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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 91. Epictetus.


Epicteti. Dissertationum ab Arriano digestarum Libri IV. Euiusdem Enchiridion et ex deperditis Sermonibus Fragmenta ... recensuit ... Joh. Schweighäuser. Lips. 1799, 1800. 5 vols. The Greek text with a Latin version and notes.

The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of his Discourses, in four books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. A translation from the Greek, based on that of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston (Little, Brown & Co.), 1865. A fourth ed. of Mrs. Carter’s translation was published in 1807 with introduction and notes.

The Discourses of Epictetus, with the Enchiridion and Fragments. Translated, with Notes, etc., by George Long. London (George Bell & Sons), 1877.

There are also other English, as well as German and French, versions.


Epictetus was born before the middle of the first century, at Hierapolis, a city in Phrygia, a few miles from Colossae and Laodicea, well known to us from apostolic history. He was a compatriot and contemporary of Epaphras, a pupil of Paul, and founder of Christian churches in that province.571571    Col. 1:7; 4:12, 13.71 There is a bare possibility that he had a passing acquaintance with him, if not with Paul himself. He came as a slave to Rome with his master, Epaphroditus, a profligate freedman and favorite of Nero (whom he aided in committing suicide), and was afterwards set at liberty. He rose above his condition. "Freedom and slavery," he says in one of his Fragments, "are but names of virtue and of vice, and both depend upon the will. No one is a slave whose will is free." He was lame in one foot and in feeble health. The lameness, if we are to credit the report of Origen, was the result of ill treatment, which he bore heroically. When his master put his leg in the torture, he quietly said: "You will break my leg;" and when the leg was broken, he added: "Did I not tell you so?" This reminds one of Socrates who is reported to have borne a scolding and subsequent shower from Xantippe with the cool remark: After the thunder comes the rain. Epictetus heard the lectures of Musonius Rufus, a distinguished teacher of the Stoic philosophy under Nero and Vespasian, and began himself to teach. He was banished from Rome by Domitian, with all other philosophers, before a.d. 90. He settled for the rest of his life in Nicopolis, in Southern Epirus, not far from the scene of the battle of Actium. There he gathered around him a large body of pupils, old and young, rich and poor, and instructed them, as a second Socrates, by precept and example, in halls and public places. The emperor Hadrian is reported to have invited him back to Rome (117), but in vain. The date of his death is unknown.

Epictetus led from principle and necessity a life of poverty and extreme simplicity, after the model of Diogenes, the arch-Cynic. His only companions were an adopted child with a nurse. His furniture consisted of a bed, a cooking vessel and earthen lamp. Lucian ridicules one of his admirers, who bought the lamp for three thousand drachmas, in the hope of becoming a philosopher by using it. Epictetus discouraged marriage and the procreation of children. Marriage might do well in a "community of wise men," but "in the present state of things," which he compared to "an army in battle array," it is likely to withdraw the philosopher from the service of God.572572    Disc. III. 22. Comp. 1 Cor. 7:35; but also Eph. 5:28-33. Farrar, l.c., p. 213, thinks that the philosopher and the apostle agree in recommending celibacy as "a counsel of perfection." But this is the Roman Catholic, not the Scripture view.72 This view, as well as the reason assigned, resembles the advice of St. Paul, with the great difference, that the apostle had the highest conception of the institution of marriage as reflecting the mystery of Christ’s union with the church. "Look at me," says Epictetus, "who am without a city, without a house, without possessions, without a slave; I sleep on the ground; I have no wife, no children, no praetorium, but only the earth and the heavens, and one poor cloak. And what do I want? Am I not without sorrow? Am I not without fear? Am I not free? ... Did I ever blame God or man? ... Who, when he sees me, does not think that he sees his king and master?" His epitaph fitly describes his character: "I was Epictetus, a slave, and maimed in body, and a beggar for poverty, and dear to the immortals."

Epictetus, like Socrates, his great exemplar, wrote nothing himself, but he found a Xenophon. His pupil and friend, Flavius Arrianus, of Nicomedia, in Bithynia, the distinguished historian of Alexander the Great, and a soldier and statesman under Hadrian, handed to posterity a report of the oral instructions and familiar conversations (διατριβαί) of his teacher. Only four of the original eight books remain. He also collected his chief maxims in a manual (Enchiridion). His biography of that remarkable man is lost.

