Epictetus

Epictetus

Ancient philosophy

Epictetus (50-125 AD) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He spent his childhood in Rome as a slave, before being freed. He opened a Stoic school in Nicopolis, a Greek city. He left no writings, but his pupils passed on lecture notes, a series of aphorisms that make up the famous Enchiridion. He shows how man can achieve freedom and happiness, by attaching himself only to the goods that depend on him.


The works of Epictetus summarised on this site

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Enchiridion

In this work, Epictetus presents the Stoic principles that enable man to achieve freedom, and beyond that, happiness


Further reading: analysis and commentary

To discover this author's thought in greater depth, these books will be useful:

A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002
Keith Seddon, Epictetus' Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living, Routledge, 2005
Scott Aikin and William O. Stephens, Epictetus's Encheiridion: A New Translation and Guide to Stoic Ethics, London: Bloomsbury, 2023
Theodore Scaltsas, Andrew S. Mason (ed.), The Philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
Ryan Holiday; Stephen Hanselman (2020). Lives of the Stoics. New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Recommended videos

Conferences, symposia, radio broadcasts... here are 5 videos that will help you better understand Epictetus' thought.

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Biography: life of Epictetus

Epictetus was born around 50 AD in Phrygia, probably in Hierapolis, located in present-day Turkey. He was sold into slavery and taken to Rome. His master was himself a former slave of the emperor Nero, who had been freed.

His name is Epaphroditus, and he is a man of rare stupidity and cruelty. So he sold one of his slaves, whom he considered to be good for nothing. The latter became a favourite of Nero, who gave him a position. Epaphroditus, who often visits the palace, courts this man whom he had once discarded as a useless burden.


With Epictetus, he proves no less cruel. This gradually led Epictetus to despise pain and become stronger than it. Limping, ill, enslaved, he rises by thought above his suffering, until he achieves serenity, which is the very principle of Stoicism.

So, when his master was amusing himself by twisting his sick leg, he said to him: It will break. When it was done, instead of howling in pain, Epictetus simply remarked: I warned you.


Epictetus was introduced to stoicism by attending the lectures of Musonius Rufus. Rufus taught him the fundamentals of this doctrine, which had been invented a few centuries earlier by Zeno of Citium.

Freed from his status as a slave, probably as a result of his master's death, and free at last, he turned to philosophy and studied Stoicism, of which he had still only had a brief glimpse.


In 90 AD, the emperor Diomitian issued an edict banning philosophy. He was suspicious of the influence of Stoicism on those who opposed his tyrannical regime. They appeared to him as troublemakers and plotters.

The philosophers had to leave Italy, where they became undesirable.

Epictetus moved to Nicolis of Epirus in western Greece. There he lived in poverty for the rest of his life, with his wife and an adopted child. He opened a Stoic school in the town, which soon enjoyed great renown and the esteem of the new emperor himself, Hadrian.


Epictetus died in 135 AD in Nicopolis of Epirus, a little before the accession to power of Marc Aurelius, a Stoic emperor. It seems that he taught this doctrine to Julius Rusticus, who himself became the tutor of Marc Aurelius and passed on this teaching to him.

Thus, it was from the former slave that the emperor received, indirectly, this doctrine as an inheritance. This shows that Stoicism cuts across all social classes in society.

Epictetus favoured oral teaching. He wrote nothing down, but his lectures were recorded by a disciple, Arrien, in two works: the Discourses and the famous Enchiridion.