Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who flourished between approximately 50 and 135 CE. Born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia, in modern-day Turkey, he resided in Rome until his banishment, after which he moved to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece, where he spent the remainder of his life. His student Arrian recorded and published his teachings in “Discourses” and “Enchiridion.”
The central tenet of Epictetus’ ethics-centered philosophy was that philosophy is not solely a theoretical discipline, but a way of life. He argued that we have no control over the external world and can only influence our own internal states, impulses, and emotions. According to him, it is our evaluations of things rather than the things themselves that cause us distress.
Here are some of his philosophy’s central ideas:
- Dichotomy of Control: Epictetus believed in a clear distinction between things that are within our control (our own actions and judgments) and things that are beyond our control (events in the natural world, the actions and judgments of others). His teachings encourage concentrating on matters within our control and accepting those beyond it.
- Virtue is the Highest Good: Following the Stoic tradition, Epictetus believed that virtue (arete) is the ultimate form of goodness, and that we should strive to be virtuous in all that we do. In this context, virtue includes wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.
- Emotional Resilience: The teachings of Epictetus promote emotional resilience. He believed that by altering our judgments and desires, we can maintain serenity (apatheia) and freedom (eleutheria) despite the circumstances of life.
- Role Ethics: Epictetus also emphasized the significance of recognizing one’s function in life and performing it to the best of one’s ability. This could include roles that we choose (such as being a philosopher) and roles that are assigned to us (such as being a parent, citizen, or acquaintance).
Epictetus’ writings, as recorded by his student Arrian, continue to have an impact. In addition to philosophy, his practical philosophy has had a significant impact on cognitive-behavioral therapy and personal development.