Born in Hierapolis, Phrygia (modern Turkey) to a slave woman, Epictetus was himself a slave during his childhood and adolescence. He was lame, according to Origen’s account, from injuries caused by his master Epaphroditus’s twisting his leg until he broke it, although others accounts describe Epaphroditus as a good master. Epaphroditus, himself a freedman of Nero, sent Epictetus to study with the most influential Stoic teacher and theoretician of the time, Gaius Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus was freed by his master, or on the death of his master, sometime after Nero’s death in 68. Epictetus traveled to Rome and began instructing students in Stoicism. In the year 90, he was expelled, along with other Stoic philosophers, by the Roman emperor Domitian, and then moved to Epirus, where he led a large, thriving school of Stoic physics, logic, and ethics. He did not marry, but in his old age, with the help of a nurse, he took in an orphaned child who would otherwise have been exposed. Epictetus’ teachings were collected in two volumes by his pupil Lucius Flavius Arrian: the Discourses, written about 108, of which four of eight books survive, and the Encheiridion (also called the Manual or Handbook), made up of fragments from the Discourses. Arrian explains their informal expression by saying he did not intend to write a book, but to keep notes of what he used to hear Epictetus say “word for word in the very language he used, as far as possible, to capture the directness of his speech.”
Epictetus espoused the Stoic view of the ideal condition for a human being—to be aware of, yet immune to, the bruisings of fortune—to lack all dissatisfaction with anything about the world, to be disappointed by nothing, and to achieve an impersonal point of view. Yet Epictetus also held that if you can help people adjust their desires and attitudes to more realistic levels, you can help them improve their lives. To live in accordance with virtue is to live in accordance with nature, but in giving practical advice, Epictetus clearly realized that lowered expectations were less likely to be disappointed.
A number of Stoic thinkers, especially Seneca, celebrated suicide as the act of the wise man: it was the guarantee of freedom. Epictetus stressed a component of the Stoic view that suicide ought not to be undertaken too quickly to avoid suffering, since people can live best by accepting their powerlessness over circumstances through their capacity for control of the will and by refusing to allow the vicissitudes of life, even illness, to affect them. One need not in general kill oneself to avoid the sufferings of life, and to do so without good reason would be inappropriate. Epictetus used the Platonic (and originally Pythagorean) argument that traded on the metaphor of the person as guard or sentinel, stationed by God at a post, to discourage suicide in response to painful circumstances: “Friends, wait for God, till he give the signal and dismiss you from this service; then depart to him. For the present, endure to remain at this post where he has placed you.” Strategies like analysis, delay, detachment, and so on may minimize fortune’s blows. Yet suicide is the most drastic method of escaping pain, and it can certainly be used when all else has failed: The door, to use the frequent Stoic metaphor, is always open.
Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, ch. 9; Book III, ch. 10; Book IV, ch. 1, tr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1865), Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc., 1944, pp. 27-28, 198-199, 281-282.
How From the Doctrine of Our Relationship to God We Are to Deduce Its Consequences
I think that your old teacher ought not to have to be working to keep you from thinking or speaking too meanly or ignobly of yourselves, but should rather be working to keep young men of spirit who, knowing their affinity to the gods and how we are, as it were, fettered by the body and its possessions, and by the many other things that thus are needful for the daily pursuits of life, from resolving to throw them all off, as troublesome and vexatious and useless, and depart to their divine kindred.
This is the work that ought to employ your master and teacher, if you had one. You would come to him and say: “Epictetus, we can no longer bear being tied down to this poor body-feeding, and resting, and cleaning it, and vexed with so many low cares on its account. Are not these things indifferent and nothing to us and death no evil? Are we not kindred to God; and did we not come from him? Suffer us to go back whence we came. Suffer us to be released at last from these fetters that bind and weigh us down. Here thieves and robbers, courts and tyrants, claim power over us, through the body and its possessions. Suffer us to show them that they have no power.”
In which case it would be my part to answer: “Friends, wait for God, till he give the signal and dismiss you from this service; then depart to him. For the present, endure to remain at this post where he has placed you. The time of your abode here is short and easy for men like you; for what tyrant, what thief, or what court can be formidable to those who count as nothing the body and its possessions? Wait, do not foolishly depart.”
