Epictetus (Greek: Ἐπίκτητος; AD 55–AD 135) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until banishment when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece where he lived the rest of his life. His teachings were noted down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses. Philosophy, he taught, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Individuals, however, are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. As part of the universal city that is the universe, human beings have a duty to care for all fellow humans. The person who followed these precepts would achieve happiness.
Epictetus was born c. 55 AD, at Hierapolis, Phrygia. The name given by his parents, if one was given, is not known-the word epiktetos in Greek simply means "acquired." He spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditus, a very wealthy freedman of Nero. Epictetus studied Stoic philosophy under Musonius Rufus, as a slave. It is known that he became crippled, and although one source tells that his leg was deliberately broken by Epaphroditus, more reliable is the testimony of Simplicius who tells us that he had been lame from childhood.
It is not known how Epictetus obtained his freedom, but eventually he began to teach philosophy in Rome. Around 93 AD Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome, and ultimately, from Italy, and Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded a philosophical school.
His most famous pupil Arrian studied under him as a young man (c. 108 AD) and claims to have written the famous Discourses based on his lecture notes, although some scholars argue that they should rather be considered an original literary composition by Arrian comparable to the Socratic literature. Arrian describes Epictetus as being a powerful speaker who could "induce his listener to feel just what Epictetus wanted him to feel." Many eminent figures sought conversations with him, and the Emperor Hadrian was friendly with him and may have listened to him speak at his school in Nicopolis.
He lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. He lived alone for a long time, but in his old age he adopted a friend's child who would otherwise have been left to die, and raised it with the aid of a woman to help him. He died sometime around 135 AD. After his death his lamp was purchased by an admirer for 3000 drachmae.
No writings of Epictetus himself are known. His discourses were transcribed and compiled by his pupil Arrian (author of the Anabasis Alexandri). The main work is The Discourses, four books of which have been preserved (out of an original eight). Arrian also compiled a popular digest, entitled the Enchiridion, or Handbook. In a preface to the Discourses, addressed to Lucius Gellius, Arrian states that "whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech."
Epictetus maintains that the foundation of all philosophy is self-knowledge, that is, the conviction of our ignorance and weakness when measured by the standard of good, and ought to be the first subject of instruction. Logic provides valid reasoning and certainty in judgment, but it is subordinate to practical needs. The first and most necessary part of philosophy concerns the application of doctrine, for example, that people should not lie; the second concerns reasons, e.g. why people should not lie; while the third, lastly, examines and establishes the reasons. This is the logical part, which finds reasons, shows what is a reason, and that a given reason is a right one. This last part is necessary, but only on account of the second, which again is rendered necessary by the first.
Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by distinguishing between those things in our power (prohairetic things) and those things not in our power (aprohairetic things). That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the contrary, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul. We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves. The determination between what is good and what is not good is made by the capacity for choice (prohairesis). Prohairesis allows us to act, and gives us the kind of freedom that only rational animals have. It is determined by our reason, which of all our faculties sees and tests itself and everything else. It is the right use of the impressions (phantasia) that bombard the mind that is in our power:
Practise then from the start to say to every harsh impression, "You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be." Then examine it and test it by these rules you have, and firstly, and chiefly, by this: whether the impression has to do with the things that are up to us, or those that are not; and if it has to do with the things that are not up to us, be ready to reply, "It is nothing to me."
We will not be troubled at any loss, but will say to ourselves on such an occasion: "I have lost nothing that belongs to me; it was not something of mine that was torn from me, but something that was not in my power has left me." Nothing beyond the use of our opinion is properly ours. Every possession rests on opinion. What is to cry and to weep? An opinion. What is misfortune, or a quarrel, or a complaint? All these things are opinions; opinions founded on the delusion that what is not subject to our own choice can be either good or evil, which it cannot. By rejecting these opinions, and seeking good and evil in the power of choice alone, we may confidently achieve peace of mind in every condition of life.
Reason alone is good, and the irrational is evil, and the irrational is intolerable to the rational. The good person should labour chiefly on their own reason; to perfect this is in our power. To repel evil opinions by the good is the noble contest in which humans should engage; it is not an easy task, but it promises true freedom, peace of mind (ataraxia), and a divine command over the emotions (apatheia). We should especially be on our guard against the opinion of pleasure because of its apparent sweetness and charms. The first object of philosophy, therefore, is to purify the mind. Epictetus teaches that the preconceptions (prolepsis) of good and evil are common to all. Good alone is profitable and to be desired, and evil is hurtful and to be avoided. Different opinions arise only from the application of these preconceptions to particular cases, and it is then that the darkness of ignorance, which blindly maintains the correctness of its own opinion, must be dispelled. People entertain different and conflicting opinions of good, and in their judgment of a particular good, people frequently contradict themselves. Philosophy should provide a standard for good and evil. This process is greatly facilitated because the mind and the works of the mind are alone in our power, whereas all external things that aid life are beyond our control.
