Epictetus: Slave and Sage
By Matt McKeown
Self-mastery, over both emotions and thoughts, is an invaluable skill.
Stoicism is widely associated with the name of Marcus Aurelius, but there was another, earlier figure who was still more influential. Epictetus grew up as a slave in first-century Rome; a little unusually, his master allowed him to be educated. He was freed around the age of twenty and established himself as a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome, then in Nicopolis in northwestern Greece. Like Socrates, Epictetus personally wrote nothing but was thoroughly (and perhaps word-for-word) chronicled by one of his disciples, and his works, the Discourses and the Enchiridion, have been handed down to the present day.
Epictetus taught that ignorance and false opinions were the main root of evil, unhappiness, and suffering. He was particularly concerned to focus people’s energies on things they could actually control—which primarily meant themselves. “That alone is in our power, which is our own work … 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.”
Reason was the highest human value—and for Epictetus and the Stoics, reason embraced not just the power of thought, but virtue and submission to fate. Self-mastery was accordingly one of Epictetus’ chief goals, in order to subdue the passions and false beliefs that would lead a person astray from virtue; this would allow ataraxia, or tranquility, a state of inner peace that misfortune, pain, and injury could not take away.
His subsequent impact as a philosopher has been profound. The Neoplatonist scholar Simplicius wrote a commentary on the Enchiridion in the sixth century, and Stoic moral philosophy was a major influence on Christian thought in the Medieval period. The neoclassical tastes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries esteemed Epictetus as well. And his philosophy has proven not only historically interesting, but practical. James Stockdale, a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, spent more than seven years in captivity, four of them in solitary confinement. He credited Epictetus’ philosophy with helping him to endure, even in the face of torture, until he was released. His own words to himself, as he bailed out of his plane when it was shot down, were: “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus!”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this piece, you may like some of our other author profiles, like this one on Voltaire or this one on Gandhi. Or take a look at one of our posts on “the Great Conversation,” like this one on rhetoric.