Epictetus, a figure synonymous with wisdom and resilience, has left an indelible mark on Stoic philosophy. Born into slavery, his journey to becoming one of the most revered Stoic philosophers is a testament to the transformative power of Stoicism.
In this post, we delve into the life, teachings, and enduring impact of Epictetus, offering insights into his enduring wisdom that continues to resonate in today’s world.
Early Life and Enslavement:
Epictetus was born around 55 AD in Hierapolis, Phrygia, located in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. He was born into slavery and served in the household of Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to the Emperor Nero. Despite his enslaved status, Epictetus was permitted to study philosophy under Musonius Rufus, a renowned Stoic philosopher of his time.
Emancipation and Teaching:
After gaining his freedom following Nero's death, Epictetus began to teach philosophy in Rome around 89 AD. He established his own philosophy school, disseminating the principles of Stoicism to a broad audience. His teachings emphasized personal virtue and wisdom as the path to true freedom, insisting that external circumstances do not define one's character or internal state.
Exile and Legacy:
In 93 AD, Epictetus, along with other philosophers, was banished from Rome by Emperor Domitian. He relocated to Nicopolis in Greece, where he continued to teach and attract a diverse array of students until his retirement. Although Epictetus wrote nothing himself, his devoted student Arrian documented his teachings in the esteemed works, the "Enchiridion" and the "Discourses."
Core Philosophical Beliefs:
Epictetus's philosophy is characterized by a profound understanding of human nature and a focus on personal responsibility. He believed that individuals have control over their own actions, reactions, and judgments but little to no control over the world around them.
- Acceptance of Fate: Epictetus emphasized accepting events as they come and recognizing the natural order of the world.
- Internal Freedom: He taught that true freedom is attained not by changing the world, but by changing one's reactions and perceptions of it.
- Virtue and Moral Character: Epictetus believed that virtue is the highest good and that one’s moral character is the only true source of happiness.
The "Enchiridion," also known as the "Handbook," is a concise manual of Epictetus’s Stoic ethical advice, compiled by his student Arrian. This work distills Epictetus’s teachings on personal ethics, virtue, and self-control, providing practical guidance for navigating life's challenges. It is a profound source of wisdom on maintaining tranquility and moral integrity in the face of external turmoil.
For a deeper exploration of Epictetus's practical advice and ethical teachings, read our summary of the Enchiridion here.
The "Discourses" is a more expansive collection of Epictetus’s teachings, also recorded by Arrian. This work delves deeper into Stoic philosophy, elucidating on the nature of life, human responsibility, and the path to true freedom. The "Discourses" provides richer, more nuanced insights into Epictetus's philosophy and serves as an essential read for those seeking to understand the depth of his thoughts on Stoicism.
If you wish to delve further into the detailed teachings of Epictetus and understand the essence of his philosophy, read our guide on his Discourses here.
Impact on Stoicism and Modern Relevance:
Epictetus’s teachings have profoundly shaped Stoic philosophy and continue to inspire individuals seeking wisdom and tranquility in a tumultuous world. His ideas on acceptance, personal responsibility, and internal freedom are particularly relevant in today’s fast-paced and often unpredictable environment.
By embracing Epictetus’s wisdom, modern seekers can find solace and strength, learning to navigate life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.
This underscores the Stoic principle of controlling our reactions to external events and maintaining our composure.
He who fears death will never do anything worth of a man who is alive.
Epictetus emphasizes living fully and courageously without the fear of death overshadowing our actions.
Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it.
He stresses the importance of living by one’s principles rather than merely talking about them.
We should always be asking ourselves: ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’
This reminds us of the Stoic practice of discerning between what we can and cannot control to maintain tranquility.
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
Here, Epictetus emphasizes clarity in one’s goals and consistent action towards achieving them.
You can read more quotes from Epictetus here and quotes from the Enchiridion here.
Epictetus, from the shackles of slavery to the realms of philosophical enlightenment, embodies the transformative essence of Stoicism. His life and teachings are a beacon of light for those exploring the paths of virtue, wisdom, and inner freedom. As we reflect on his enduring legacy, Epictetus’s insights offer a timeless guide, leading us towards a life of contentment and moral integrity.