The essence of God is goodness; we have all good that could be given to us. The gods too gave us the soul and reason, which is not measured by breadth or depth, but by knowledge and sentiments, and by which we attain to greatness, and may equal even with the gods. We should, therefore, cultivate the mind with special care. If we wish for nothing but what God wills, we shall be truly free, and all will come to pass with us according to our desire; and we shall be as little subject to restraint as Zeus himself. Every individual is connected with the rest of the world, and the universe is fashioned for universal harmony. Wise people, therefore, will pursue, not merely their own will, but will also be subject to the rightful order of the world. We should conduct ourselves through life fulfilling all our duties as children, siblings, parents, and citizens. For our country or friends we ought to be ready to undergo or perform the greatest difficulties. The good person, if able to foresee the future, would peacefully and contentedly help to bring about their own sickness, maiming, and even death, knowing that this is the right order of the universe. We have all a certain part to play in the world, and we have done enough when we have performed what our nature allows. In the exercise of our powers, we may become aware of the destiny we are intended to fulfill.
We are like travellers at an inn, or guests at a stranger's table; whatever is offered we take with thankfulness, and sometimes, when the turn comes, we may refuse; in the former case we are a worthy guest of the gods, and in the latter we appear as a sharer in their power. Anyone who finds life intolerable is free to quit it, but we should not abandon our appointed role without sufficient reason. The Stoic sage will never find life intolerable and will complain of no one, either God or human. Those who go wrong we should pardon and treat with compassion, since it is from ignorance that they err, being as it were blind. It is only our opinions and principles that can render us unhappy, and it is only the ignorant person that finds fault with another. Every desire degrades us, and renders us slaves of what we desire. We ought not to forget the transitory character of all external advantages, even in the midst of our enjoyment of them; but always to bear in mind that they are not our own, and that therefore they do not properly belong to us. Thus prepared, we shall never be carried away by opinions.
The final entry of the Enchiridion, or Handbook, begins: "Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand":
Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever thy decree has fixed my lot.
I follow willingly; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched would I follow still.
(Diogenes Laertius quoting Cleanthes; quoted also by Seneca, Epistle 107.)"
Whoe'er yields properly to Fate is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of Heaven.
(From Euripides' Fragments, 965)
O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be.
(From Plato's Crito)
Anytus and Meletus may indeed kill me, but they cannot harm me.
(From Plato's Apology)
The philosophy of Epictetus is well known in the American military through the writings and example of James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam, became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and later a vice presidential candidate. In Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993), Stockdale credits Epictetus with helping him endure seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese military prison - including torture - and four years in solitary confinement. In his conclusion, Stockdale quoted Epictetus as saying, "The emotions of grief, pity, and even affection are well-known disturbers of the soul. Grief is the most offensive; Epictetus considered the suffering of grief an act of evil. It is a willful act, going against the will of God to have all men share happiness" (p. 235).
The philosophy of Epictetus was an influence on the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 to 180 A.D.) whose reign was marked by wars with the resurgent Parthians in southern Asia and against the Germanic tribes in Europe. Aurelius quotes from Epictetus repeatedly in his own work, Meditations, written during his campaigns in central Europe.
Simplicius of Cilicia
In the 6th century, the Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius, who was persecuted for his pagan beliefs during the reign of Justinian, wrote an extant commentary on the Enchiridion. At the end of the commentary Simplicius wrote: "Nor does my writing this commentary prove beneficial to others only, for I myself have already found great advantage from it, by the agreeable diversion it has given me, in a season of trouble and public calamity." George Long considered the commentary "worth reading", but then opined, "But how many will read it? Perhaps one in a million."
When Bernard Stiegler was imprisoned for five years for armed robbery in France, he assembled an "ensemble of disciplines," which he called (in reference to Epictetus) his melete. This ensemble amounted to a practice of reading and writing that Stiegler derived from the writings of Epictetus. This led to his transformation, and upon being released from incarceration he became a professional philosopher. Stiegler tells the story of this transformation in his book, Acting Out.
A quotation from the Enchiridion is used as a title quotation in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which translates to, "That the relish of goods and evils does in great measure depend upon the opinion we have of them."  This indicates that the quotation plays a key role in the title of the novel one of whose persistent themes is that the suffering of many of its characters (above all Walter Shandy) is the result of the opinions and assumptions they make about reality.
Epictetus is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In the fifth chapter of the novel the protagonist Stephen Daedalus discusses Epictetus's famous lamp with a Dean of his college: "-Epictetus also had a lamp, said the dean, which was sold for a fancy price after his death. It was the lamp he wrote his philosophical dissertations by. You know Epictetus? / -An old gentleman, said Stephen coarsely, who said that the soul is very like a bucketful of water. / -He tells us in his homely way, the dean went on, that he put an iron lamp before a statue of one of the gods and that a thief stole the lamp. What did the philosopher do? He reflected that it was in the character of a thief to steal and determined to buy an earthen lamp next day instead of the iron lamp" (pgs. 202-203 of the Penguin Edition). Epictetus recurs several times throughout this chapter.
