Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 AD)

With Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus is considered one of the three most important Stoic philosophers. These three have quite different life stories. Marcus Aurelius was from a prominent family and rose to be emperor of the Roman Empire (r. 161 - 180). Seneca was born in Spain and raised in Rome. He was a tutor and later an adviser to Nero. Senecas was also renowned playwright and one of the richest people in the Roman Empire. Epictetus was born as a slave yet he rose to become one of the three most important Stoic philosophers.

Epictetus was born around the year 55 in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale, Turkey) as a slave in a wealthy household. Epaphroditus, his owner, gave him the permission to pursue liberal studies which is how Epictetus discovered philosophy. The Stoic Musonius Rufus was his teacher and mentor. Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after emperor Nero's death and started teaching philosophy in Rome. This lasted until emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers from Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught there until his death.

Epictetus' strong and wide-ranging influence can be seen in multiple instances. Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, thanks his teacher Junius Rusticus for introducing him to Epictetus. There is a slight probability that Rusticus actually attended Epictetus' lectures and passed his own notes to Marcus. Yet it is more likely that Marcus read the widely circulated notes by Epictetus's student Arrian.

In modern times, James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over 7 years credits Epictetus for providing him with a framework on how to endure the tortures he was subjected to. As Stockdale would be confined in leg irons, he certainly remembered that Epictetus had a disabled leg. However, Epictetus would say in regards to this, "Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself."

Epictetus appears prominently in author Tom Wolfe's well-known novel A Man in Full. Albert Ellis, the psychologist who founded Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was also influenced by Epictetus.


No actual writings by Epictetus are known. His discourses were transcribed and compiled by his pupil Arrian.

Work Comment
Enchiridion The title Enchiridion translates 'small manual or a handbook.' It is packed with short Stoic maxims and principles. For many centuries, the Enchiridion maintained its authority both with Christians and Pagans. Two Christian writers—Nilus and an anonymous contemporary—wrote paraphrases of it in the early 5th century and Simplicius of Cilicia wrote a commentary upon it in the 6th.
Epictetus' Discourses

Discourses survives in Koine Greek. They appear to record the exchanges between Epictetus and his students after formal teaching had concluded for the day. It is clear from the content that the works of the early Stoic philosophers (Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus) were read and discussed in Epictetus' classes. Epictetus aims to make his students consider carefully what the philosophic life – for a Stoic – consists in, and how to live it oneself. 

Not all of the Discourses appear to have survived, as the ancient Byzantine scholar Photius (c.810–c.893) reports that the complete text originally comprised eight books. We have four books today plus a few fragments.



1. Remember What's In Your Control

The Enchiridion begins with one of the most important maxims in Stoic philosophy. The importance of distinguishing things that are under our control and things that are not. (Think of it as the Stoic Serenity Prayer.) It is a reminder not to get angry and upset by things which we cannot influence such as other people and external events and to only focus on ourselves, our own behavior. This makes things a bit easier, doesn't it? A humbling reminder of how much happens that we can't influence and learning to let go and accept things as they are. Yet at the same time, a powerful reminder that our actions and choices are fully in our own control. As Epictetus said,

"Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions."

2. Set the Standard

The best leaders rarely talk how things ought to be done, their actions speak for themselves. Think of someone you admired and how many of the lessons came indirectly from the choices that they've made and the example they have set. Similarly, we need to be focused on how we are actually living and what choices we are making. That's where our time and energy will be best spent. As Epictetus put it,

"Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don't talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought."

3. Prescribe Yourself a Character

Epictetus understood how much we act out of habit and how we tend to think that our ways of doing things are set in stone. He admonished his students to set some principles and standards they need to follow and not deviate as much as possible. This is certainly not easy by any stretch but with small steps, each day reminding us what direction we'd like to go to, we can get closer to the character we wish to have. As he put it,

"Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company."


"No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen."

"Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly; and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything."

"Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will be serene."

"Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself."

"I cannot escape death; but cannot I escape the dread of it? Must I die trembling and lamenting?"

"To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs." 7/9/18 7/9/18 7/9/18 7/9/18 7/9/18