Epictetus was a Roman slave whose master, Epaphroditus, was an officer of Emperor Nero's personal guard. After his master was put to death by Nero's successor Domitian, Epictetus was given his freedom.
Epictetus might have had an unremarkable life except that, while still a slave, he was allowed to attend philosophy lectures, and as an adult freed man, became a distinguished philosopher in the Stoic tradition. From slave to philosopher is an astonishing leap in one lifetime, and clearly gave Epictetus unusual insight into the human condition.
Epictetus himself did not write any books. His pupil Arrian (later the biographer of Alexander the Great) took down his thoughts to create the 8-volume Discourses, of which only four volumes survived. The essence of the Discourses were distilled into a much shorter Enchiridion, Greek for handbook or manual, which with a good translation is very accessible to today's reader.
What is Stoicism? As a body of thought it originated in Greece around 300BC, but became a major influence in ancient Rome. Its intellectual and spiritual features include submission to providence or universal law, independence of mind, restraint in living and emotion, and fearlessness of loss and death.
In the Enchiridion, Epictetus promotes the Stoic philosophy of acceptance. According to it, submission to Zeus (the Creator in Greek mythology) allowed a person could gain a rare equanimity in the knowledge that they were acting in accord with the universe. As everyone had a certain role to play in life, by choosing to fight what was clearly our destiny only misery could follow. In the Meditations, fellow Stoic Marcus Aurelius put it this way: "Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs?" It is when we refuse to accept that an event has happened, Epictetus taught, that pain is the most extreme.
Epictetus noted that events themselves are not necessarily painful; what really causes grief is the feeling that there is no reason behind what we are going through. He noted that "Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will." Though it may stop us from walking, could a bad leg really be made the cause for our unhappiness? In his thinking, no event ever required a certain reaction. Yet if we can accept that the workings of God are rational, we can feel safe in the knowledge that all things happen for a reason - even if with our limited vision we cannot see it.
Epictetus liked to tell the story of Agrippinus, who when told that the Roman Senate had begun a trial against him (which would probably end with his death or exile), continued with his daily habits of exercise and bathing. When later a messenger came to him with the news that he had been condemned, he did not let out an anguished cry, but calmly inquired whether he was to be put to death or banished. When told the sentence of banishment, he immediately began making arrangements for the move. Agrippinus is said to have remarked: "I am not a hindrance to myself". He meant that no wild emotions could overtake his inner peace or resolve; full acceptance of his fate provided equanimity, which he prized above all honors or possessions.
A larger view of life and death
Some things are in our power, others are not, Epictetus said. We have no control over how the dice of life are cast; what we do control is the hand we play once they are thrown. The failure to observe this distinction would lead to unlimited anxiety.
If you try to avoid disease, death and poverty, you will live in misery, because none of them, particularly death, are ever under our control. Happiness can emerge only from attention to those things that we do have command over - our thoughts, actions and reactions. Peace comes from living a simple life in which we have disciplined our own thinking and trimmed our desires and aversions to a minimum. The twenty-first point of the Enchiridion reads:
"Let death and exile and every other thing which appears dreadful be daily before your eyes; but most of all death: and you will never think of anything mean nor will you desire anything extravagantly."
The phrase 'These things happen' is often used to put a misfortune into perspective, particularly when it happens to someone else. But when someone close to us dies, Epictetus observed, we cry 'How could this happen?'. Suddenly there is one standard for your neighbor and another for yourself. However, the advanced person is able to apply the remark in relation to their own life events, in the acknowledgment that the event is in full conformity with nature, however unfortunate.
With its emphasis on acceptance of things as they are, Stoic philosophy can seem fatalistic. In the contemporary world we avoid any type of 'musn't grumble' ethos, and instead are in love with the idea of changing the world.
Yet the common reaction to reading Epictetus and other Stoic philosophers is that they are not pessimistic. In fact their goal of eudaimonia, or happiness, is a type of happiness coming from accordance with divine intelligence, not fighting the world or judging it but doing what we can to increase the store of rationality and wisdom in the particular slice of the world we live in.
Stoic philosophy is spiritual but in a profoundly practical way, recognizing a life lived according to the will of God or providence as the perfect one. It celebrates the mystery and wonder of the world, and the unique role that each person plays in its unfolding. The equanimity of the Stoic mind comes from an appreciation that nothing which happens to us is not in our destiny, and therefore should be embraced willingly. Such courage, so eloquently expressed in the Enchiridion, raises the spirit and justifies the privilege of existence.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life."
"Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinion about the things."
Epictetus was born in the year 55 CE in Hierapolis in Phrygia (modern-day Pamukkale, in south-western Turkey). As a boy he came to Rome as a slave of Epaphroditus, a rich and powerful freedman who had been himself been a slave of the Emperor Nero. Whilst still a slave, Epictetus studied with the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus.
In about 89, along with other philosophers in Rome, Epictetus was banished by the Emperor Domitian. He went to Nicopolis in Epirus (north-western Greece) where he opened his own school. A popular teacher, his school attracted many upper-class Romans. One of his students was Flavius Arrian (c.86-160) who would compose the Discourses and the Handbook, and who later served in public office under the Emperor Hadrian and became a historian. Epictetus did not marry or have any children. He lived to a comparatively late age, dying in 135.