Even though he was born a slave in Heirapolis and endured a
permanent physical disability, Epictetus
would become one of the most influential philosophers of the classical
As a boy he somehow came to Rome as a slave of Epaphroditus who
later sent him to study philosophy under Musonius Rufus, a renowned
Stoic philosopher. He was instructed in the traditional Stoic
curriculum of logic, physics and ethics and after eventually gaining
his freedom, he went on to pursue a life of thinking and teaching
philosophy in a school he founded in Nicopolis.
As an ardent admirer of Socrates
and whose ideas he drew from, like Socrates, Epictetus never wrote
a word. It's through his pupil Arrianus, who took extensive notes
during his lectures and later published them, that we have the Discourses,
and Encheiridion or Manual.
Epictetus focused more on ethics than the early Stoics had and
understood the philosophy as a code of conduct. Along with all other
philosophers of the Hellenistic period, he saw moral philosophy as
having the practical purpose of guiding people towards leading better
lives. The aim was to live well and effectively.
Epictetus felt that our aim was to be masters of our own lives. He
noted that we are part body and part mind or spirit and since the body
often leads us astray we must practice self-discipline and rational
thinking. He emphasized indifference to external goods and taught that
we should not become too attached to our transitory lives.
He also taught that we can live a calm and disciplined life if we
learn to accept certain things as they are. Even though we lack
control over external events or circumstances, we have the ability to
think or feel freely.
For Epictetus the cultivation of reason was the chief end in life.
A life of reason results in the happiest life possible because the
pleasures of the mind are both the most reliable and the most
enjoyable that a human being can experience. Life would be pointless
In Epictetus' philosophy scholars encountered the practical side of
Stoicism. This same quality is also what has made him so popular
throughout the centuries.
His influence is evident in the writings of the famous Roman
Aurelius and Blaise Pascal called Discourses one of
his two favorite books. St.
Augustine mentions Epictetus favorably in City of God
while most collections of great literature include the Discourses
in their catalogue.
Epictetus' philosophy is about learning to live, learning to cope
with adversity and learning to be a responsible human being. Unlike
many philosophers, he was able to express his message plainly and
concisely without proselytizing. It is no wonder his work has survived
through the centuries and is still relevant today.