Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod,
I, Epicietus, was the friend of God.
Epictetus was a slave woman's son, and for many years a slave himself. The tone and temper of his whole life were determined thereby. An all-engulfing passion for independence and freedom so preoccupied him in his youth, that throughout his life he was obsessed with the fear of restraint, and tended to regard mere liberty, even in its negative aspect alone, as almost the highest conceivable good. It is perhaps no less noteworthy that he came from Hierapolis in Phrygia. From of old the Phrygians had conceived of their deities with a singular intensity and entered into their worship with a passion that was often fanaticism, and sometimes downright frenzy. It is, therefore, not unnatural that the one Greek philosopher who, despite the monistic and necessitarian postulates of his philosophy, conceived of his God in as vivid a fashion as the writers of the New Testament, and almost as intimately as the founder of Christianity himself, should have inherited the passion for a personal god from the folk and land of his nativity.
Beside these two illuminating facts, the other details of his life history are of relatively little importance. He was owned for a time by Epaphroditus, the freedman and administrative secretary of Nero, and it was while yet in his service that he began to take lessons from Musonius Rufus, the greatest Stoic teacher of the age, whose influence was the dominant one in his career. He was of feeble health, and lame, the latter probably because of the brutality of a master in his early years; long unmarried, until in his old age he took a wife to help him bring up a little child whose parents, friends of his, were about to expose it; so simple in his style of living, that in Rome he never locked the doors of a habitation, whose only furniture was said to be a pallet and a rush mat, and in Nicopolis (in Epirus, opposite Actium) contented himself with an earthenware lamp after the theft of his iron one.
Of the external aspects of his career it should be noted that he had a recognized position as a philosopher when Domitian banished all such persons from Rome (presumably in a.d. 89 or 92); that he settled in Nicopolis, where he conducted what seems to have been a fairly large and well-regarded school; that he travelled a little, probably to Olympia, and certainly once to Athens. In this connection it should also be observed that his general literary education was not extensive — Homer, of course, a little Plato and Xenophon, principally for their testimony about Socrates, a few stock references to tragedy, and the professional's acquaintance with the philosophy of the later schools, and this is practically all. It can scarcely be doubted, as Schenkl observes (p. xci), that this literary apparatus comes almost entirely from the extensive collections of Chrysippus. And the same may be said of his aesthetic culture. He seems to have seen and been impressed by the gold-and ivory statues of Zeus and Athena, at Olympia and Athens respectively, but he set no very high value upon the work of artists, for he allowed himself once the almost blasphemous characterization of the Acropolis and its incomparable marbles as "pretty bits of stone and a pretty rock." Epictetus was merely moralist and teacher, but yet of such transcendent attainments as such that it seems almost impertinent to expect anything more of him.
The dates of his birth and of his death cannot be determined with any accuracy. The burning of the Capitol in a.d. 69 was yet a vivid memory while he was still a pupil of Musonius; he enjoyed the personal acquaintance of Hadrian, but not of Marcus Aurelius, for all the latter's admiration of him; and he speaks freely of himself as an old man, and is characterized as such by Lucian (Adv. Indoctum, 13); accordingly his life must have covered roughly the period ca. a.d. 50-120, with which limits the rare and rather vague references to contemporary events agree. He was, accordingly, an almost exact contemporary of Plutarch and Tacitus.
Like Socrates and others whom he admired, he wrote nothing for publication, and but little memory would have survived of him had not a faithful pupil, successful as historian and administrator, Flavius Arrian, recorded many a discourse and informal conversation. These are saved to us in four books of Διατριβαί, or Discourses, out of the original eight, and in a very brief compendium, the 'Εγχειρίδιον, a Manual or Handbook, in which, for the sake of a general public which could not take time to read the larger ones, the elements of his doctrine were somewhat mechanically put together out of verbatim, or practically verbatim, extracts from the Discourses. That Arrian's report is a stenographic record of the ipsissima verba of the master there can be no doubt. His own compositions are in Attic, while these works are in the Koine, and there are such marked differences in style, especially in the use of several of the prepositions, as Mücke has pointed out, that one is clearly dealing with another personality. Add to that the utter difference in spirit and tempo, and Arrian's inability when writing propria persona to characterize sharply a personality, while the conversations of Epictetus are nothing if not vivid.
