Epictetus (born c. a.d. 60), Greek philosopher, was probably a native of Hierapolis in south-west Phrygia. The name Epictetus is merely the Greek for “acquired” (from ἐπικτᾶσθαι); his original name is not known. As a boy he was a slave in the house of Epaphroditus, a freedman and courtier of the emperor Nero. He managed, however, to attend the lectures of the Stoic Musonius Rufus, and subsequently became a freedman. He was lame and of weakly health. In 90 he was expelled with the other philosophers by Domitian, who was irritated by the support and encouragement which the opposition to his tyranny found amongst the adherents of Stoicism. For the rest of his life he settled at Nicopolis, in southern Epirus, not far from the scene of the battle of Actium. There for several years he lived, and taught by close earnest personal address and conversation. According to some authorities he lived into the time of Hadrian; he himself mentions the coinage of the emperor Trajan. His contemporaries and the next generation held his character and teaching in high honour. According to Lucian, the earthenware lamp which had belonged to the sage was bought by an antiquarian for 3000 drachmas. He was never married.
The philosophy of Epictetus is intensely practical, and exhibits a high idealistic type of morality. He is an earnest, sometimes stern and sometimes pathetic, preacher of righteousness, who despises the mere graces of style and the subtleties of an abstruse logic. He has no patience with mere antiquarian study of the Stoical writers. The problem of how life is to be carried out well is the one question which throws all other inquiries into the shade. True education lies in learning to wish things to be as they actually are; it lies in learning to distinguish what is our own from what does not belong to us. But there is only one thing which is fully our own,—that is, our will or purpose.
God, acting as a good king and a true father, has given us a will which cannot be restrained, compelled or thwarted. Nothing external, neither death nor exile nor pain nor any such thing, can ever force us to act against our will; if we are conquered, it is because we have willed to be conquered. And thus, although we are not responsible for the ideas that present themselves to our consciousness, we are absolutely and without any modification responsible for the way in which we use them. Nothing is ours besides our will. The divine law which bids us keep fast what is our own forbids us to make any claim to what is not ours; and while enjoining us to make use of whatever is given to us, it bids us not long after what has not been given. “Two maxims,” he says, “we must ever bear in mind—that apart from the will there is nothing either good or bad, and that we must not try to anticipate or direct events, but merely accept them with intelligence.” We must, in short, resign ourselves to whatever fate and fortune bring to us, believing, as the first article of our creed, that there is a god, whose thought directs the universe, and that not merely in our acts, but even in our thoughts and plans, we cannot escape his eye.
In the world the true position of man is that of member of a great system, which comprehends God and men. Each human being is in the first instance a citizen of his own nation or commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy in miniature. All men are the sons of God, and kindred in nature with the divinity. For man, though a member in the system of the world, has also within him a principle which can guide and understand the movement of all the members; he can enter into the method of divine administration, and thus can learn—and it is the acme of his learning—the will of God, which is the will of nature.
Man, said the Stoic, is a rational animal; and in virtue of that rationality he is neither less nor worse than the gods, for the magnitude of reason is estimated not by length nor by height but by its judgments. Each man has within him a guardian spirit, a god within him, who never sleeps; so that even in darkness and solitude we are never alone, because God is within, our guardian spirit. The body which accompanies us is not strictly speaking ours; it is a poor dead thing, which belongs to the things outside us. But by reason we are the masters of those ideas and appearances which present themselves from without; we can combine them, and systematize, and can set up in ourselves an order of ideas corresponding with the order of nature.
The natural instinct of animated life, to which man also is originally subject, is self-preservation and self-interest. But men are so ordered and constituted that the individual cannot secure his own interests unless he contribute to the common welfare. We are bound up by the law of nature with the whole fabric of the world. The aim of the philosopher therefore is to reach the position of a mind which embraces the whole world in its view,—to grow into the mind of God and to make the will of nature our own. Such a sage agrees in his thought with God; he no longer blames either God or man; he fails of nothing which he purposes and falls in with no misfortune unprepared; he indulges in neither anger nor envy nor jealousy; he is leaving manhood for godhead, and in his dead body his thoughts are concerned about his fellowship with God.
