Epictetus: biography of this Greek philosopher

From the slave in Rome to the great Stoic master of Epirus. This could be the letter of introduction from Epictetus, a philosopher living in the days of classical Greece. Slave of freedom to Nero, he was able to approach philosophy from the hand of Musonius Rufus, the great Stoic.

Once he has achieved freedom, Epictetus devotes himself entirely to philosophy. He could hardly do more because, under the reign of Nero, times were not good for the city of Rome, which had to go into exile.

Although not much more is known about his life, his teachings have managed to survive the passage of time, being collected in the Enquiridion and in dissertations. Let us take a closer look at who this philosopher was and his particular way of dealing with Stoicism, through a biography of Epictetus in summary format.

    Brief biography of Epictetus

    Epictetus (in classical Greek was born in AD 55 near Hierapolis of Phrygia, now Pamukkale, Turkey. Little is known about his childhood, other than the fact that at one point he was enslaved and taken to Rome.

    His name is sufficiently descriptive of his condition as a slave, for it means “appendix”, “gained” or “acquired”. His master was Epaphroditus, a freedman who had been a slave to Nero. During his reign, Epictetus suffered cruelly and Epaphroditus broke his leg.

    But despite his terrible cruelty, Epaphroditus allowed Epictetus to attend lessons from the Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus, an important and well-known Stoic in Rome.. Over time, Epictetus would gain in freedom and fully enjoy the art of philosophizing. The doctrine of Musonius Rufus made a strong impression on him, making this former slave a great missionary of Stoicism. He would learn that Stoicism, more than a philosophy, was a way of life, something that would make him an admired master.

    Musonio Rufo’s popularity made sense in Rome, especially among the city’s aristocracy. Stoicism had become fashionable in the big city and was a current of great interest to anyone who wanted to be called a man of philosophical knowledge. However, despite the emergence of thought and culture, these were not good times for Rome as Nero’s command was terribly cruel, which Musonius Rufus and his disciple Epictetus would soon know firsthand.

    From time immemorial, good philosophy and tyranny have never been in harmony. Nero saw the development of knowledge as a real danger for his government, With which he had no problem expelling many wise men. Mathematicians, astrologers and, of course, philosophers had to leave Rome. Musonius Rufus and Epictetus fell victim to the expulsion, and the freedman eventually settled in Nicopolis, Epirus. This would be where he would become a very famous figure, drawing visitors to Magna Graecia.

    Epictetus would build his own Stoic school in the city and, in it, he would share his teachings with figures such as Emperor Hadrian himself, Marcus Aurelius or Aulus Gelius. His most important disciple was Flavi Arrià, who was responsible for documenting his teachings and bringing them together in the two works for which he is known: the Enquiridion and the Dissertations. Epictetus always opted for a poor and lonely, albeit generous and humane way of life. This great philosopher died between 125 and 130 AD

      Thinking and work

      Much of the knowledge of Epictetus has come to us through his disciple Flavius ​​Arrianus of Nicomedia. It is to him and to his faithful enthusiasm that he has preserved the spontaneous, vigorous and sincere word of Epictetus, reaching our days in the form of two works: Dissertations and Enquiridion.

      It should be noted that it is also other of his disciples, such as Marcus Aurelius, Aulus Gelius, Arnobius and Stobeus, who dedicated him to the writing of some fragments mentioning the knowledge of his master.

      Epictet he does not stand out much in the speculative sphere but in his way of seeing stoicism. It does not demand a quiet life alongside others, nor an optimistic harmony with the great laws, with God and the world. What he promulgates is freedom as an ethical conquest and religious liberation, and he speaks of the absolute independence of the soul. In his dissertations, he does not encourage the stoicism of Seneca or Poseidon, but Epictetus seeks virtue, more freedom than wisdom, inflexibly and in faith.


      The essays, also called diatribes or speeches of Epictetus, originally consisted of eight books, four of which have come down to us. They were written by Flavio Arriano of Nicomedia and he himself declares that he confined himself to faithfully transcribing what his master said. in his school in Nicopolis. Arriano goes so far as to say that he hopes he can share not only his master’s teachings, but his own carefree and blunt but also morally sublime tone.

