The Philosophy of Epictetus


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These simplistic, polarised categories obscure more creative — and USEFUL — interpretations of events that are far more advantageous and interesting The wise person knows it is fruitless to project your hopes and fears on the future. Click to share:. Like this: Like Loading Like Socrates in the Apology , Epictetus speaks of philosophy as a divine mission, but in what sense does he see the life of philosophy as a divine command?

Is Epictetus' god -- which is often described in quasi personal terms, including as an object of prayer -- consistent with the god of earlier Stoicism? The essays by Algra, Ierodiakonou, and Schofield touch upon facets of these questions.

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Algra's essay is the most expansive and helpfully situates the question of Epictetus' theology within scholarly debates of the last century. Algra argues that determining whether Epictetus' theology is heterodox within Stoicism first requires clarification of the contested concepts of pantheism and theism. The overall thrust of her argument is "that early Stoicism was not as exclusively pantheistic as it is often supposed to be, whereas on the other hand the kind of personalistic theism that we may attribute to Epictetus does not appear to have been all that radical or unheard of after all" As Algra points out, the relationship between god and man in early Stoicism is like that between sages -- with the qualification that such a god, as perfect rationality, is an ideal or limit to which humans can aspire.

The remainder of Algra's essay shows how Epictetus' "personalized" concept of god is more a difference in emphasis than a departure from Stoic orthodoxy; moreover, the literary style of the Discourses and Epictetus' Socratic spirit can account for such differences. Ierodiakonou's and Schofield's essays help unpack Epictetus' idiosyncratic spirit concerning his claim that the role of the philosopher is one assigned by God as a divine mission.

Epictetus – How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

At the same time -- echoing details in Algra's essay -- she shows how such a messenger and his announcements about conversion and salvation is solely secular and different from the "messengers" or angels of Christianity. Whereas Ierodiakonou sheds light on how Epictetus views philosophy as a divine vocation, Schofield sheds light on how a philosopher who had pondered the paradoxes and practices of Diogenes interpreted that lifestyle.

The two essays together thus illume the broader and more narrow nuances of Discourses III. The third cluster of essays--those by Sorabji, Erler, and Dragona-Monachou--are loosely united insofar as they touch upon topics related to the notion of "self" in Epictetus' philosophy. All three essays are also comparative: Sorabji juxtaposes Epictetus' account of proairesis with that found in Aristotle and to a lesser degree, Neoplatonic philosophy ; Erler juxtaposes Epictetus' account of how to respond to the fear of death with that given by Socrates in the Phaedo ; and Dragona-Monachou traces parallels she finds between Epictetus and Wittgenstein on the notion of freedom.

Sorabji's eleven page essay lays out the terrain of the problem by showing that Epictetus makes use of several different senses of "self" in his writings including one sense in which he identifies the self with a sense of proairesis or "rational decision. Erler's essay argues that the metaphor of "the child in man" -- the irrational element within the self that wrongly fears death, even though it is beyond one's control -- which Epictetus uses in Discourses II.

Finally, Dragona-Morgana situates Epictetus within the scholarly debate concerning the origins of the "free will problem" in classical philosophy and argues that Epictetus' notion of freedom is one based primarily on autonomy or self-mastery or in Suzanne Bobzien's words--with which Dragona-Morgana concurs--"freedom through self-restriction" 1.

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The fourth cluster of papers--those by Annas and the late Michael Frede--strike me as the richest contributions of the volume, and thus fittingly its conclusion. Both are concerned with the ways in which Epictetus views ethical obligations as situational--for instance, that my obligations are determined by the roles that I play, such as whether I am a parent, an employer, a spouse, etc. Annas addresses the relationship between our situational roles and personhood by juxtaposing Epictetus' account with modern ways around the problem. From a modern perspective, there appears to be at least potentially a conflict between one's obligations as a rational being and those related to a person's embeddedness in specific roles: what reason commands me to do impartially seems quite likely to conflict with the loyalty a sibling might require of me.

But the practical nature of Epictetus' and, for Annas, most ancient ethical theory obviates this conflict.


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  • As Annas puts it at one point, "given that our aim as Stoics is to achieve the good by becoming virtuous, this is to be found not in running away from our commitments, or by abstracting from our socially embedded roles and relationships. Rather, we seek the good from within those relationships, in a way best captured by what can be called aspiring to the Stoic ideal in our everyday life" Annas considers criticisms against such a view but sets it out as a plausible, defensible ethical theory.

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    • Mason Abstract The Stoic philosopher Epictetus has been one of the most influential of ancient thinkers, both in antiquity itself and in modern times.

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