Classics Epictetus
by
John Sellars
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0216

Introduction

The philosopher Epictetus (b. c. 55–d. c. 135 CE) came originally from Hierapolis in Asia Minor and became a slave in Rome under Epaphroditus, one of Nero’s ministers. He attended the lectures of the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus in Rome, at some point gained his freedom, and initially lectured in Rome but fled in the wake of Domitian’s ban against philosophers (c. 92–93 CE). He went on to found his own philosophical school in Nicopolis, Greece, which attracted many famous visitors, not least the emperor Hadrian. Epictetus is regularly referred to as the author of two works, the Dissertationes (Diatribai, Discourses) and the Enchiridion (Encheiridion; Handbook, Manual) although, in fact, both are the work of his pupil Arrian, the noted historian. The Dissertationes contains lively records of discussions with students and visitors that supposedly took place in Epictetus’s classroom, sometime around 108 CE. The Enchiridion is a short summary distilling the central ideas found in the Dissertationes. Four books of the Dissertationes survive out of an original eight or perhaps even twelve (cf. Photius, Bibliotheca cod. 58, who refers to eight books of discourses [Diatribai] and twelve books of conversations [Homiliai]; these could be different titles for the same work), and a number of fragments from the lost books are preserved by other authors. Epictetus was especially famous in his day, a fact reported by a number of sources, including Origen and Lucian. He was an important influence on Marcus Aurelius and later his Enchiridion received a substantial commentary from the Neoplatonist Simplicius. The Enchiridion was adapted for use in a Christian context in the early Middle Ages more than once and translated into Latin during the Renaissance by Perotti and then again by Poliziano. His works were especially popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, a fact attested by the large number of editions and translations of his works produced then. For many years scholarship on Epictetus was dominated by the work of Adolf Bonhöffer, who argued for Epictetus’s complete orthodoxy as a Stoic. For a period there was a trend away from this, pointing to distinctive and innovative aspects of Epictetus’s philosophy. More recent work has acknowledged the distinctive features of Epictetus while at the same time agreeing with Bonhöffer that on most points of doctrine Epictetus remains essentially an orthodox Stoic.

General Overviews

The best introduction to the thought of Epictetus is Long 2002. The essays gathered together in Scaltsas and Mason 2007 are all by leading scholars and examine selected topics in more detail. Graver 2013 offers a much shorter but well-informed overview. Stephens 2007 offers a lively account of the central topics and is accessible to students. Bénatouïl 2009 discusses Epictetus alongside Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius, drawing out their shared theoretical interest in the nature of practical philosophy, and it is highly recommended. Gordon and Suits 2014 is a collection of conference papers touching on a wide range of topics.

  • Bénatouïl, Thomas. 2009. Les stoïciens III: Musonius – Épictète – Marc Aurèle. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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    A thematically structured introduction to the philosophy of these three Roman Stoics, arguing that they are not merely practical philosophers but also display a serious theoretical concern with the nature of practical philosophy. Requires French.

  • Gordon, Dane R., and David B. Suits, eds. 2014. Epictetus: His continuing influence and contemporary relevance. Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology.

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    An eclectic mixture of essays on Epictetus, some interpretive, some highlighting his relevance to contemporary philosophy, and several concerned with his later influence.

  • Graver, Margaret. 2013. Epictetus. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

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    A brief but informative overview of the central themes in Epictetus. First published in 2008, revised in 2013.

  • Long, Anthony A. 2002. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic guide to life. Oxford: Clarendon.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199245568.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    An accessible introduction by a leading scholar on Stoicism, wide ranging but especially interested in the Socratic educational project at work in the Dissertationes. The best sole-authored volume on Epictetus available in English. Available online via Oxford Scholarship Online, by subscription.

  • Scaltsas, Theodore, and Andrew S. Mason, eds. 2007. The philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Ten essays by leading ancient philosophy scholars on a range of topics in Epictetus, all highly recommended. Essential reading for anyone contemplating serious work on Epictetus. Available online via Oxford Scholarship Online, by subscription.

  • Stephens, W. O. 2007. Stoic ethics: Epictetus and happiness as freedom. London: Continuum.

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    A clear and engaging overview of Epictetus’s philosophy, ideally suited as a general introduction for those new to the subject despite having the appearance of a monograph. Originally written in 1990.

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