How We Should Bear Illness
Now is your time for a fever. Bear it well. For thirst; bear it well. For hunger; bear it well. Is it not in your power? Who shall restrain you? A physician may restrain you from drinking, but he cannot restrain you from bearing your thirst well. He may restrain you from eating, but he cannot restrain you from bearing hunger well. “But I cannot follow my studies.” And for what end do you follow them, slave? Is it not that you may think and act in conformity with nature? What restrains you, but that, in a fever, you may keep your reason in harmony with nature?
Here is the test of the matter. Here is the trial of the philosopher; for a fever is a part of life, as is a walk, a voyage, or a journey. Do you read when you are walking? No, nor in a fever. But when you walk well, you attend to what belongs to a walker; so, if you bear a fever well, you have everything belonging to one in a fever. What is it to bear a fever well? Not to blame either God or man, not to be afflicted at what happens, to await death bravely, and to do what is to be done. When the physician enters, not to dread what he may say; nor, if he should tell you that you are doing well to be too much rejoiced; for what good has he told you? When you were in health, what good did it do you? Not to be dejected when he tells you that you are very ill; for what is it to be very ill? To be near the separation of soul and body. What harm is there in this, then? If you are not near it now, will you not be near it hereafter? What, will the world be quite overturned when you die? Why, then, do you flatter your physician? Why do you say, “If you please, sir, I shall do well”? Why do you give him occasion to put on airs? Why not give him what is his due (with regard to an insignificant body—which is not yours, but by nature mortal) as you do a shoemaker about your foot, or a carpenter about a house? It is the season for these things, to one in a fever. If he fulfills these, he has what belongs to him. For it is not the business of a philosopher to take care of these mere externals—of his wine, his oil, or his body—but of his reason. And how with regard to externals? Not to behave inconsiderately about them.
What occasion is there, then for fear; what occasion for anger, for desire, about things that belong to others, or are of no value? For two rules we should always have ready—that there is nothing good or evil save in the will; and that we are not to lead events, but to follow them.
[Socrates] did not even deliberate about it; though he knew that, perhaps, he might die for it. But what did that signify to him? For it was something else that he wanted to preserve, not his flesh; but his fidelity, his honor, free from attack or subjection. And afterwards, when he was to make a defense for his life, does he behave like one having children, or a wife? No, but like a man alone in the world. And how does he behave, when required to drink the poison? When he might escape, and Crito would have him escape from prison for the sake of his children, what did he say? Does he think it a fortune opportunity? How should he? But he considers what is becoming, and neither sees nor regards anything else. “For I am not desirous,” he says, “to preserve this pitiful body; but that part which is improved and preserved by justice, and impaired and destroyed by injustice.” Socrates is not to be basely preserved. He who refused to vote for what the Athenians commanded; he who despised the thirty tyrants; he who held such discourses on virtue and mortal beauty—such a man is not to be preserved by a base action, but is preserved by dying, instead of running away. For a good actor is saved when he stops when he should stop, rather than acting beyond his time.
“What then will become of your children?” “If I had gone away into Thessaly, you would have taken care of them; and will there be no one to take care of them when I am departed to Hades?”1 You see how he ridicules and plays with death. But if it had been you or I, we should presently have proved by philosophical arguments that those who act unjustly are to be repaid in their own way; and should have added, “If I escape I shall be of use to many; if I die, to none.” Nay, if it had been necessary, we should have crept through a mouse hole to get away. But how should we have been of use to anybody? Where could we be of use? If we were useful alive, should we not be of still more use to mankind by dying when we ought and as we ought? And now the remembrance of the death of Socrates is not less, but even more useful to the world than that of the things which he did and said when alive.
Study these points, these principles, these discourses; contemplate these examples if you would be free, if you desire the thing in proportion to its value. And where is the wonder that you should purchase so good a thing at the price of other things, be they never so many and so great? Some hang themselves, others break their necks, and sometimes even whole cities have been destroyed for that which is reputed freedom; and will not you for the sake of the true and secure and inviolable freedom, repay God what he has given when he demands it? Will you study not only, as Plato says, how to die, but how to be tortured and banished and scourged; and, in short, how to give up all that belongs to others?
If not, you will be a slave among slaves, though you were ten thousand times a consul; and even though you should rise to the palace, you will be a slave none the less.