Philosopher Epictetus: Biography, Quotes & Books

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, lived and worked in Rome as a teacher and philosopher. He is well known for his extensive writings as well as for his epic rise from slavery to being one of the most well-respected philosophers in western culture.

One Philosopher's Journey

Can you imagine what a life of slavery must have been like in Roman times? You would likely have been born into the life and unlikely ever to rise out of it. But Epictetus did just that! His story is far more than just coming out of slavery, however. It's a story of the arrival of one of the greatest philosophical minds in history.

As a philosopher, Epictetus was considered one of the great Stoics of his time. His life was marked by great struggle and great triumph. As a result, Epictetus managed to spark the hearts and minds of the thinkers of his day and establish a legacy of philosophy for generations to come.

Epictetus is also known for many wise sayings that have linked his philosophical message to other great thinkers and writers throughout the ages.

In this lesson, we explore Epictetus' life, thoughts, and musings while seeking to understand his influence during his time and throughout history.

Portrait of Epictetus in study. Notice the crutch signifying his poor arthritic condition.
Epictetus Portrait

Path to Freedom

The early life of Epictetus was one of a humble servant who under normal circumstances would have remained so for his entire life. He was born around 55 CE in what today is Turkey and was brought to Rome as a young man by his master Epaphroditus (a rich and powerful freedman). His life under his master was, by some accounts, punctuated with beatings and broken bones, and he suffered from an arthritic condition for most of his life. While still a slave, however, Epictetus gleaned knowledge from the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus.

Over time and through his own earnings and progressions, Epictetus became a freedman and took this opportunity to teach others as he had been taught in the school of Stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that hinges greatly on the human experience and outside influences that contribute to human reality. Stoicism was begun by Heraclitus circa 500 BCE and further established by Zeno of Citium circa 300 BCE. Many of Epictetus' sage words centered on the Stoic philosophies such as the logos, or eternal word (force or being that is self-existent) first imagined by Heraclitus.

Unfortunately for Epictetus and many of his cohort, Emperor Domitian did not subscribe to their views and expelled Epictetus and other philosophers from Rome when they spoke out concerning Domitian's oppressive regime.

After his expulsion, Epictetus spent his remaining days in Nicopolis where he continued to teach and expound upon his ideas concerning Stoicism and its importance in the wider arena of learning and life. Epictetus was unable to walk without support from his arthritis but lived until around 130 CE.

Remaining ruins of ancient Nicopolis where Epictetus lived, studied, and taught his student Arrian.
Nicopolis Ancient Architecture

Epictetus' Words

Epictetus' study of humanity and reality revolved around mainly what it meant to live a good life or a life of character. His wisdom on the subject is reflected in his words as written by his student Arrian.

The following quote is one that still rings true far and wide today: ''Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.''

Many today would say in their own words, ''Control what you can, and leave the rest.'' Epictetus, as many other Stoics, believed that understanding and accepting one's own locus of control and its limits was the pinnacle of living a good life. If one could understand and accept his limitations and abilities, he would be more content and more able to make a difference in personal character as well as an impact in others' lives and the world.

Another of Epictetus' memorable quotes has to do with how one develops character: ''Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.'' This is an important attribute of the Stoics as they were concerned about how people's actions shaped and affected their own reality as well as the greater reality.

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