Epictetus (Greek: Ἐπίκτητος; ca. 55–ca. 135) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was probably born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his exile to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece, where he lived most of his life and died. His teachings were noted down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses. Philosophy, he taught, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Individuals, however, are responsible for their own actions which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. As part of the universal city that is the universe, human beings have a duty of care to all fellow humans. The person who followed these precepts would achieve happiness.
It is not known how Epictetus obtained his freedom, but eventually he began to teach philosophy at Rome. Around 93 AD Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome, and ultimately, from Italy, and Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded a philosophical school.
His most famous pupil Arrian studied under him as a young man (c. 108 AD) and claims to have written the famous Discourses based on his lecture notes, although some scholars argue that they should rather be considered an original literary composition by Arrian comparable to the Socratic literature. Arrian describes Epictetus as being a powerful speaker who could "induce his listener to feel just what Epictetus wanted him to feel." Many eminent figures sought conversations with him, and the Emperor Hadrian was friendly with him and may have listened to him speak at his school in Nicopolis.
He lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. He lived alone for a long time, but in his old age he adopted a friend's child who would otherwise have been left to die, and raised it with the aid of a woman to help him. He died sometime around 135 AD. After his death his lamp was purchased by an admirer for 3000 drachmae.
Epictetus focused more on ethics than the early Stoics had. Repeatedly attributing his ideas to Socrates, he held that our aim was to be masters of our own lives. The role of the Stoic teacher, according to Epictetus, was to encourage his students to learn, first of all, the true nature of things, which is invariable, inviolable and valid for all human beings without exceptions.
The nature of things is further partitioned into two categories: those things that are subject to our exclusive power (prohairetic things) and those things that are not subject to our exclusive power (aprohairetic things). The first category of things includes judgment, impulse, desire, aversion, etc. The second category of things, which can also be called adiaphora, includes health, material wealth, fame, etc. Epictetus then introduced his students to two cardinal concepts: the concept of Prohairesis and the concept of Dihairesis. Prohairesis is what distinguishes humans from all other creatures. It is the faculty that, according to our own judgments, makes us desire or avert, feel impelled or repel something, assent to or dissent about something. Epictetus repeatedly says that "we are our prohairesis". Dihairesis is the judgement that is performed by our Prohairesis, and that enables us to distinguish what is subject to our exclusive power from what is not subject to our exclusive power. Finally, Epictetus taught his students that good and evil exist only in our Prohairesis and never in external or aprohairetic things. The good student who had thoroughly grasped these concepts and employed them in everyday life was prepared to live the philosophic life, whose objective was ataraxia (an undisturbed and serene state of mind). This meant fully understanding that we should not be affected by the external objects of our lives, because they are exclusively not up to us. This reasoning is in accordance with the knowledge of the true "nature of things," that is, the predetermined and complexly fixed order of the universe and the cosmos. This ataraxia was Epictetus', and the Stoics', ideal model of eudamonia, or "happiness and fulfillment."
The essence of Epictetus's psychology is revealed by two of his most frequently quoted statements:
We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.
I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?
The final entry of the Enchiridion, or Handbook; which is Arrian's anthology of quotes by Epictetus, begins "Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand":
Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever thy decree has fixed my lot.
I follow willingly; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched would I follow still.
(Diogenes Laertius quoting Cleanthes; quoted also by Seneca, Epistle 107.)"
Whoe'er yields properly to Fate is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of Heaven.
(From Euripides' Fragments, 965)
Anytus and Meletus may indeed kill me, but they cannot harm me.
(From Plato's Apology)
The philosophy of Epictetus was an influence on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 to 180 A.D.) whose reign was marked by wars with the resurgent Parthians in southern Asia and against the Germanic tribes in Europe. Aurelius quotes from Epictetus repeatedly in his own work, Meditations, written during his campaigns in central Europe.
The philosophy of Epictetus is well known in the American military through the writings and example of James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam, became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and later a vice presidential candidate. In Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993), Stockdale credits Epictetus with helping him endure seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese military prison - including torture - and four years in solitary confinement. In his conclusion, Stockdale quoted Epictetus as saying, "The emotions of grief, pity, and even affection are well-known disturbers of the soul. Grief is the most offensive; Epictetus considered the suffering of grief an act of evil. It is a willful act, going against the will of God to have all men share happiness" (p. 235).
When Bernard Stiegler was imprisoned for five years for armed robbery in France, he assembled an "ensemble of disciplines" which he called (in reference to Epictetus) his melete. This ensemble amounted to a practice of reading and writing which Stiegler derived from the writings of Epictetus. This led to his transformation, and upon being released from incarceration he became a professional philosopher.
Epictetus is mentioned in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In the fifth chapter of the novel the protagonist Stephen Daedalus discusses Epictetus's famous lamp with a Dean of his college: "-Epictetus also had a lamp, said the dean, which was sold for a fancy price after his death. It was the lamp he wrote his philosophical dissertations by. You know Epictetus? / -An old gentleman, said Stephen coarsely, who said that the soul is very like a bucketful of water. / -He tells us in his homely way, the dean went on, that he put an iron lamp before a statue of one of the gods and that a thief stole the lamp. What did the philosopher do? He reflected that it was in the character of a thief to steal and determined to buy an earthen lamp next day instead of the iron lamp" (pgs. 202-203 of the Penguin Edition). Epictetus reoccurs several times throughout this chapter.
Epictetus is mentioned briefly in Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. At one point Franny says: "I sat and I sat, and finally I got up and started writing things from Epictetus all over the blackboard. I filled the whole front blackboard--I didn't even know I'd remembered so much of him. I erased it--thank God!--before people started coming in. But it was a childish thing to do anyway--Epictetus would have absolutely hated me for doing it--but..."
Epictetus is referred to, but not mentioned by name, in Arnold's sonnet To a Friend. Arnold provides three historical personalities as his inspiration and support in difficult times, (Epictetus is preceded by Homer and succeeded by Sophocles):
Much he, whose friendship I not long since won,
That halting slave, who in Nicopolis
Taught Arrian, when Vespasian's brutal son
Cleared Rome of what most shamed him.
The philosophy of Epictetus plays a key role in the 1998 novel by Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. This was in part the outcome of discussions Wolfe had with James Stockdale (see above). The importance of Epictetus' Stoicism for Stockdale, its role in A Man in Full, and its significance in Gladiator (2000 film) is discussed by William O. Stephens in The Rebirth of Stoicism?
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