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Epictetus: biography of this Greek philosopher

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From slave in Rome to great Stoic master in Epirus. This could be the letter of introduction of Epictetus, a philosopher who lived in classical Greek times. A slave to Nero's freedman, he was able to approach the philosophy of the hand of Musonio Rufo, a great stoic.

Once he achieved freedom, Epictetus devoted himself entirely to philosophy. He could do little more since, under the reign of Nero, those were not good times for the city of Rome, having to go into exile.

Although much more of his life is not known, yes that his teachings managed to survive the passage of time, being collected in the Inquiry and in the Dissertations. Let's take a closer look at who this philosopher was and his particular way of promulgating with Stoicism, through a biography of Epictetus in summary format.

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Brief biography of Epictetus

Epictetus (classical Greek Επίκτητος) he was born in 55 AD. C. near Hierapolis of Phrygia, present-day Pamukkale, Turkey

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. We know little about his childhood, other than that at some point he was made a slave and taken to Rome.

His name is quite descriptive of his slave status, since it means "appendix", "cattle" or "acquired". His master was Epaphroditus, a freedman who had been Nero's slave. Under his domination, Epictetus suffered cruelly and Epaphroditus broke his leg.

But despite his terrible cruelty, Epaphroditus gave Epictetus permission to attend the lessons of the Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus, an important and well-known Stoic in Rome.. With the passage of time Epictetus would gain freedom and fully enjoy the art of philosophizing. The doctrine of Musonius Rufus made a strong impression on him, making this former slave a great missionary of Stoicism. He would learn that stoicism, more than a philosophy, was a way of life, something that would make him an admired teacher.

Musonius Rufus's popularity made sense in Rome, especially among the city's aristocracy. Stoicism had become fashionable in the great city and was a trend of great interest to anyone who wanted to call himself a man of philosophical learning. However, despite the emergence of thought and culture, these were not good times for Rome since the Nero's command was terribly cruel, something that soon Musonius Rufus and his disciple Epictetus would know firsthand. hand.

From time immemorial, good philosophy and tyranny have never been in harmony. Nero saw in the development of knowledge a real danger to his government, whereupon he had no qualms about expelling many wise men. Mathematicians, astrologers and, of course, philosophers had to leave Rome. Musonio Rufo and Epictetus were victims of the expulsion, and the freedman ended up settling in Nicopolis, in Epirus. It would be there where he would become a very famous character, attracting visitors from Magna Grecia.

Epictetus would build his own Stoic school in the city and, in it, he would share his teachings to characters of the stature of the emperor Hadrian himself, Marcus Aurelius or Aulus Gelius. His most important disciple of his was Flavio Arriano, who was in charge of documenting his teachings and compiling them in the two works for which he is known: the Inquiry and the Dissertations. Epictetus always opted for a poor and lonely, yet generous and humane lifestyle. This great philosopher died between 125 and 130 AD. C.

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Thought and work

Much of Epictetus' knowledge has come to us thanks to his disciple Flavio Arriano de Nicomedia. It is to him and to his faithful enthusiasm that the spontaneous, vigorous and sincere word of Epictetus has been preserved, reaching our times in the form of two works: Dissertations and the Inquiry.

It should be said that there were also other of his disciples, such as Marco Aurelio, Aulo Gelio, Arnobio and Stobeo, who dedicated him to writing some fragments mentioning the knowledge of his teacher.

Epictetus he does not stand out much in the speculative field but he does in his way of seeing stoicism. He does not ask for a quiet life with others, or an optimistic harmony with the great laws, with God and the world. What it does enact is freedom as an ethical conquest and religious liberation, and it talks about the absolute independence of the soul. In his Dissertations he does not encourage the stoicism of Seneca or Posidonius, but rather Epictetus seeks virtue, more freedom than not wisdom, inflexibly and with faith.

The Dissertations

The Dissertations, also called Rants or Speeches of Epictetus, originally consisted of eight books, of which four have survived. They were written by Flavio Arriano de Nicomedia and he himself affirms that he confined himself to faithfully transcribing what was said by his teacher at his school in Nicopolis. Arriano goes so far as to say that he hopes to be able to share not only the teachings of his teacher, but his own disheveled and brusque tone, but also morally sublime.

