Epictetus was a Roman philosopher born in 55 CE in the city of Hierapolis (in present day Turkey). He grew up in Rome where he would study Stoic philosophy before ultimately moving to Nicopolis, Greece and founding his own school. He is considered one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, believing that to live a virtuous life guided by philosophy is the way to achieve happiness. Epictetus believed that people felt anxiety because they tried to control that which is beyond their control. By realizing that we only have control of ourselves, we can embrace our fate, and be guided by reason rather than our emotions. Epictetus provides a practical guide for living this way of life in his work the Enchiridion.
As a Stoic teacher, Epictetus encourages his students to live a life of reason, and to be guided by virtue in order to achieve happiness (eudaimonia). By understanding nature and acting according to it’s laws, one can achieve ataraxia (“freedom from worry”), apatheia (“freedom from emotions”) and attain eupathia (“good feelings”). As a Stoic, he sees the laws of nature as divine reason, and it is only because as humans we make the wrong impressions (phantasiai) of things that we see things as good or bad when they are neither. Epictetus believes only virtue is good and only vice is bad. Wealth is not good because it does not guarantee happiness. Likewise, sickness, although not preferred, is not evil but merely another part of nature.
The key to success is to recognize what is in one’s power to control, and what isn’t. As humans, we are in control of ourselves, but we cannot control things that are outside of ourselves. He uses the metaphor of an archer. An archer realizes that he will not always hit the center of the target, because there are things beyond his control such as wind. More than hitting the center of the target on any given occasion, the archer’s true goal is to shoot well. In the same way, the goal of life is not to be rich or famous, but to live well. Through philosophy, we can understand the nature of things and be prepared to deal with whatever comes our way.
Because most things are out of our control, the individual must learn to respond to tragic events in a calm and controlled way (i.e. to be “stoical”). Epictetus believes that whatever doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger as we learn more about ourselves and the world through overcoming adversity. Epictetus sees emotions as irrational, and therefore he explains that we must act according to reason. God is the divine reason which gives order to the world, and through acting rationally, we are able to live in harmony with the world. Likewise, just as God has given us life, we must be ready to depart from this world when the time comes, for “He who gave also takes away.”
The reason people think and do things improperly is because they misunderstand what life is about. Epictetus explains that life is like a festival, arranged by God for us to enjoy. He also uses the metaphor of a game, such as dice, where the numbers don’t represent anything, but simply allow one to play. Epictetus approved of suicide for the same reason, believing that if one no longer enjoys their life, it is acceptable to end it. Epictetus also saw life as similar to a play or being in the military, as we all have our part to play. Himself a cripple, he explains that whatever your fate, it is God’s intention.
Epictetus recognized that a stoic’s response to an event would make him stand out from the crowd. He explains that this simply the price to pay in living a virtuous life. Epictetus distinguishes between philosophers and non-philosophers. He believed a philosopher should marry and have children in order to provide a replacement for himself. Since Epictetus had done neither himself, a clever student once asked him if he could marry one of his daughters.
Epictetus’ Stoicism would greatly influence the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and his own Stoic writings the Meditations. Epictetus has since served as an inspiration for others who have endured hardships. Most strikingly in recent times, James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam was imprisoned for seven and a half years, tortured, and held in solitary confinement for four years. He would credit his survival to the writings of Epictetus, explaining “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.”