Epictetus starts, like Zeno and Cleanthes, with a thoroughly practical view of philosophy, as the art and exercise of virtue, in accordance with reason and the laws of nature. He bases virtue on faith in God, as the supreme power of the universe, who directs all events for benevolent purposes. The philosopher is a teacher of righteousness, a physician and surgeon of the sick who feel their weakness, and are anxious to be cured. He is a priest and messenger of the gods to erring men, that they might learn to be happy even in utter want of earthly possessions. If we wish to be good, we must first believe that we are bad. Mere knowledge without application to life is worthless. Every man has a guardian spirit, a god within him who never sleeps, who always keeps him company, even in solitude; this is the Socratic daimonion, the personified conscience. We must listen to its divine voice. "Think of God more often than you breathe. Let discourse of God be renewed daily, more surely than your food." The sum of wisdom is to desire nothing but freedom and contentment, and to bear and forbear. All unavoidable evil in the world is only apparent and external, and does not touch our being. Our happiness depends upon our own will, which even Zeus cannot break. The wise man joyously acquiesces in what he cannot control, knowing that an all-wise Father rules the whole. "We ought to have these two rules always in readiness: that there is nothing good or evil except in the will; and that we ought not to lead events, but to follow them."573573    Discourses, III. 10. Here E. discusses the manner in which we ought to bear sickness.73 If a brother wrongs me, that is his fault; my business is to conduct myself rightly towards him. The wise man is not disturbed by injury and injustice, and loves even his enemies. All men are brethren and children of God. They own the whole world; and hence even banishment is no evil. The soul longs to be freed from the prison house of the body and to return to God.

Yet Epictetus does not clearly teach the immortality of the soul. He speaks of death as a return to the elements in successive conflagrations. Seneca approaches much more nearly the Platonic and Socratic, we may say Christian, view of immortality. The prevailing theory of the Stoics was, that at the end of the world all individual souls will be resolved into the primary substance of the Divine Being.574574    The only point about which the Stoics were undecided was whether all souls would last until that time as separate souls, or whether, as Chrysippus held, only the souls of the wise would survive."Zeller, l.c., p. 205.74

Epictetus nowhere alludes directly to Christianity, but he speaks once of "Galileans," who by enthusiasm or madness were free from all fear.575575    Disc. IV. 7: "Through madness (ὑπο μανίας) it is possible for a man to be so disposed towards these things and through habit (ὑπὸ ἔθους), as the Galileans." By Galileans he no doubt means Christians, and the allusion is rather contemptuous, like the allusion of Marcus Aurelius to the martyrs, with this difference that the emperor attributes to obstinacy what Epictetus attributes to "habit." But Schweighäuser (II. 913 sq.) suspects that the reading ὑπὸ ἔθους is false, and that Arrian wrote ὑπὸ ἀπονοίας , ὡς οἱ Γαλ., so that, Epictetus ascribed to the Christians fury and desperation or dementia. To the Greeks the gospel is foolishness, 1 Cor. 1:22.75 He often recurs to his predecessors, Socrates, Diogenes, Zeno, Musonius Rufus. His ethical ideal is a cynic philosopher, naked, penniless, wifeless, childless, without want or desire, without passion or temper, kindly, independent, contented, imperturbable, looking serenely or indifferently at life and death. It differs as widely from the true ideal as Diogenes who lived in a tub, and sought with a lantern in daylight for "a man," differs from Christ who, indeed, had not where to lay his head, but went about doing good to the bodies and souls of men.

Owing to the purity of its morals, the Enchiridion of Epictetus was a favorite book. Simplicius, a Neo-Platonist, wrote an elaborate commentary on it; and monks in the middle ages reproduced and Christianized it. Origen thought Epictetus had done more good than Plato. Niebuhr says: "His greatness cannot be questioned, and it is impossible for any person of sound mind not to be charmed by his works." Higginson says: "I am acquainted with no book more replete with high conceptions of the deity and noble aims of man." This is, of course, a great exaggeration, unless the writer means to confine his comparison to heathen works.



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