The thought of Epictetus the Stoic

Bri asked:

What is a central aspect of Epictetus?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Bri, this is an interesting question about a philosopher of whom little is generally heard. What should be said is that, like many early philosophers, Epictetus (pronounce Epic-tee-tus) himself, as far as can be determined, wrote nothing down (or if he did nothing of his writings remain), and the little we do know of his philosophy is contained within by notes taken by his pupil Arrian.

Epictetus (c.55 AD–c.138 AD) was an exponent of Stoicism, one of the most popular philosophical systems in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It was founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 BC and named after the Porch or Arcade (Stoa) in which Zeno taught. The major late Stoics were Seneca (c. 5 BC–65 AD), Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). Stoic ethics defines virtue as living in accordance with logos. It is intrinsically connected with logic and physics, in that only a clear grasp of reality allows a person to be virtuous. Evil is defined negatively as not living in accordance with logos, that is, a kind of ignorance.

As to the issue of the central aspect of his philosophy, it seems to me that one can say that it closely follows Aristotle in that it focuses primarily on eudaemonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’. However, again in the Aristotelian sense, this is not happiness of Utilitarianism, which closely associated with pleasure, but the happiness or flourishing one attains by achieving one’s true goal or telos: one’s true raison d’etre.

Probably what should be said at the outset is that philosophy, for Epictetus, was not just a theoretical discipline, but a way of life (a view which, I would argue, is shared by all true philosophers). According to Epictetus all external events are determined by fate, and thus beyond our control. However, whilst we cannot control external events, we can accept that which happens to us calmly and dispassionately, and, more importantly, we can control how we respond to these events. That is, for Epictetus, our emotions should only respond to things that we can control. Good and evil are exclusively involved in things under our control, not in external events. The events themselves are neither good nor evil, but these are in our view of events.

Individuals can, and should, take responsibility for their own of own actions which they can examine and control through rigorous discipline. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy (1991, p.271) tells us that, for Epictetus, every man is an actor in a play, in which God has assigned the parts; it is each person’s duty to perform his or her part worthily, whatever that part may be.

According to Epictetus, whilst individuals are prisoners in an earthly body, their minds are free. Like other Stoics, he also made a distinction between pleasure and happiness. For Epictetus, happiness actually arises out of a ‘freedom from passion and disturbance, [and] the sense that your affairs are in order’. 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, to secure for oneself eudaimonia (‘happiness’ or ‘a flourishing life’) (see ibid). Suffering, he claimed, arises from attempting to control that which is beyond our control, or by failing to control or put order on that which is within our power do so do.

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