      Epictetus’ stoicism could be seen as rather alternative. Nevertheless, what is exposed in Dissertations makes it possible to make of this work a fundamental text to know the third period of classical Stoicism, called Roman. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, influenced by the former, are considered to be the greatest representatives of this current. The philosopher is interested in moral issues, leaving behind the eclectic tendency that had been the norm in earlier Stoicism.

      Epictet brings together in all its rigor the concept of rational will as an aspect that governs the world given by God. It certainly gives the work an air of religiosity. The work reflects the influences of cynical doctrines on Epictetus’ thought, which is why it is not surprising that Flavi Arrià decided to call Dissertations, because it evokes cynical “diatribes” of a popular character.

      Epictetus spoke of Divine Providence as the world’s highest ruler, who rules it according to the laws of nature, coinciding with those of human reason. God is the father of men and has predisposed everything to his material and moral good. When evil intervenes in human life, we must not blame Providence, but the human being himself who has forgotten his sublime origin and put aside reason, which God has endowed him with to guide his actions.

      Reason is a divine particle that guides human beings towards good behavior. If the human being is seduced by false appearances of good, he ends up submitting to vices and passions, which makes him ill open up. By working in this way, all he accomplishes is rightly giving up his animal privilege, descending into misery, and relinquishing the freedom that God has given him.

      Thus, the human being is free when he has in his power and knows how to use the things that count: his thought, his inclinations and his will. The first chain of slavery is the passions that disturb the mind, while the second chain is found in external things, which have their origin in a mistaken idea: honors, wealth, health or our own. body. These are aspects that do not belong to us, which run out or expire after a certain time. That they are lost should not cause us everything.

      Human beings have to learn to encrypt their pleasures and everything, discover those which by their inner nature remain unchanged, steadfast and set them free. Man should be careful, confident and use the freedom God has given him as an intelligent being. Reason is the only immortal particle that God has given us in his omnipotence. Thus, the human being must take care of reason, because it is a divine portion which is in him and protect it from the contagion of the senses.

      Another aspect described in Dissertations is the idea that men form a human brotherhood. All men, as children of God, are brothers to one another. They should show mutual affection and help, forgive the faults of others, which inspires understanding and piety. In addition, they must be careful when judging others and apply calmly considered punishments. It must be understood that to avenge the crime only aggravates it and diminishes the moral integrity of the one who takes revenge.

      the Inquiridion

      The Enquiridion, also called Manuel d’Epictetus, is also a work written by Flavio Arriano. It is a collection of maxims and moral teachings spoken by Epictetus, Described in a clear and concise manner. This work is well known thanks to the version that published Giacomo Leopardi in 1825.

      In this work, Epictetus’ maxim is presented that freedom is the supreme good. Judgment, intellect, inclination, desire and aversion are factors that we can somehow control, and the use we give of them will give us more or less freedom. Instead, body, health, fortune, wealth, and honor are factors the gods give us in ways that we can hardly change. Only those aspects which are under our power to change have moral relief, useful for the dignity and perfection of the soul.

      For Epictetus, a wise man is because he knows how to distinguish between what is under his control and what is not. The intellect, for example, is something purely ours, the use is up to us. Nothing and no one can deprive us of what is ours, not even the gods themselves. This is why the following maxim is attributed to him:

      “Not even Jupiter himself can force me to desire what I don’t want or to believe in what I don’t believe.”

      Freedom begins when one masters one’s own irrational impulses, be they instincts, vices and passions, and extends to that of ambitions, disappointments, social and political facts, the fear of falling. sick and death.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Musonio Rufo, Cayo / Epictet (1995). Table of onions / essays; minor fragments / Manual; fragments. Editorial Gredos. Madrid. ISBN 978-84-249-1689-3.
      • Epictet (1993). Dissertations by Arriano. Editorial Gredos. Madrid. ISBN 978-84-249-1628-2.

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