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Epictetus (55-135)

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Epictetus is a Greek word meaning "acquired." The original name of the man known to us as Epictetus (b. ca. A.D. 55; d. ca. 135) is unknown. This stems from the fact that he was born to a slave of one of Nero's bodyguards and became a freedman only later in his life. As a child, Epictetus was influenced by the lectures of the Stoic Musonius Rufus. He developed a deep love of philosophy and of Stoicism in particular, whence his philosophical orientation seems to have stemmed. Epictetus's importance lies in the influence of his thought--recorded in the writings of his student, Flavius Arrianus--on the early Christian church.

Epictetus taught that all human beings have the ability to be happy because man’s nature inherently tends toward virtue and goodness. "What then is a man’s nature? To bite, to kick, and to throw into prison and to behead? No; but to do good, to co-operate with others, and to wish them well."1 This tendency toward good comes from a sort of common moral sense or intuition that each person possesses. ". . . so there are certain things which men, who are not altogether perverted, see by the common notions which all possess. Such a constitution of the mind is named Common sense." 2 However, this intuition by itself is generally not enough. Education (instruction in philosophy) is required to develop reason and logic, the means by which intuition is applied to specific events and by which virtue is put into practice. Also, and perhaps more important, education allows people to recognize what matters are under their control and what matters are not. Individuals need to recognize that they can actually control only their own judgment and will. Only through education can one properly apply intuition, carry virtue into practice, and attain true judgment and a right will. In this scheme, Epictetus argued, one should focus on will and judgment, accepting the premise that all other matters are under divine control. Given control of one's own virtue, all that is necessary is to will one's self toward the good and eschew evil and sin.3 Because sin is simply a perversion of will, it is within every person's power to overcome sin through the proper exercise of will. Other than one's own will and judgment, the individual must accept fate and the role of God in all matters. The essential congruence of this philosophy with Christian doctrine is striking, and much of Epictetus's philosophical teaching was incorporated into Christianity.

 


 

Endnotes

[1] Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, in Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1988), 12:220 [4.1.2122].

[2] Ibid., p. 182 [3.6.8]

[3] Ibid., p. 238 [4.9.16-17]

Bibliography

Works by the Author

Epictetus of Hierapolis. Epictetus, the discourses as reported by Arrian, The Manual and Fragments. Vols. 1 & 2. Translated by W. A. Oldfather. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1928.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. The Discourses of Epictetus. Translated by T.W. Rolleston. Mt. Vernon: Peter Pauper Press of Mt. Vernon, 1950.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. The Enchiridion. New York: Little Library of Liberal Arts, 1948.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. The Book of Epictetus. London: George G. Harrap & Co., Inc., 1910.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. Epictetus, His Morals, With Simplicius His Comment. 2d ed. Translated by George Stanhope. London: Richard Sare at Gray's Inn Gate, 1731.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. Upon, Joannis Epictetus Accurate Expressum, Glasgaue. Academiae Typographi, 1758.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers. Edited by W. J. Oates. New York: Random House - Modern Library, 1940.

Epictetus of Hierapolis. The Works of Epictetus. 2 vols. Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1891.

Last modified April 10, 2014