, allow the exercise of responsibility toward others, and benefit society. Much of Epictetus’ work consisted of practical advice on controlling and directing impulses. His school at Nicopolis, in Epirus, presented Stoicism as a way of life as well as a set of general principles. Epictetus’ austere, subjectivist ethics inspired later Roman stoics and reinforced stoic elements in Christianity. His approach to the problems of freedom and dependence also influenced later systems of natural religion and rationalistic philosophical movements such as Kantian idealism.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The two leading figures of Roman Stoicism, a school of philosophy that posited the existence of divine providence and human brotherhood, occupied opposite ends of the social spectrum: Marcus Aurelius (121-180 c.e.) was an emperor, Epictetus (ehp-ihk-TEET-uhs), who had preceeded him and whose teachings had greatly influenced him, was a slave. The social gulf separating these two individuals gives some indication of just how widespread the appeal of Stoic philosophy was in the troubled years of the second century.

Because of Epictetus’s low status in society, relatively little is known about his life. Born to a slave woman in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis (now in Turkey), Epictetus is traditionally represented as having been lame, possibly because of mistreatment as a child. Early in his life he became the slave of Epaphroditus (c. 30-95 c.e.), Nero’s secretary, who is said to have treated him kindly. Sensing Epictetus’s keen intelligence, Epaphroditus allowed Epictetus to attend the public lectures of the influential Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. 30-c. 100 c.e.) and later set him free. In time Epictetus began to earn his living by offering his own series of lectures in Rome. The rise of the emperor Domitian (51-96 c.e.) proved disastrous to Epaphroditus and Epictetus alike. Nero’s secretary was killed, probably for his role in helping the emperor to commit suicide, and the philosopher was sent into exile during one of Domitian’s general expulsions of scholars from Rome.

Around the year 90 c.e., Epictetus went to Nicopolis in Epirus (northwestern Greece), where he established a philosophical school that became his home for the rest of his life. Because Domitian continued to expel philosophers from Rome, Epirus attracted a large number of scholars trained in logic, physics, and...

(The entire section is 808 words.)