As Rome extended its imperial influence throughout the Mediterrean world and beyond, it absorbed the efflorescence of other cultures, using, enjoying and transforming them. Greek culture flowed into the imperial capital like an inexorable river, and artisans, grammarians, writers, teachers and philosophers came to suffuse the city with all things Greek. Much was imitative, like the Roman copies of Greek sculpture, but some of it was authentic, especially in the realm of ideas. The teachings of the Stoa, preserving the dialectical method of an idealized Socrates, survived the passage to Rome intact and flourished there. Stoic efforts to close the gap between theory and practice found a fertile field in the minds of a people who were already endowed with the ability to apply general principles to particular problems. Stoic metaphysics was clear and coherent, its logic incisive and its ethics adaptable to Roman conceptions of virtue. The cosmopolitan outlook appealed to the Roman imperium. The virtues of the individual – justice, balance and self-control, a sense of the sacred, courage and wisdom – had been given a political flavour by the Athenian Stoics, and they evolved into civic virtues – a sense of justice under law, fortitude and endurance, prudence, bravery and socially delineated duty – under Roman patronage. The philosophy of Epicurus might be used to justify a sybaritic life and the categories of the Academy did not inspire the Roman mind until vivified by Plotinus, but the Stoic viewpoint came to Rome without undue alteration or compromise. The vitality of Roman Stoicism was exemplified in the lives of its greatest exponents, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and warrior, and Epictetus, the ex-slave and exile.
Epictetus was born in the middle of the first century A.D. at Hierapolis in Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor known for its enthusiastic devotion to ancient deities. Little is known of his life, and even his name may be a pseudonym, for epiktetos means 'acquired', Epictetus being a slave from birth. His strong will and self-control manifested early in life. While still young, his master put his leg in a device for torture. "You will break my leg", Epictetus said quietly, and when his leg was in fact broken, he calmly added, "Did I not tell you so?" As a consequence of this cruelty, he was lame for life. Taken to Rome, he was owned by Epaphroditus, an administrative secretary to Nero. His master sent him to take lessons from Gaius Musonius Rufus, a creative and courageous Stoic whom Apollonius of Tyana defended before the emperor and who was later driven into exile. Epictetus eventually won his freedom and settled in Rome to teach philosophy. He was deeply struck by the teachings of Musonius, and attempted to assimilate them thoroughly rather than produce doctrines of his own invention.
In A.D. 90 the ruthless Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome. Unperturbed, Epictetus withdrew to Nicopolis in Epirus on the northwestern coast of Greece. There he lived in a simple dwelling furnished only with a sleeping mat and an earthen lamp, chosen after an iron lantern had been stolen so that he would have nothing another might desire. He founded a school in Nicopolis which was highly esteemed from the first and became famous by the time of his death. His method was Socratic, centering on the applications of philosophical principles in everyday activities. If his disciples demurred at disputing his lessons, were sluggish or in any way inclined to accept what he taught without thinking through every principle thoroughly, Epictetus would take up the debate himself, asking questions, answering them and dealing with objections. Unlike the trend of the time, his school did not offer a broad educational programme, for he held that true knowledge is the fruit of deep philosophical thought. As a slave, Epictetus was not formally educated, though he knew Homer, Plato and Xenophon (who wrote about Socrates), as well as the philosophical perspectives of the age, but even this knowledge seems to have derived from his study of Chrysippus under the guidance of Musonius.
Following the example of Socrates, Epictetus wrote nothing for preservation, though he made notes for his own use in discussions. He devoted his whole life at Nicopolis to philosophy, travelling only once to Athens and possibly to Olympia. Nevertheless, his reputation as a teacher spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, and Flavius Arrianus, a historian from Bithynia, became his most devoted disciple. For a number of years Arrian recorded the discourses of Epictetus, preserving for future generations both the recorded teachings and the oral methods of instruction of his master. These were published largely in their original stenographic form after his death as the Diatribai (Discourses). Arrian edited a summary selection which he called the Encheiridion (Manual). This has survived together with four of the eight books of the Discourses. Epictetus was on good terms personally with the Emperor Hadrian, who appointed Arrian governor of Cappadocia. Arrian proved to be an astute and courageous general, and found the time to compose a life of Alexander the Great from primary sources and first-hand accounts. The emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius admired Epictetus above all others, read Arrian's reports avidly and made them the basis of his own thinking. Musonius Rufus had often said, "If you have nothing better to do than to praise me, I am speaking in vain", and Epictetus adopted a similar standpoint. Consequently, the manner and time of his death is unknown, occurring sometime after A.D. 120. The impact of his teachings was not forgotten, however. He was admired by Celsus, Galen and the Christian Origen, while Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom and Augustine spoke highly of him. Two groups of early Christian ascetics used the Manual, and in 1632 Mathias Mittner adapted it for the Carthusian order, replacing theoi with theos and Socrates with St. Paul. The spirit of his teaching reaches beyond theological and philosophical loyalties, for Epictetus never departed from the universal concern of humanity: what it is to be a human being.
