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.