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  Overview of Section: Ancient Period - Epictetus

An Overview Of This Section

We continue our study of Philosophy and of our particular themes -- Human Nature, Ethics, Society, and the Nature of Reality -- by turning to a new philosophical school, one which was also to some degree inspired by the character, concerns, and spirit of Socrates -- the Stoic school of Philosophy. We are going to examine, think about, and discuss one of the main works of an important representative of that school -- Epictetus, who started his life as a slave and ended as one of the foremost teachers of Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism had its origin in the philosopher Zeno, who taught at the Stoa ("Porch") in Athens. Zeno, in his turn, was influenced by the Cynic philosophy. Along with the Academy of Plato and his followers (which also gave rise to the Skeptics), the Lyceum of Aristotle and his followers, and the Cynicism (coming from Cynosarges, the place where they studied in Athens) started by Antisthenes, Stoicism could also claim to be a philosophy descended from Socrates, who they regarded as a prime example of the wise man.

Stoicism developed into a comprehensive philosophical system and approach to life, one which held great appeal to many in the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds. In the hands of its great proponents, like Zeno, Cleanthes, Chryssipus, the Stoic school articulated a comprehensive metaphysics, logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophical anthropology, and philosophy of religion. A Stoic Ethics and social-political philosophy was already in existence when the later Stoics, like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca wrote and taught, and these later authors tended to focus much more exclusively on Ethics.

The work that we are reading is called the Discourses, and that is quite literally what it contains -- discussions, presentations, and conversations, all of which involve Epictetus, recorded by his student, Arrian. We are only reading selected chapters from this lengthy work. There is another work by Epictetus, called the Enchiridion, which is actually a kind of digest of short selections from the Discourses. While the Enchiridion is an interesting and influential work, we're reading portions of the Discourses because we want to get a full sense of Epictetus' perspective on topics such as human nature, freedom, the good life, relationships and society, the universe, and the divine.

From the inception of the school, Stoics taught that what was most important in life was developing virtue and wisdom. Only by doing this would one really experience the happy life, and genuine freedom -- a central component of which for the Stoics was the condition of apatheia -- not being affected by emotions or passions, not being perturbed by external events, over which we do not really have control. Another way that they classically articulated this was the condition of having one's will (or faculty of choice) "in accordance with nature."

The Stoics were, interestingly enough, materialists -- that is, they believed that everything was ultimately composed of matter, even including the human soul or mind, and even the gods or God -- the divine. In fact, some of them were pantheists -- they identified God with the universe. In Epictetus, you see very clearly his focus upon human beings as different from much of the rest of the universe -- non-living things, plants, animals, and so forth -- as being in the middle between the divine being and the lower beings of the cosmos.


The readings for this section are available for you in the Texts and Readings for the Class area. You should read through this material several times, taking notes, going back over the text -- it's not something you can fully understand with a single reading. And, the more time and work you put into studying it, the better and more deeply you'll understand it.

You may find watching the five Video Lectures on Epictetus' Discourses recorded specifically for this class very helpful -- and you can find them immediately following this overview

You should also read through the Lesson Pages in the section that deal specifically with Epictetus' Discourses. Those Pages can be found after the Video Lectures

I also have produced four useful Handouts on Epictetus' Discourses, which are located below the Lesson Pages.

You'll also find a set of Questions for reflection, a Forum for discussing key ideas, and a Quiz you can take to check your understanding on the material.