In a universe governed by unerring law, one might doubt that the human being has choices, since choice depends upon freedom. "Among the arts and faculties in general you will find none that is self-contemplative and therefore none that is self-approving or self-disappointing", and so none that is truly free. Close inspection, however, will reveal one faculty which can contemplate itself and therefore guide the others.
Since the gods epitomize the tonos or dynamic harmony of the universe, the capacity to choose the best in every context, to select that which reflects harmony, is an essential aspect of Deity. Epictetus makes Zeus declare:
The faculty of reason confers freedom and thus the very source of human conduct. Reason and freedom are one as the distinctive attribute of soul, and, as Socrates warned Hippocrates in the Protagoras, the soul must be carefully tended through the proper exercise of reason. To think and act in a manner that violates the tonos of the cosmos is not simply to go against providence, it is to destroy freedom and become enslaved to faculties no longer guided by reason. A fundamental attitude must be adopted in the exercise of reason, a deep appreciation of cosmic harmony in all contexts, and this manifests as constructive praise.
Without a universal perspective and a standpoint of gratitude, reason cannot make use of the impressions with which it must deal, and the ability to understand will be obscured. "If a man", Epictetus warns, "resists truths that are all too evident, it is not easy to find an argument by which one may cause him to change his opinion." This perilous condition is the fault neither of the man's ability nor the teacher's efforts, but rather because he has "hardened to stone" intellectually or through a failure of the sense of shame. The first is the inability to follow a line of reasoning, and the second is due to a misplaced sense of pride. While all recognize the former as a degenerate condition, the latter may be mistaken for strength of character.
The failure to cultivate reason puts one out of harmony with oneself and with nature, and thus one begins to demand that the order of things be different from what it is and can be.
Philosophical study is largely therapeutic, and "instruction consists precisely in learning to desire each thing exactly as it happens". The metaphysical recognition of cosmic harmony and the therapeutic nature of philosophical discourse together imply that the consistent use of reason has a strong ethical dimension. Understanding begins with oneself and then reaches out to embrace the external world.
One must start somewhere, and since right reason is the result of continuous effort, "One ought to practise in small things and pass on to the greater". The first step is to become indifferent to the unavoidable and mindful of what may be altered, and this can be tested.
Epictetus strictly adhered to the principle that philosophy cannot secure external possessions of any kind for human beings, but it promises its devotees increasing harmony with nature. Each one must develop the art of living, but the art for one is external to another. When a distressed individual consulted Epictetus about his brother's anger towards him, the philosopher responded, "Bring your brother to me and I will talk with him, but I have nothing to say to you on the subject of his anger." There is no foundation for judging another's actions, for it does not conduce to harmony.
Equally, there is no reason to multiply wants and possessions. Epictetus owned an iron lamp which was stolen, and he decided to replace it with an earthenware lamp which no one would care to steal.
Distress, anxiety and pain can only be caused through material or mental possessions. Human beings are affected by and through what they have, and relief can come only through divesting oneself of unnecessary possessions of every sort. Nevertheless, the radical reduction of needs and simplification of wants still leave one with some possessions – a body and social relationships, the need to eat and to discharge duties.
When this is grasped, the noetic individual recognizes that moral discernment alone can be carried intact through all possible circumstances, and one need expect nothing more than that. Circumstances become settings in which the individual is a dispassionate actor, avoiding the madness of becoming caught in the roles he must play. The noetic individual is at peace.
The inward balance which is the fruition of reason nurtured by philosophy is inseparable from the harmony of the cosmos, the tonos which is theos, Deity in action. For such a being, "the kinship of theos and men is true", and he cannot identify with Athens or Corinth, with class or race, religion or sex, but can say only, "I am a citizen of the universe." The cultivation of inner resources springs from contemplation of the cosmic architectonics, and confers the noetic freedom which is invincibility.