We have, accordingly, in Arrian's Discourses a work which, if my knowledge does not fail me, is really unique in literature, the actual words of an extraordinarily gifted teacher upon scores, not to say hundreds, of occasions in his own class-room, conversing with visitors, reproving, exhorting, encouraging his pupils, enlivening the dullness of the formal instruction, and, in his own parable, shooting it through with the red stripe of a conscious moral purpose in preparation for the problem of right living. The regular class exercises were clearly reading and interpretation of characteristic portions of Stoic philosophical works, somewhat as in an oral examination; problems in formal logic, these apparently conducted by assistants, or advanced pupils; and the preparation of themes or essays on a large scale which required much writing and allowed an ambitious pupil to imitate the style of celebrated authors. The Master supervised the formal instruction in logic, even though it might be conducted by others, but there is no indication that he delivered systematic lectures, although he clearly made special preparation to criticize the interpretations of his pupils (I. 10, 8). From the nature of the comments, which presuppose a fair elementary training in literature, we can feel sure that only young men and not boys were admitted to the school, and there are some remarks which sound very much like introductions to the general subject of study, while others are pretty clearly addressed to those who were about to leave — constituting, in fact, an early and somewhat rudimentary variety of Commencement Address. Some of the pupils were preparing to teach, but the majority, no doubt, like Arrian, were of high social position and contemplated entering the public service.
For a proper understanding of the Discourses it is important to bear in mind their true character, which Halbauer in a valuable study has most clearly stated thus (p. 56): "The Diatribae are not the curriculum proper, nor even a part of that curriculum. On the contrary, this consisted of readings from the Stoic writings, while the Diatribae accompany the formal instruction, dwell on this point or on that, which Epictetus regarded as of special importance, above all give him an opportunity for familiar discourse with his pupils, and for discussing with them in a friendly spirit their personal affairs." They are not, therefore, a formal presentation of Stoic philosophy, so that it is unfair to criticize their lack of system and their relative neglect of logic and physics, upon which the other Stoics laid such stress, for they were not designed as formal lectures, and the class exercises had dwelt satis superqiie, as Epictetus must have felt, upon the physics and logic, which were after all only the foundation of conduct, the subject in which he was primarily interested. They are class-room comment, in the frank and open spirit which was characteristic of the man, containing not a little of what we should now be inclined to restrict to a private conference, often closely connected, no doubt, with the readings and themes, but quite as often, apparently, little more than obiter dicta. They constitute a remarkable self-revelation of a character of extraordinary strength, elevation, and sweetness, and despite their frequent repetitions and occasional obscurity must ever rank high in the literature of personal portrayal, even were one inclined to disregard their moral elevation. For Epictetus was without doubt, as the great wit and cynic Lucian calls him, "a marvellous old man."
It may not be amiss to dwell a few moments upon the outstanding features of his personality, before saying a few words upon his doctrines, for his doctrines, or at all events the varying emphasis laid on his doctrines, were to a marked degree influenced by the kind of man that he was.
And first of all I should observe that he had the point of view of a man who had suffered from slavery and abhorred it, but had not been altogether able to escape its influence. He was predisposed to suflfer, to renounce, to yield, and to accept whatever burden might be laid upon him. He was not a revolutionist, or a cultured gentleman, or a statesman, as were other Stoics before and after. Many of the good things of life which others enjoyed as a matter of course he had grown accustomed never to demand for himself; and the social obligations for the maintenance and advancement of order and civilization, towards which men of higher station were sensitive, clearly did not weigh heavily upon his conscience. His whole teaching was to make men free and happy by a severe restriction of effort to the realm of the moral nature. The celebrated life-formula, ανέχου και απέχου, which one feels inclined to retranslate as "Endure and Renounce," in order to give it once more the definite meaning of which the cliché, "Bear and Forbear," has almost robbed it, is, to speak frankly, with all its wisdom, and humility, and purificatory power, not a sufficient programme for a highly organized society making towards an envisaged goal of general improvement.
