The Life of Epictetus |

6 min read
Wikimedia Commons/William Sonmans/Public domain

Illustration of Epictetus, with lamp and crutch, in Edward Ivie’s 1715 Latin translation of the Enchiridion.

Wikimedia Commons/William Sonmans/Public domain

Stoic philosophy has exerted an important influence on the history of ideas, including on the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill.

In the field of mental health, Stoicism inspired what has become the most common form of talking treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Aaron Beck (d. 2021), the father of CBT, wrote that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.”

Epictetus, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, is one of our three main sources on Stoicism. But whereas Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, and Seneca was the wealthiest man in the empire, Epictetus began as a mere slave.

So, how did he rise to such prominence?

Early Years

Epictetus (c. 50-c. 135 CE) was born into slavery at Hierapolis, in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). His name, in Greek, means something like, “Acquired One.”

He spent his youth in Rome as a slave to Epaphroditus, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero. In 68, Epaphroditus assisted Nero in committing suicide (since Nero could not bring himself to plunge the dagger), with the deluded emperor lamenting, Qualis artifex pereo [“What an artist dies in me!”].

In those early years, Epictetus, though a slave, found the love of philosophy, and even managed to study under the charismatic Musonius.

It is also around this time that he developed a disability, which may have owed to rheumatoid arthritis, although the Christian theologian Origen claims that it was his master who injured him.

One day, or so the story goes, Epaphroditus lost his temper and grabbed Epictetus by the leg. He twisted it so forcefully that Epictetus warned him that it would break. When it snapped, Epictetus did not wince or cry, but calmly said, “Did I not tell you that it would break?”

Teaching Career

Some time after Nero’s death, by virtue of his education or the dignity which it conferred upon him, Epictetus gained his civil freedom, having already acquired the far greater freedom of the mind. Now a freedman, he taught philosophy in Rome.

When, in 94, Domitian banished all philosophers from the capital, he went to Nicopolis, in Epirus, Greece, where he established a school of philosophy and remained for the rest of his life.

Like Musonius, Epictetus concentrated on ethics, arguing that physics and logic (the other two branches of ancient philosophy) ought to be in the service of practical action:

What do I care if matter is made up of atoms, indivisibles, or fire and earth? Isn’t it enough to know the nature of good and evil, the limits of desire and aversion, and of choice and refusal, and to use these as virtual guidelines for how to live? Questions beyond our ken we should ignore, since the human mind may be unable to grasp them… [and] what’s to be gained by understanding them in any case?

The purpose of education is “to practice how to remove from one’s life sighs and sorrow, grief and disappointment, and cries of “Alas” and “Poor me”.” This is mostly a matter of according our will to the world, “so that nothing happens contrary to our wishes, and, conversely, nothing fails to happen that we want to happen.”

Hadrian, the future emperor, held Epictetus in the highest regard, and visited him, a former slave, in Nicopolis.

Private Life

Epictetus did not marry or have children, despite urging these things upon others.

When he rebuked his friend and student Demonax for not marrying, Demonax sarcastically replied, “Very well, then, will you give me one of your daughters for a wife?”

However, in his retirement, he did, out of necessity, adopt the child of a friend, and raised him with the help of a woman.

One day, the iron lamp by which he wrote was stolen. Reasoning that one can only lose what one has, he replaced it with a lamp of clay—which, after his death, was purchased at a high price by an admirer with no sense of irony.

Philosophy Essential Reads

The Discourses and Encheiridion

Epictetus’ teachings were recorded as the Discourses (or Diatribai) by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia, also known, among others, for his account of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, which are written in a very different style.

In a prefatory note to the Discourses, Arrian writes that “whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could…”

In the same prefatory note, Arrian also claims that the Discourses “have somehow, without my knowledge or intention, fallen into the public’s hands.”

Such, in any case, is the public story, but it is possible that Epictetus wrote the rather polished Discourses himself, with Arrian’s claimed authorship being no more than a subterfuge (or literary device) aimed at creating an impression of rawness.

Of the eight original books, only four have come down to us, and we also have the more portable Encheiridion, which is a digest of the Discourses—the word encheiridion [Greek, en + kheir, literally, “in hand”] meaning something like ‘”to have at hand”, originally with reference to a dagger or knife.


According to Origen, by the third century, Epictetus’ renown exceeded that of Plato.

Plato is only found in the hands of those reputed to be philologists. By contrast, Epictetus is admired by ordinary people who have the desire to be benefited and who perceive improvement from his writings.

In the ninth century, al-Kindi, the “Father of Arab Philosophy”, wrote a Device for Dispelling Sorrows which appears to have been influenced by Stoicism—for instance, in the contention that sorrow arises from thwarted desire, or the contention that sorrow is more a matter of convention than of nature.

In a striking analogy, which also features in the Encheiridion, al-Kindi compares life to a landfall during a much longer sea voyage back to our homeland, and warns us, as Epictetus did, not to get so caught up by the fruits and flowers as to forget about the ship.

In the first major book on rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), the forerunner of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the psychotherapist Albert Ellis (d. 2007) acknowledged his debt to Stoicism and framed his project by quoting a line from the Encheiridion: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.”

The US fighter pilot James Stockdale (d. 2005) credited Epictetus with helping him endure and survive the most horrendous torture and captivity in war-torn Vietnam, including four years in solitary confinement in a 3’ by 9’ concrete, windowless cell.

When his A-4 Skyhawk jet fell out of the sky, Stockdale said to himself, as he parachuted down into the jungle, “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus!”

More than seven years later, Stockdale finally came out of Vietnam, and, in 1992, ran for Vice President on Ross Perot’s independent ticket.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours