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Greek Philosopher: Epictetus

Updated on October 22, 2009

Epictetus was one of the greatest of the Stoic philosophers. Born Phrygia, in Asia Minor, sometime between 50 to 55 AD. He became a slave in Rome, but (like many slaves at that time) he was given a liberal education. He studied under Musonius Rufus, a Stoic philosopher. After completing his studies, Epictetus was granted his freedom.

He established his own school of Stoicism but was banished from Rome with other philosophers about 89 AD by Emperor Domitian because of their opposition to tyranny. Epictetus settled in Nicopolis and spent the rest of his life teaching. His lectures were recorded by his disciple Arrian in Discourses and in Enchiridion.

Epictetus represents a strong link between the classical philosophy of the ancient world and the Christian philosophy that was developing in his time. As a Stoic, he adopted the Aristotelian doctrine of living according to natural law, pursuing the ideal happiness that is not determined by fame, riches, or power.

In Epictetus, this doctrine is expanded into a philosophy in which the conduct of life rather than metaphysical theory is central. The guide to the conduct of life lies in self-control and selflessness and a recognition that the order of the world is a divine order. Therefore, the worship of God and a life of self-control according to the order of nature are only different aspects of the same philosophical commitment. True freedom thus lies not in the manipulation of nature or the control of human affairs but in humbly living a life of service in family and community. Real freedom is virtue, not rebellion or self-assertion.

Epictetus, in typical Stoic fashion, divided his theories into three parts: ethics, physics, and logic. But since for Epictetus ethics is the focus, physics consists not in the mechanics of nature, but rather in a knowledge of the external world that permits men to adjust their desires rightly to the course of natural affairs. For Epictetus, logic is not merely clever disputation (technique) designed to confuse the opposition. Instead, logic is reasoned argument for the purpose of persuading opponents.

The teachings of Epictetus directly influenced Christianity through his writings, which were read by Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was also greatly admired by Marcus Aurelius, who read his Dissertations at an early age. Marcus Aurelius' masterpiece, the Meditations, shows the influence of his early acquaintance with the work of Epictetus.

His belief that all men are the sons of God and that each has a spark of divinity within him led him to teach the universal brotherhood of man. Like most of the later Stoics, Epictetus was concerned primarily with ethics. He held that a moral life does not depend on external conditions, which are outside of human control.

Epictetus believed that a man can attain happiness by curbing excessive desires and by accepting those things that he must endure.

Epictetus died in Nicopolis, in Epirus, Greece, about 130 AD.

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      Linda Myshrall 8 years ago

      A piece like this tends to put life into perspective.

      A lifetime of perhaps seventy five, or so, years is just a blip on the time continuum, and, yet, in one man's short life-time he managed to influence thinking for hundreds of years out. What we do matters, doesn't it?

      It is also striking that men today struggle with the same philosophical questions as did Epictetus... the struggle for peace; within and without. (Shakespeare has this effect on me too).

      I think he had it right, though. I know I am happier when I cease fighting for control, practice humility, and be of service to family, friends, and community. That's where my freedom lives.

      I want to compliment you. This was astonishingly easy to read and crystal clear. This might have been difficult to read were it not so well written.

    • dusanotes profile image

      dusanotes 8 years ago from Windermere, FL

      Thanks, Darkside. Epictetus was a magical guy. It would have been really good to know such a man who was not affected by riches and reputation. I suppose Jesus Christ was such a figure in history as told by the Bible. He was a person we all should emulate. Thanks for putting Hub pages on such a high plane. Don White

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