Born in Hierapolis
(in Phrygia, Asia Minor) Epictetus was for many years a slave in Rome. He studied Stoic philosophy and became a
teacher after he had received his freedom in 68. When the philosophers were expelled by
Domitian in about 90 he went to Nicopolis (in Epirus) and founded a
school. His ideas were preserved in the
lecture notes of one of his students, Flavius Arrianus.
 [See Discourses, especially 1, 3, and
4.] Epictetus says that all men possess 'primary conceptions', or moral
intuitions of the good life, and are therefore capable of being virtuous [a]. But
first of all some knowledge of philosophy is needed so as to ensure that these
primary intuitions are correctly applied in particular situations in accordance
with 'nature', and also so that we can determine what is and what is not
genuinely within our capacities. In this
we develop true judgement and right will, and thus achieve our 'proper
personality' (prosopon). Epictetus therefore sets out a 'programme'
for moral progress: (1) to control one's desires in
accordance with right reason [b]; (2) to perform one's duty [c]. Both these requirements are to be grounded in judgement
and assent, from which the infallible moral conscience develops [d]. He believes in divine
providence [e] and
exhorts men to be pious towards the gods. The virtuous or moral man, he says, will accept all that happens to him,
and all the external goods he receives, as God's will. Epictetus thus preaches indifference towards such things [f]. "Bear and forbear" is his motto (anechou kai apechou) [Disc. 3, 22]. This independence is termed autarkeia. Happiness lies within oneself, he says, through one's attitude and free will [g]. He also stresses the role of the
family, altruistic government and patriotism, but love of humanity, or benevolence transcends all parochial
concerns. His moral philosophy is thus
thoroughly cosmopolitan [h].
 Although the emphasis in Epictetus's
philosophy is primarily practical, he adhered to the basic tenets of Stoicism
(albeit somewhat attenuated), namely that the cosmos is a material, 'fiery' unity, identified with
Divine Reason, the ordering power of all things [a]; that the rational human soul is a manifestation of this divine intelligence [b], but that there is
no permanent personal immortality the soul being reabsorbed into the cosmos [c]. He also accepted the idea
of a 'recycling' of the
cosmos through successive conflagrations [d].
Epictetus exemplified the
best kind of Greek Stoic: but, as in
Stoicism in general, there is arguably a tension between his emphasis on
personal responsibility and moral choice and a world-view which entailed
acceptance of fate or inevitability as the expression of the divine will. This is reflected in his uncritical
acceptance of conventional religion and politics. Likewise, while we can appreciate the
integrity of his life style, many would question the degree of rigour he seemed
to demand of individuals in their self-examination of motive and action if
virtue is to be achieved.
A. A. Long, Epictetus: A
Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life.
||[cf. Cynics, e.g., Diogenes]