J. D. Salinger
Epictetus is mentioned briefly in Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger. At one point Franny says: "I sat and I sat, and finally I got up and started writing things from Epictetus all over the blackboard. I filled the whole front blackboard--I didn't even know I'd remembered so much of him. I erased it--thank God!--before people started coming in. But it was a childish thing to do anyway--Epictetus would have absolutely hated me for doing it--but..."
Epictetus is referred to, but not mentioned by name, in Arnold's sonnet To a Friend. Arnold provides three historical personalities as his inspiration and support in difficult times (Epictetus is preceded by Homer and succeeded by Sophocles):
Much he, whose friendship I not long since won,
That halting slave, who in Nicopolis
Taught Arrian, when Vespasian's brutal son
Cleared Rome of what most shamed him.
The philosophy of Epictetus plays a key role in the 1998 novel by Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. This was in part the outcome of discussions Wolfe had with James Stockdale (see above). The importance of Epictetus' Stoicism for Stockdale, its role in A Man in Full, and its significance in Gladiator (2000 film) is discussed by William O. Stephens in The Rebirth of Stoicism?
Dreiser refers to Epictetus in his novel Sister Carrie. "It is the unintellectual miser who sweats blood at the loss of a hundred dollars. It is the Epictetus who smiles when the last vestige of physical welfare is removed."
Both the longevity of Epictetus's life and his philosophy are alluded to in Berryman's poem, "Of Suicide."
Psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, credited Epictetus with providing a foundation for his system of psychotherapy.
Kiyozawa Manshi, a controversial reformer within the Higashi Honganji branch of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism cited Epictetus as one of the three major influences on his spiritual development and thought.
Epictetus' philosophy is an influence on the acting method introduced by David Mamet and William H. Macy, known as Practical Aesthetics. The main book that describes the method, The Practical Handbook for the Actor, lists the Enchiridion in the bibliography.
（Ἐπίκτητος). An eminent Stoic philosopher, born in a servile condition at Hierapolis in Phrygia, about A.D. 50. The names of his parents are unknown; neither do we know how he came to be brought to Rome. But in that city he was for some time a slave to Epaphroditus, a freedman of Nero, who had been one of his body-guard. An anecdote related by Origen, which illustrates the fortitude of Epictetus, would also show, if it were true, that Epaphroditus was a most cruel master. Epictetus, when his master was twisting his leg one day, smiled and quietly said, "You will break it"; and when he did break it, only observed, "Did I not tell you that you would do so?" It is not known how or when Epictetus managed to effect his freedom, but he could not have been still a slave when he left Rome in consequence of an edict against philosophers. This event, the only one in his life the date of which can be assigned, took place, as has been said, in the year A.D. 89, being the eighth year of Domitian's reign. Epictetus then retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, and it is a question whether he ever returned to Rome. The chief ground for believing that he did is a statement of Spartianus (Hadr. 16), that Epictetus lived on terms of intimacy with the emperor Hadrian; while it is agreed, on the other hand, that there is no good evidence of any of his discourses having been delivered at Rome, but that they contain frequent mention of Nicopolis. This argument, however, is hardly sufficient to overthrow the express testimony of Spartianus. It is not known when he died. Suidas says that he lived till the reign of Marcus Aurelius, yet the authority of Aulus Gellius is strong on the other side. He, writing during the reign of the first Antonine, speaks of Epictetus, in two places, as being dead (Noct. Att. ii. 18; xvii. 19).
Epictetus led a life of exemplary contentment, simplicity, and virtue, practising in all particulars the morality which he taught. He lived for a long while in a small hut, with no other furniture than a bed and a lamp, and without an attendant; until he benevolently adopted a child whom a friend had been compelled by poverty to expose, and hired a nurse for its sake. A teacher of the Stoic philosophy, he was the chief of those who lived during the period of the Roman Empire. His lessons were principally, if not solely, directed to practical morality. His favourite maxim, and that into which he resolved all practical morality, was "bear and forbear," ἀνέχου καὶ ἀπέχου. He appears to have differed from the Stoics on the subject of suicide. We are told by Arrian, in his Preface to the Discourses, that he was a powerful and inspiring lecturer; and, according to Origen (c. Cels. 7, ad init.), his style was superior to that of Plato. It is a proof of the estimation in which Epictetus was held, that, on his death, his lamp was purchased by some aspirant after philosophy more eager than wise for 3000 drachmas, or over $500. Though it is said by Suidas that Epictetus wrote much, there is good reason to believe that he himself wrote nothing. His Διατριβαί were taken down by his pupil Arrian, and published after his death in eight books, of which four remain. The same Arrian compiled the Enchiridion or "manual," an abstract of the teaching of his master, and wrote a life of Epictetus, which is lost. Some fragments have been preserved, however, by Stobaeus. Simplicius has also left a commentary on his doctrine in the Eclectic manner. The best edition of the remains of Epictetus is still that of Schweighäuser, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1800). The text and a Latin translation by Dübner (1840) may be recommended. The best English translations are those of Higginson, with a sketch of Epictetus (Boston, 1865); Long (London, 1877); and Rolleston (1881). See the popular work of Canon Farrar, Seekers after God (1863).