Who was Epictetus?

Learn about the slave turned Stoic teacher

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

This week is focusing on the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

🏛️ Theory

Stoicism is for everyone.

Unlike many other philosophies, it is named, not after the founder, like Epicureanism or Platonism, but after a location: the Stoa. The Stoa was a painted porch, a place where the first Stoics discussed how to live. Even in the ancient world the philosophy could be adopted by anyone, whether slave or king.

One Stoic practitioner was the slave-turned-philosopher, Epictetus. Epictetus is an example of someone who resolved to live with excellence no matter what happened. He was born a slave in present-day Turkey around 50 AD. He came into the world shortly before the Stoic philosopher, Seneca died and Epictetus passed away himself shortly after the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was born.

He was born into slavery. The name “Epictetus” translates into “acquired.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a complex relationship with slavery. Individuals identified as promising were often trained to take on great responsibilities. Once, one of the richest men in Athens was a slave. If a wealthy man purchased a slave, he could grant that person a more prosperous life than what many lower-class Romans received – and perhaps the slave would eventually be freed. Unfortunately, most slaves robbed of their freedom were not that fortunate.

Even Epictetus, who had at least one good owner, was reportedly lame, due to an injury that he may have sustained while enslaved.

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to your purpose. Say this to yourself at each thing that happens and you will find the thing to be an impediment to something else, not to yourself.

Epictetus, Handbook 9

Luckily, Epictetus was eventually freed. He studied with the Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus. With his education, he became a Stoic teacher himself.

As it does, life dropped another obstacle onto his path and he was banished from Rome (in 89 AD Emperor Domitian banished philosophers from the city). So Epictetus left for Nicopolis in Greece and founded a school of philosophy there. There he trained young men in philosophy, war, and politics.

His teachings were transcribed by one of his students, Arrian. Arrian himself lived an accomplished life, playing the roles of historian, military commander, and philosopher. He popularized and recorded Epictetus’s teachings in the form of the Handbook (or Enchiridion) and The Discourses.

Despite enslavement, exile, and the contingencies of history, Epictetus’s thought survived into the modern age.

He was, above all, a teacher. Someone who exhorted his students to be as good as possible.

As such, he is direct, inspiring, and harsh.

How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him?

Epictetus, Handbook 51

Arrian begins Epictetus’s Handbook with The Dichotomy of Control – perhaps the central idea from the philosopher:

There are some things that are up to us, others that are not up to us. The things up to us are understanding, impulse, desire, aversion and, in a word, whatever acts are ours. The things not up to us are the body, possessions, reputation, professional positions and in a word, whatever acts are not ours.

Epictetus, Handbook 1

Some things are up to you, others are not. Freedom is found by focusing on what is up to you: your judgments and your decisions. That’s it.

Engaging with Epictetus well requires understanding his ideas, wrestling with them, and putting the best ones into practice.

🎯 Action

Consider what’s top of mind for you right now. List 5 - 10 things. Which of them is fundamentally up to you?

✉️ ✉️ Email Frequency Update

Last week’s issues covered how to live in the modern information environment. Many of us are facing too many distractions. To ensure that I’m not part of the problem, I’m reducing the weekly letter count from 3 to 2. This will help me make each letter better and free up time to work on our other projects.

And if you’re really missing that 3rd email you can always check out my intermittent personal newsletter for reading recommendations and longer pieces of philosophy.

🔗 Links

📱 Check out our course on Epictetus in the Stoa app. It includes daily meditations and lessons on how to build a more resilient and Stoic life from the Stoic teacher. Note – if you still want to use Stoa after trying a free trial but cannot afford it, reach out to us and we’ll give you a free account.

🎧️ Listen to a discussion with myself and Michael Tremblay (whose primary focus during his Ph.D. was Epictetus) on Stoic Psychology. We cover the Stoic theory of mind and then move to how we can use that theory to live better. You may also find this episode on the dichotomy of control useful.

📗 Read the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s own remix of Epictetus’s Handbook, A Field Guide to a Happy Life. Like the Handbook, it’s short.

What ancient Stoic philosopher is your favorite?

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🏆️ Share The Stoa Letter

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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