I wrote recently about Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations. Epictetus was a Stoic who flourished just a few decades earlier, but the burdens he bore were very different: he had been born not into the Roman ruling class but into slavery, in Phrygia, off the eastern coast of Greece,1 and was, in the modern parlance, disabled.2
Stoicism can be seen as a deeply conservative philosophy, as it teaches the slave to embrace his condition just as much as the emperor, that all is part of a wider, unseen plan on the part of divine providence. To that extent, it is like the Christian philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz in the 18th century, which Voltaire famously lampooned, in his novella Candide, as based on the belief that we are living in “ce meilleur des mondes possibles”.3 In Asia, Buddhism and Jainism likewise taught that satisfaction is to be sought not in political change but through the cultivation of inner resources, assured in the knowledge that the universe possesses a karmic order greater than the earthly ones upheld by the violence of powerful men. We may rightly be suspicious of the quietism inherent in these traditions, but, for long sweeps of history, most people have had little power to influence much beyond themselves (some would characterise the present as one such sweep), and there is clearly a powerful therapeutic effect in the rigorous discipline of training oneself to become less perturbed by those forces outside of one’s control.
Divine providence did, in fact, look favourably upon Epictetus, who was manumitted early in life and went on to become a teacher of philosophy, first in Rome and then in the Greek region of Epirus, where he lived ascetically for many decades, dying late into old age. An aristocrat by the name of Arrian was one of the students who passed through his school’s portico, and it was he who preserved and compiled his tutor’s lecture notes into a text known today as the Discourses. In the following extract, Epictetus mocks a hypothetical and hypocritical philosopher who grandiloquently claims, as every good Stoic ought, to be indifferent to the vicissitudes of circumstance yet remains deeply affected by the judgements of others around him:
Whenever a man has reached his proper position in life, he doesn't strive for anything more. What about you? I am quite satisifed if I desire or despise no more than nature allows, if I move towards those things that I am naturally attracted to and away from those that I am naturally repelled from, and if my purpose, my desires and my opinions are in accordance with these principles. So why do you walk around as though you had swallowed a skewer? I wanted the people who come across me to see my posture as imposing and my followers to proclaim me a great philosopher! And who are these people that you want to revere you? Are they not the very same people that you used to call demented? And now you want to be acclaimed by madmen?
ὅταν τις ἣν δεῖ στάσιν ἔχῃ ἐν τῷ βίῳ, ἔξω οὐ κέχηνεν. ἄνθρωπε, τί θέλεις σοι γενέσθαι; ἐγὼ μὲν ἀρκοῦμαι, ἂν ὀρέγωμαι καὶ ἐκκλίνω κατὰ φύσιν, ἂν ὁρμῇ καὶ ἀφορμῇ χρῶμαι ὡς πέφυκα, ἂν προσθέσει, ἂν ἐπιβολῇ, ἂν συγκαταθέσει. τί οὖν ἡμῖν ὀβελίσκον καταπιὼν περιπατεῖς; ‘ἤθελον, ἵνα με καὶ οἱ ἀπαντῶντες θαυμάζωσιν καὶ ἐπακολουθοῦντες ἐπικραυγάζωσιν: ὦ μεγάλου φιλοσόφου.’ τίνες εἰσὶν οὗτοι, ὑφ᾽ ὧν θαυμάζεσθαι θέλεις; οὐχ οὗτοί εἰσι, περὶ ὧν εἴωθας λέγειν ὅτι μαίνονται; τί οὖν; ὑπὸ τῶν μαινομένων θαυμάζεσθαι θέλεις; 1.21
- The ancient region of Phrygia is today wholly bounded within the nation of Turkey.
- Sources differ over whether his disability was congenital or whether it had been the result of his master’s abuse. In either case, he was lame in one leg.
- A belief ridiculed when the eponymous Candide is sent on by the author to experience the many forms of suffering that flesh is heir to: first the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, then the rape and seizure of his beloved wife by Barbary pirates and Portuguese noblemen, before being almost roasted alive in Argentina by Incas who mistake him for a proselytising Jesuit.