And again, in youth he must have been almost consumed by a passion for freedom. I know no man upon whose lips the idea more frequently occurs. The words " free '' (adjective and verb) and "freedom" appear some 130 times in Epictetus, that is, with a relative frequency about six times that of their occurrence in the New Testament and twice that of their occurrence in Marcus Aurelius, to take contemporary works of somewhat the same general content And with the attainment of his personal freedom there must have come such an upwelling of gratitude to God as that which finds expression in the beautiful hvmn of praise concluding the sixteenth chapter of the first book, so that, while most Stoics assumed or at least recognized the possibility of a kind of immortality, he could wholly dispense with that desire for the survival of personality after death which even Marcus Aurelius felt to be almost necessary for his own austere ideal of happiness.
1 Δοϋλος 'Επίκτητος γενμην και σωμ' ανάπηρος αι πενίην 'Ιρος και φίλος αθανάοις. An anonymous epigram (John Chrys., Patrol. Gr. LX. III; Macrob. Sat. I. 11,45; Anth. Pal. VII 676), as translated by H. Macnaghten. The ascription to Leonidas is merely a palaeographical blunder in part of the MS. tradition, that to Epictetus himself (by Macrobius) a patent absurdity.
2 This is the explicit testimony of an undated but fairly early inscription from Pisidia (J. R. S. Sterrett: Papers of the Amer. School of Class. Stud. at Athens, 1884--5, 3, 315f.; G. Kaibel: Hermes, 1888, 23, 542ff.), and of Palladius (Ps. Callisthenes, III, 10, ed. C. Müller), and is distinctly implied by a phrase in a letter professedly addressed to him by one of the Philostrati (Ep. 69: εκλαθάνεσθαι τίς ει και τίνων γέγονας). I see, therefore, no reason to doubt the statement, an does Schenkl (2nd ed., p. xvi). The phrase δουλος... γεόμην in the epigram cited above cannot be used as certain evidence, because γίγνεσθαι, as Schenkl observes, too frequently equates είναι in the poets, but, in view of the other testimony, it in probable that servile origin was what the author of it had in mind. There in little reason to think, with Martha (Les Moralistes, 150), that Epictetus wan not his real name, and that the employment of it is indicative of a modesty so real that it sought even a kind of anonymity, since the designation is by no means restricted to slaves, while his modesty, because coupled with Stoic straightforwardness, is far removed from the shrinking humility that seeks self effacement.
3 It in noteworthy, as Lagrange, p. 201, observes, that Montanus, who soon after the time of Epictetus "threatened Christianity with the invasion of undisciplined spiritual graces," wan also a Phrygian.
4 So many passages in Epictetus can be paralleled closely from the remaining fragments of Rufus (as Epictetus always calls him) that there can be no doubt but the system of thought in the pupil is little more than an echo, with changes of emphasis due to the personal equation, of that of the master.
5 This is generally doubted nowadays, especially since Bentley's emphatic pronouncement (cf. Trans. Am. Philol. Assoc., 1921, 53, 42) in favour of the account in Suidas, to the effect that his lameness was the result of rheumatism. Ceteris paribus one would, of course, accept as probable the less sensational story. But it requires unusual powers of credulity to believe Suidas against any authority whomsoever, and in this case the other authorities are several, early, and excellent. In the first place Celsus (in Origen, contra Celsum, VII, 53), who was probably a younger contemporary of Epictetus and had every occasion to be well informed; further, Origen (I.c.), who clearly accepted and believed the story, since his very answer to the argument admits the authenticity of the account, while the easiest or most convincing retort would have been to deny it ; then Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Caesarius (in a number of places, see the teslimonia in Schenkl2, pp viii—ix ; of course the absurdities in Pseudo- Nonnus, Cosmas of Jerusalem, Elias of Crete, et id genus omne, have no bearing either way). Now the fact that such men as Origen and Gregory accepted and propagated the account (even though Epictetus, and in this particular instance especially, had been exploited as a pagan saint, the equal or the superior of even Jesus himself) is sufficient to show that the best informed Christians of the third and fourth centuries knew of no other record. To my feeling it is distinctly probable that the denial of the incident may have emanated from some over-zealous Christian, in a period of less scrupulous apologetics, who thought to take down the Pagans a notch or two. The very brief statement in Simplicius, "that he was lame from an early period of his life" (Comm. on the Encheiridion, 102b Heins.), establishes nothing and would agree perfectly with either story. The connection in which the words occur would make any explanatory digression unnatural, and, whereas similar conciseness in Plutarch might perhaps argue ignorance of further details, such an inference would be false for Simplicius, the dullness of whose commentary is so portentous that it cannot be explained as merely the unavoidable concomitant of vast scholarship and erudition, but must have required a deliberate effort directed to the suppression of the elements of human interest. Epictetus' own allusions to his lameness are non-committal, but of course he would have been the last person to boast about such things. And yet, even then, the references to the power of one's master, or tyrant, to do injury by means of chains, sword, rack, scourging, prison, exile, crucifixion, and the like (although the general theme is a kind of Stoic commonplace), are so very numerous as compared with the physical afflictions which come in the course of nature, that it is altogether reasonable to think of his imagination having been profoundly affected during his impressionable years by a personal experience of this very sort.
