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Why You Must Get to Know the Wise Sage Epictetus

What? You’ve never heard of Epictetus? (Epic-teeʹ-tus) You are not alone. I’m right there with you. I had no knowledge of Epictetus until I ran across one of his most famous quotes:

“We are disturbed not by things that happen, but by our opinion of things that happen.”

Epictetus had many practical words of advice which are relevant to modern persons like you and like me.

“So what,” you say. “Thousands of philosophers, seers, religious leaders, politicians, educators, and on and on, have given us their views. We have advice coming out of our ears.”

Well, just a minute. The puzzling factor with Epictetus’ advice concerns the unlikely evolution of his life. How does it happen that a simple human being, born a slave almost 2000 years before our time, could think ideas that seem relevant to our present-day psyche?

Let’s try to find out.

Epictetus was born in the southwestern region of what we now call Turkey between 50-55 AD. We old folks know that AD stands for Anno Domini, or in the Year of Our Lord, but you may find Epictetus’ birth year written as 50-55 CE which is now used by some to connote the Christian Era or Common Era. His exact birthplace is thought to be Hierapolis, Phrygia in what was known as southwest Anatolia at the time, an area which seems to have changed hands and allegiances often. It is difficult to sort out whether Epictetus was born a Greek slave or a Roman slave. Various chroniclers label him as one or the other. Stephen Walton, President of Ideonautics Corporation, and a man with interest in Stoic philosophy, refers to Epictetus as a Graeco-Roman Stoic philosopher, so perhaps we can think of Epictetus as a little bit of both Greek and Roman, whether slave or philosopher.

But we do have to ask the one HUGE question staring us in the face and we ask it with great wonderment: How did Epictetus morph from a slave into a philosopher?

Here’s what may or may not be true: Epictetus was born to a slave woman and therefore he was automatically a slave himself. His master was an important aide de camp for Emperor Nero. Sometime after Nero’s death in 68 AD, the master decided to free Epictetus, perhaps because the master realized that the youth, Epictetus, was a bright young man who would benefit from education. The master made arrangements for Epictetus to study in Rome with one of the greatest Stoic teachers of the time Musonius Rufus.

Under Emperor Domitian, in 89 AD, all philosophers were banished from Rome. Unabashed, Epictetus traveled to Nicopolis, a cultural magnet on the Adriatic coast of northwestern Greece where he established a school and became wildly popular among students of philosophy. He remained there until his death around 135 AD.

In his private life, Epictetus never married. However, it is thought that during his later years, he adopted a child who was in need. It is this act of love and benevolence that causes me to celebrate, with you, the life of Epictetus. This man, born a slave, perhaps wrought with so much lameness that he moved about with the aid of a crutch, loved life so completely that he recognized the importance of embracing the life of a child who needed him. Here was a man who truly brought harmony to those around him by demonstrating his love and by listening to others, learning from others, and teaching others.

The teachings of Epictetus were recorded by his student, Arrian, and the collection became known as the Discourses. A shorter version of the Discourses was called the Enchiridion or Manual or Handbook in English. It seems that some scholars frown upon the Enchiridion as being so brief that it precludes us from fully grasping the underpinnings of Epictetus’ thoughts. However, I, being unschooled in Stoicism, looked over the multitude of references on the internet about Epictetus and his teachings in order to find something I could understand. I found it. I wish to point you to a clear “modern” interpretation of the Enchiridion by a man I mentioned earlier, Stephen Walton. Here you can read what Mr. Walton titles “The Manual, or How to Control Everything You Can, a modern rendering of the Enchiridion of Epictetus” by Stephen Walton.


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