The stoicism of Epictetus could be considered rather alternative. However, what is exposed in Dissertations allows us to make this work a fundamental text to know the third period of classical Stoicism, called Roman. It is considered that Epictetus and Marco Aurelio, who was influenced by the first, are the maximum representatives of this current. The philosopher is interested in moral problems, leaving the eclectic tendency that had been the norm in earlier Stoicism.

Epictetus collects in all its rigor the concept of rational will as an aspect that governs the world given by God. This certainly makes the work emanate an air of religiosity. The work reflects the influences of the Cynic doctrines on the thought of Epictetus, therefore, it is not of It is surprising that Flavio Arriano decided to call it Dissertations, since it evokes the cynical "diatribes" of character popular.

Epictetus spoke of divine Providence as the highest ruler of the world, who directs it according to the laws of nature, coinciding with those of human reason. God is the father of men and has prepared everything for his material and moral good. When evil intervenes in human life, one should not blame Providence, but rather the human being who has forgotten his sublime origin and has put aside reason, which is what God has endowed him to guide his Actions.

The reason is a divine particle that guides the human being towards the correct behavior. If the human being allows himself to be seduced by false appearances of good, he ends up submitting to vices and passions, which causes him to do wrong. By acting in this way, the only thing he achieves is to renounce his privilege as an animal with good reason, sinking into misery and denying the freedom that God has given him.

Thus, the human being is free when he has in his power and knows how to use well the things that matter: his thinking, his inclinations and his will. The first chain of slavery is the passions, which disturb the spirit, while the second chain is He finds in external things, which have their origin in a wrong idea: honors, riches, health or ourselves body. They are aspects that do not belong to us, that are exhausted or expire after a while. That they are lost should not cause us regret.

The human being must learn to encrypt his pleasures and sorrows, finding out those that, due to his inner nature, remain unalterable, firm and make them free. Man must be prudent, self-confident and make use of the freedom that God has given you as an intelligent being. Reason is the only immortal particle that God has given us in his omnipotence. Thus, the human being must take care of reason, since it is a divine portion that is in him and protect it from the contagion of the senses.

Another aspect that is described in Dissertations is the idea that men make up a human brotherhood. All men, as children of God, are brothers to each other. They should show mutual affection and help, forgiving the faults of others, which inspire understanding and piety. In addition, they must be cautious in judging others and apply calmly thoughtful punishments. It should be understood that avenging the offense only aggravates it, and diminishes the moral integrity of the person who commits the revenge.

The Inquiry

The Inquiry, also called Epictetus Handbook, is also a work written by Flavio Arriano. Is about a collection of maxims and moral teachings spoken by Epictetus, clearly and briefly described. This work is known thanks to the version published by Giacomo Leopardi in 1825.

In this work Epictetus's maxim is presented that freedom is the highest good. The judgment, the intellect, the inclination, the desire and the aversion are factors that we can, in a certain way, control, and the use that we give them will give us more or less freedom. Instead, the body, health, fortune, wealth and honors are factors that the gods give us in a way that we can hardly modify. Only the aspects that are under our power of change have a moral importance, useful for the dignity and perfection of the soul.

For Epictetus, a wise person is wise because he knows how to distinguish between what is under his control and what is not. Intellect, for example, is something purely ours, the use of which is up to us. Nothing and no one can deprive us of what is ours, not even the gods themselves. That is why the following maxim is attributed to him:

"Not even Jupiter himself can force me to want what I don't want or to believe what I don't believe."

Freedom begins when one masters one's own irrational impulses, be they instincts, vices, and passions, and it extends to ambitions, disappointments, social and political facts, the fear of falling ill and death.

Bibliographic references:

  • Musonio Rufo, Cayo / Epictetus (1995). Table of Cebes / Dissertations; minor fragments / Manual; fragments. Editorial Gredos. Madrid. ISBN 978-84-249-1689-3.
  • Epictetus (1993). Dissertations by Arriano. Editorial Gredos. Madrid. ISBN 978-84-249-1628-2.
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