6 He had been stung, no doubt, by the bitter and in his case unfair gibe of Demonax, who, on hearing Epictetus' exhortation to marry, had sarcastically asked the hand of one of his daughters ( Lucian, Demon. 55).
7 Philostratus, Epist. 69; Lucian, Demon. 55 would not be inconsistent with the idea of such a visit, but does not necessarily presuppose it.
8 The Capitol was burned in 69 and again in A.D. 80, but the reference to the event (I. 7, 32) as a crime suggests that the earlier date should be understood, since the burning then was due to revolution, while that in A.D. 80 was accidental.
9 Although he must have written much for his own purposes in elaborating his argumentation by dialectic, since he lauds Socrates for such a practice and speaks of it as usual for a "philosopher." Besides, in his own discourses he is always looking for an interlocutor, whom he often finds in the person of pupil or visitor, but, failing these, he carries on both sides of the debate himself. Cf. Colardeau, p. 294 f.
10Some, especially Schenkl, have believed in the existence of other collections, and it was long thought that Arrian had composed a special biography. But the evidence for the other works seems to be based entirely upon those variations in title and form of reference which ancient methods of citation freely allowed, and it is improbable that there ever existed any but the works just mentioned. See the special study by R. Asmus, whose conclusions have been accepted by Zeller, 767, n., and man}' others.
11 This has occasionally been translated by Pugio, or Dagger, in early modern editions, possibly with a half-conscious memory of Hebrews iv. 12: For the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. But despite the not inappropriate character of such a designation, and the fact that Simplicius himself (preface to his commentary) misunderstood the application, there can be no doubt but the word βιβλίον is to be supplied and that the correct meaning is Handbook or Compendium; cf. Colardeau's discussion, p. 25.
12 Hartmann, p. 252 ff., has settled this point.
13 Colardeau, pp. 71-113, has an admirable discussion of the method and technique of instruction employed. In view of the singularly valuable nature of the material it seems strange that more attention has not been paid to Epictetus in the history of ancient education.
14 See Halbauer, p. 45 ff., for a good discussion of these points and a critique of the views of Bruns, Colardeau, and Hartmann.
15 Cf. Bonhoffer, 1S90, 22. The arrangement of topics by Anian is a point which seems not to have been discussed as fully as it deserves. Hartuiann's view, that the order is that of exact chronological sequence, seems to be an exaggeration of what may be in the main correct, but I think I can trace evidences of a somewhat formal nature in some of the groupings, and it seems not unlikely that a few of the chapters contain remarks delivered on several occasions. However, this is a point which requires an elaborate investigation and cannot be discussed here.
16 Compare the excellent remarks of E V. Arnold upon this point, Encyclop., etc., 324.
17 See Zeller's admirable discussion of this topic, p. 776.
18"Sich aber als Menschheit (und nicht nur als Individuum) ebenso vergeudet zu fühlen, wie wir die einzelne Blüthe von der Natur vergeudet sehen, ist ein Gefühl über alle Gefühle. — Wer ist aber desselhen fahig?" F. Nietzsche: MenscMichus, Allzzumenschliches, I. 51.