Stoic Serenity 2.1: Epictetus

Epictetus (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Yesterday we tested and applied our knowledge of what we learned in Chapter 1 when we created an imaginary dialogue about dealing with misfortune. With Chapter 2, we move on to a very important theme in Stoicism: distinguishing between What is in our power and What is not in our power.

At this point, continue to keep a daily record of your activities and explain, in as much or as little detail as you prefer, what happened in your experience, detailing your thoughts and reactions. Identify the interests and projects in your activities, and distinguish between what you are doing from the way you are doing it.

This chapter has us investigating the distinction between interests and projects, and ourselves as agents who engage in projects. As we’ve discussed throughout, other than the 4 Virtues which lie within ourselves, most everything else is technically indifferent. Remember that for tomorrow.

We’ll now turn our attention to one of the late Stoic teachers Epictetus and eventually see what he has to say about the “nature of human agency and what is ‘in our power’ as agents who engage in projects.”

We’ve looked at writings from two ancient Stoic philosophers so far: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus joins these other two to form the three most “popular” Stoic philosophers. The reason these three are at the top is simply because they are the only ancient Stoic philosophers whose work has survived until today. Works from other ancient Stoics have only survived in fragments or have been summarized in the works of other ancient philosophers. For example, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, is known to have been extremely influential and a prolific author, yet none of his writings have survived. We only know what he wrote because we can read Cicero and others who quoted and summarized Chrysippus at times in their own writings.

What’s even more interesting is that the writing we attribute to Epictetus today (the Discourses and the Handbook) weren’t even written by Epictetus himself. They were actually written by one of his students, Flavius Arrian. It’s generally accepted that Arrian wrote down Epictetus’ discussions with students after their formal lectures.

Epictetus lived approximately from AD 55 to 135. He would have been about 10 years old when Emperor Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide. Epictetus was born in what is now central Turkey (Hierapolis in Phyrgia). Wikipedia says that Epictetus wasn’t even his name at birth, and that it simply means “acquired.” Somehow he ended up in Rome and was the slave of Epaphroditus, himself a former slave who had been freed and had acquired a good amount of wealth. Epictetus was also crippled, and it’s disputed whether he was born that way or if his master Epaphroditus had deliberately broken his leg.

At some point, Epictetus was freed, and he studied under the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. Epictetus had opened his own Stoic school in Rome, but Emperor Domitian banished all of the philosophers from the city around AD 89 (this happened repeatedly in Rome). So Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis in north-western Greece and opened a school there. The school acquired a very good reputation and attracted many wealthy Roman students. But Epictetus was known to live a simple life with few material possessions. He never married.

Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor and Stoic philosopher we touched base with in the last chapter, was a teenager when Epictetus died. (Our timeline of the 3 “famous” late Stoics is: Seneca who committed suicide when Epictetus was ten, who died when Marcus Aurelius was a teenager.) Marcus’ tutor introduced him to Epictetus’ Discourses. This influenced Marcus to switch his focus in studies from rhetoric to philosophy.

The author says that Epictetus probably would have presented lectures from all the major Stoic philosophers beginning with Zeno. Students would have examined their works in detail. But Arrian’s record of Epictetus’ teachings doesn’t cover this at all. What we have instead are earnest discussions where Epictetus is trying to make his students consider what the “philosophic life” entails and how to live it personally. He discussed a wide range of topics of everyday living, from friendship to illness, fear to poverty, how to acquire tranquility, and why we shouldn’t be angry with people.

That’s it for today. We will examine the subject of “What is ‘in our power'” beginning tomorrow. It’s fairly lengthy, so expect that we will split this next subject into the course of two days.

If you’d like to take advantage of last day of the weekend, Epictetus’ Handbook is available to read online for free here. Honestly, I’m not very good with any translations that aren’t in modern simple language. When I first read the Handbook, I went back, opened up Microsoft Word, and typed a section-by-section paraphrase so I could understand it better. (I then printed my paraphrase out and kept it in an old report cover I had lying around.) Tedious, and perhaps not for everyone, but it was very effective in inadvertently committing many of the topics to memory.

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