The first-century Stoic philosopher and teacher Epictetus was an enslaved person who succeeded in getting an education and, eventually, his freedom. Images of freedom, slavery and self-belonging (oikoiesis) recur in his teaching. ‘A slave is always praying to be set free,’ he writes. He evokes the horrors of enslavement by describing the suffering of caged animals and birds that refuse to eat in captivity and starve to death, though he also occasionally repeats a conventional set of ideas about slavery, claiming, for example, that runaway slaves are ‘cowards’, and that none of them ever dies of hunger. Slavery powered the Roman Empire; in the first century CE, between 10 and 20 per cent of the population were enslaved at any one time. But Epictetus was not an abolitionist in a political sense. Like other ancient philosophers, he assumed that slavery was normal and would always exist. He never suggests that those who claimed to own their fellow human beings were committing a moral evil. His aim was to free others from the ‘tyrannic sway’ not of literal enslavers, but of the emotional disturbance caused by false belief.
For Epictetus, even an enslaved person can be ‘free’, through the alignment of their will with nature and the universe. He quotes with admiration a line from Diogenes the Cynic, who was taken captive but still considered himself free, thanks to his philosophical teacher: ‘Slavery became a thing of the past for me after Antisthenes set me free.’ According to one story, Epictetus’ enslaver asked him if he wanted to be set free. ‘Why?’ Epictetus replied. ‘Do you think I am in any way bound?’ In another story the enslaver twisted Epictetus’ leg so aggressively that he warned his tormentor that the bone might break. The enslaver continued to twist and the leg snapped. Epictetus said calmly: ‘I told you you would break it.’ A tyrant can claim your leg, remove your head or kill your family. ‘What can’t be chained or removed?’ Epictetus asked. ‘Your will.’
Ancient biographical traditions are not known for their factual accuracy, and some of the anecdotes about Epictetus’ life in slavery may be embellishments. He seems to have walked with a limp in later life; perhaps this was caused by the enslaver’s mistreatment, or perhaps the story was intended to explain the limp. The chief outlines of his life are clear. He was born into slavery around the middle of the first century CE in Hierapolis (‘Holy City’), in modern Turkey. He was Greek – or at least spoke the language fluently from an early age. At some point he was sold to a powerful Roman, Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus, and taken to Rome, probably soon after the suicide of Nero in 68 CE. Despite being enslaved, Epictetus attended philosophical lectures and around 79 CE, when he was in his late twenties, he would have been able to hear the teaching of the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, who welcomed everybody, even women and enslaved men. A year or so later, Epictetus was set free from enslavement and became a philosophy teacher himself. He probably left Rome during the reign of Domitian, who forced philosophy teachers out of the city on suspicion of anti-imperial sympathies. He moved to Nicopolis, in western Greece, where he continued to teach for the remainder of his long life. He died around 130 CE.
Epictetus was a teacher not a writer. His life’s work was to free his students and interlocutors from false beliefs and the tyranny of passion. He had no interest in philosophical originality or in crafting elegant sentences that would preserve his name for ever, and his version of Stoicism didn’t concentrate on technical debates about logic, physics or metaphysics (core subjects for other Stoic thinkers). He spent his days talking to people. But one of his many students, Arrian (famous also for his account of the eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great), wrote what he described as a verbatim record of Epictetus’ teaching, in four books, known as the Discourses. He also wrote a separate summary of it, known as the Handbook.
A short, accessible pamphlet, the Handbook (Encheiridion in Greek) has been the more popular and widely read of the two texts and can readily serve as a very short introduction to Stoicism. But you need to read the more expansive Discourses to understand the charm of Epictetus’ version of the philosophy, which depends not on the regurgitation of Stoic doctrine but on the vigorous, humane and often funny interaction of the teacher with his students, and his insights into the concerns that impede their philosophical progress. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were written by a misanthropic, warmongering emperor for his own edification, but Epictetus’ kindness to his needy, self-pitying students is legible on the page. The Discourses are not easy to read straight through because there is no real structure or development, but they’re wonderful to dip into.