The historical models to which Epictetus reverts are Diogenes and Socrates. But he frequently describes an ideal character of a missionary sage, the perfect Stoic—or, as he calls him, the Cynic. This missionary has neither country nor home nor land nor slave; his bed is the ground; he is without wife or child; his only mansion is the earth and sky and a shabby cloak. He must suffer stripes, and must love those who beat him as if he were a father or a brother. He must be perfectly unembarrassed in the service of God, not bound by the common ties of life, nor entangled by relationships, which if he transgresses he will lose the character of a man of honour, while if he upholds them he will cease to be the messenger, watchman and herald of the gods. The perfect man thus described will not be angry with the wrong-doer; he will only pity his erring brother; for anger in such a case would only betray that he too thought the wrong-doer gained a substantial blessing by his wrongful act, instead of being, as he is, utterly ruined.
He wrote nothing; but much of his teaching was taken down with affectionate care by his pupil Flavius Arrianus, the historian of Alexander the Great, and is preserved in two treatises, of the larger of which, called the Discourses of Epictetus (Διατριβαί), four books are still extant. The other treatise is a shorter and more popular work, the Encheiridion (“Handbook”). It contains in an aphoristic form the main doctrines of the longer work.
Epictetus wrote nothing; and all that we have under his name was written by an affectionate pupil, Arrian, afterwards the historian of Alexander the Great, who, as he tells us, took down in writing the philosopher’s discourses (“Epistle of Arrian to Lucius Gellius,” p. i). These Discourses formed eight books, but only four are extant under the title of [Greek: Epichtaeton diatribai].
Of all the faculties (except that which I shall soon mention), you will find not one which is capable of contemplating itself, and, consequently, not capable either of approving or disapproving. How far does the grammatic art possess the contemplating power? As far as forming a judgment about what is written and spoken. And how far music? As far as judging about melody. Does either of them then contemplate itself? By no means. But when you must write something to your friend, grammar will tell you what words you should write; but whether you should write or not, grammar will not tell you. And so it is with music as to musical sounds; but whether you should sing at the present time and play on the lute, or do neither, music will not tell you. What faculty then will tell you? That which contemplates both itself and all other things. And what is this faculty? The rational faculty; for this is the only faculty that we have received which examines itself, what it is, and what power it has, and what is the value of this gift, and examines all other faculties: for what else is there which tells us that golden things are beautiful, for they do not say so themselves? Evidently it is the faculty which is capable of judging of appearances. What else judges of music, grammar, and the other faculties, proves their uses, and points out the occasions for using them? Nothing else.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson¶
The little book by Epictetus called Enchiridion or “manual” has played a disproportionately large role in the rise of modern attitudes and modern philosophy. As soon as it had been translated into the vernacular languages, it became a bestseller among independent intellectuals, among anti-Christian thinkers, and among philosophers of a subjective cast. Montaigne had a copy of the Enchiridion among his books. Pascal violently rejected the megalomaniac pride of the Stoic philosopher. Frederick the Great carried the book with him on all campaigns. It was a source of inspiration and encouragement to Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, in the serious illness which ended only in his death; many pages of his diaries contain passages copied from the Enchiridion. It has been studied and widely quoted by Scottish philosophers like Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson who valued Stoic moral philosophy for its reconciliation of social dependency and personal independence.
There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.
Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.
Aiming, therefore, at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, toward the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.
Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Epictetus wrote nothing; and all that we have under his name was written by an affectionate pupil, Arrian, afterwards the historian of Alexander the Great, who, as he tells us, took down in writing the philosopher’s discourses (“Epistle of Arrian to Lucius Gellius,” p. i). These Discourses formed eight books, but only four are extant under the title of [Greek: Epichtaeton diatribai]. Simplicius, in his commentary on the [Greek: Egcheiridion] or Manual, states that this work also was put together by Arrian, who selected from the discourses of Epictetus what he considered to be most useful, and most necessary, and most adapted to move men’s minds. Simplicius also says that the contents of the Encheiridion are found nearly altogether and in the same words in various parts of the Discourses.
Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion ([Greek: hupolaepsis]), movement towards a thing ([Greek: hormae]), desire, aversion ([Greek: echchlisis]), turning from a thing; and in a word, whatever are our acts. Not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. And the things in our power are by nature free, not subject to restraint or hindrance; but the things not in our power are weak, slavish, subject to restraint, in the power of others. Remember then, that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men; but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.
If then you desire (aim at) such great things remember that you must not (attempt to) lay hold of them with a small effort; but you must leave alone some things entirely, and postpone others for the present. But if you wish for these things also (such great things), and power (office) and wealth, perhaps you will not gain even these very things (power and wealth) because you aim also at those former things (such great things); certainly you will fail in those things through which alone happiness and freedom are secured. Straightway then practise saying to every harsh appearance: You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be. Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power; and if it relates to anything which is not in our power, be ready to say that it does not concern you.
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