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Works by Epictetus


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Epictetus (c.55–c.135) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was probably born at Hierapolis, Phrygia, and lived most of his life in Rome until his exile to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece, where he died. The name given by his parents, if one was given, is not known - the word epiktetos in Greek simply means "acquired."

Epictetus spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a very wealthy freedman of Nero. Even as a slave, Epictetus used his time productively, studying Stoic Philosophy under Musonius Rufus. He was eventually freed and lived a relatively hard life in ill health in Rome. It is known that he became crippled, owing to cruel treatment by his master, Epaphroditus, according to most reports. He was exiled along with other philosophers by the emperor Domitian sometime between 89 and 95.

It was Epictetus' exile by Domitian that began what would later come to be the most celebrated part of his life. After his exile, Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis, Greece, where he founded a famed philosophical school. This school was even visited by Hadrian, and its most famous student, Arrian, became a great historian in his own right.

True to Stoic form, Epictetus lived a life of great simplicity, marked by teaching and intellectual pursuits. Some claim that he married once, late in life, to help raise a child who would have otherwise been left to die. Others say that he did not marry, and that he had no children.

Demonax supposedly rebuked Epictetus' exhortation to marry by sarcastically asking whether he could marry one of the philosopher's daughters.

Epictetus' main work is The Discourses, four books of which have been preserved complete (out of an original eight). A popular digest, entitled the Enchiridion--or "Handbook"--also survives. These were not written by Epictetus himself, but were penned by his pupil Arrian. In a preface to the Discourses, addressed to Lucius Gellius, Arrian states that "whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech."

Epictetus focused on ethics to a greater extent than the early Stoics had. 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 live the philosophic life, whose end was eudaimonia (‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’), to be secured by living the life of reason, which meant living virtuously and living ‘according to the will of nature’.

Epictetus' doctrine recognized two categories of influences to life, distinguishing between those under human control and those outside thereof (adiaphora). The first category includes aspects like ambition or animosity; the latter health, fame or property. He concludes that positive or negative interpretation of personal circumstances emerging from uncontrollable facts is an act of free will. Stoicism is the state of recognition that such facts cannot affect life.
Texts by Epictetus, included in our collection:
Discourses - Book II | Discourses - Book III | Discourses - Book IV | Discourses - Book I | Golden Sayings | The Enchiridion |
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