Stoicism was a well-established philosophical system by Epictetus’ time. Founded in the third century BCE in Athens by Zeno of Citium, and developed by Chrysippus, Stoicism included logic and physics as well as ‘ethics’ – a set of teachings about the disposition and behaviour needed to attain well-being. The modern term ‘ethics’ may be a little misleading as a descriptor of the ancient field: Stoic ethics was concerned not with establishing a rational basis for moral judgments, but with the way an individual – usually imagined as a male, relatively privileged individual – could attain the best possible life, through making himself immune to the vicissitudes of fortune. The goal was ‘well-being’ – eudaimonia – a term that is sometimes misleadingly translated as ‘happiness’: for a Stoic, as for an Epicurean or a Cynic, well-being is not about feeling cheerful, but about control. The philosopher seeks ataraxia: a state of being untroubled, which could be attained by ridding yourself of false beliefs and aligning yourself with what truly matters.
According to the Epicureans, the true good is pleasure, of a moderate, balanced kind. For the Stoics, by contrast, the true good is individual human excellence or virtue – aretē in Greek, or virtus in Latin. Such excellence, for the Stoics, could be attained only by aligning your own will with the universe, nature or God (the Stoics often spoke of a singular deity). The central theme in the teaching of Epictetus is that we can and must choose to stop paying attention to things we have no control over. ‘Some things are up to us and some are not,’ the Handbook begins – foreshadowing the teachings of modern recovery programmes and the Serenity Prayer, with its distinction between the things we can change and the things we cannot.
For Epictetus, nothing is up to us except our own purpose, attitude or ‘will’, as Robin Waterfield translates it (the Greek is prohairesis): ‘wealth, health, status – these things aren’t up to us.’ Rhetorically, it’s no coincidence that these lists of unimportant things – there are many of them in the teachings of Epictetus – tend to focus on individual privileges that most people would agree are overvalued. An ancient Roman student or reader wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it is undignified to be too concerned with money or prestige, or that the bravest, most noble man will show courage in the face of physical danger. Epictetus presents a version of Stoicism that often aligns with traditional Roman social norms, even if his expression of those ideals is often wonderfully vigorous. ‘I’ll cut off your head,’ a tyrant threatens. ‘Well,’ the insouciant Stoic replies, ‘have you ever heard me suggest that I’m unique in having a non-detachable head?’ (Waterfield’s clear, readable translation brings out Epictetus’ humour and conversational tone as well as his philosophical vision. A preening man at one point comforts himself with the thought: ‘I have gorgeous hair.’)
In terms of behaviour, too, Epictetus’ version of Stoicism posed no threat to existing social norms. Diogenes the Cynic had shown his contempt for convention by living in a barrel, wearing rags and defecating in public, but Epictetus recommends that his students adapt themselves with dignity to perform whatever social role they happen to find themselves inhabiting. This is not a philosophy to inspire a slave revolt, or a revolution. All anger – including righteous rage at collective injustice – is to be eradicated for the individual’s peace of mind. The followers of Epictetus are supposed to do what is ‘appropriate’ (kathēkon), and he doesn’t worry about what that is. Convention and tradition are good enough guides. According to Epictetus, the Epicurean ideal of a quiet life focused on friendship and moderate pleasure is ‘subversive of the state, destructive of households and unsuitable even for women’, but Stoicism will allow an elite Roman man eager to advance in his political career to perform his normal ‘duties’.
The fundamental conservatism of Epictetus’ teaching can be seen in many of his favourite metaphors: life is an inn at which we make only a brief stop; our station in life is a role in a play. Presumably, most of his students were privileged men; as Waterfield observes, the anonymous addressee is always imagined as masculine. The assumed student is usually a wealthy, privileged enslaver, whose problems include such trivialities as ‘the slave’ bringing water that isn’t hot enough. Epictetus advises the student who has been ‘assigned a somewhat higher station’ in life to be ‘just’ and ‘decent’ in his response (qualities that are viewed as quite compatible with enslaving others). At the same time, however, he pushes back against the idea, present in ancient philosophical thought since at least the time of Aristotle, that some human beings are naturally slavish. The enslaved are the enslaver’s kinsmen, Epictetus says, and they, too, are the offspring of Zeus; their subjugation is not justified by their supposed inferiority. The only real ‘slaves’ are those who have failed to follow Stoic teaching – including the philosopher’s ostensibly free students. He hammers this point home by addressing the reader who is subject to the whims of passion as ‘Slave!’
The central distinction between what is and what is not ‘up to us’ (eph’hēmin) relies, in Epictetus’ work, on an individualistic idea of human motivations and values. What is ‘up to us’ tends to mean ‘what is up to me’. There is no discussion of the possibilities of collective action. Some Roman Stoics and Stoic-sympathisers were closely associated with opposition to imperial rule and a desire to return to the old days of the Republic. Political revolution can be ‘up to us’ only collectively: it takes more than one person to topple an emperor, or to end slavery. But Epictetus takes no interest in such goals. ‘It’s not poverty that we need to get rid of,’ he says, ‘but our judgment of poverty’ – he’s not talking about poverty as a social evil here, but giving advice to a young man who wants his father to give him a larger allowance.
This is the kind of problem that Epictetus’ version of Stoicism is designed to address: a privileged man is disturbed by the idea that he does not have complete control over every element of his existence. Epictetus’ teaching intervenes from two different directions. It knocks the egotistical student down a peg or two (‘Slave!’), while providing a philosophically authorised justification for his fantasies of power, permanence and autonomy. Other philosophical and religious traditions encourage their followers to aspire to an emptiness of the self, echoing the emptiness of reality (in Sanskrit, sūnyatā) or the self-emptying of God (in Greek, kenōsis). In Epictetus’ version of Stoicism, the self is always the focus, even for the most enlightened philosopher. The wise Stoic never gives up his desire for power and possessions, goals that can be achieved through control over the will. It isn’t a coincidence that Stoicism, in a watered-down form, is currently so popular with wealthy white men in Silicon Valley or Wall Street; Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s The Daily Stoic (2016), for example, has been a bestseller in the Business Motivation, Success Self-Help and Greek and Roman Philosophy categories.
How useful is Epictetus’ version of Stoicism as a tool for getting through life, especially for those of us who are neither ancient Roman citizens nor entrepreneurs? It may be helpful for coping with the annoyance, frustration and boredom of daily life. ‘If you’re going out to bathe,’ Epictetus says, ‘rehearse in your mind what typically happens in a bathhouse – getting splashed and jostled and abused and robbed.’ This is a useful principle to bear in mind if your train or plane is delayed by several hours and then cancelled. It can be soothing to remember that there is nothing unusual about such occurrences, which are beyond your control, allowing you to stay calm and align your will with that of the universe.
Stoicism can help with physical pain, too. During a recent bout of searing back pain that left me unable to walk, I found it genuinely helpful to remember that I had a choice about how to respond to my pain and my physical immobility: I could choose not to ‘consider my body to be mine’, not to be sorry for myself, or frightened, or angry, and to think of myself, or at least of my ‘command centre’ (as Waterfield translates the ‘leading element’ of the self, to hēgemonikon), as both free and powerful, even when I could barely move.
The teachings of Epictetus are rather less useful when it comes to interactions with other people. ‘If you kiss a child of yours,’ he says, ‘or your wife, tell yourself that you’re kissing a human being, because then you won’t be upset if they die.’ This must have been a common piece of Stoic advice; the line is quoted admiringly by Marcus Aurelius. Such mantras aren’t much good if you consider your children’s well-being more important than your own tranquillity. Epictetus discusses the case of a man who leaves home when his child is sick because he can’t bear to contemplate her suffering or the possibility of her death. He concedes that this is not the most ‘affectionate’ thing to do: if the mother and enslaved caregivers had done the same, the child would have been left entirely alone. He doesn’t explain why these people stay to take care of the child, although one possibility might be that they are more focused on her needs than their own feelings.
The story of the sick child is one of many vivid anecdotes in the Discourses that give us glimpses of the realia of daily life in the first century CE. There are also evocations of children using shards of pottery as counters in a game, and a discussion of the unmanliness of tweezing body hair. (Waterfield’s translation is illustrated with black and white images of people playing ball, Hephaestus as a blacksmith, a bronze liver marked to show how the organ was used in divination.) The Discourses are also full of references to Homer and Greek tragedy, and provide a fascinating insight into the way these works were interpreted by at least one ancient reader. Epictetus tells us a great deal about Achilles’ intense and – from a Stoic perspective – excessive suffering after the death of Patroclus, and suggests that such pain can be soothed only by a more rational attitude. He says nothing about the way egotistical rage and grief might be modified, as in the final books of the Iliad, through collective rituals of mourning and memorialisation, which can help us to understand and accept the inevitability of loss, and to abandon the fantasy of being all-powerful and entirely free from pain.
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