Epictetus (c. 60 - c. 125 CE), whose name literally meant "bought", was a Greek born in what is now western Turkey and became, we know not how, a slave in Rome. His last master, himself a freedman, allowed him to attend the lectures of the Roman Stoic philosopher C. Musonius Rufus and eventually freed him. Epictetus taught philosophy in Rome until Emperor Domitian banned all philosophers from the city. He moved to Nicopolis in Epirus and started a school of his own, where he remained until his death, despite Marcus Aurelius' requests that he return to Rome.
Epictetus was a philosopher in the then already very old tradition called Stoicism, begun by Zeno in the 5th century BCE, and, according to those much more expert in the Stoic literature than I, was not himself a creative thinker. However, he knew the tradition well and adopted a tone and style of presentation which has appealed for nearly 2,000 years. Epictetus did not, in fact, write "his" books; they were written down by his student and ultimately well known historian, Arrian. It is of interest to note that those who can read the original Greek report that the language used in the books attributed by Arrian to Epictetus is quite different from that used by Arrian in his own books, a good indication that Arrian might be reporting faithfully what Epictetus actually said.
Not all of these writings have survived, but, unlike the founders of the Stoic tradition - Zeno, Cleanthus (Cleanthes), Chrysippus - of whose extensive writings almost nothing has survived, we do have a few hundred pages of these reports on the lectures and discussions of Epictetus.
The founders of Stoicism were very interested in physics, metaphysics and logic, but there is little to none of that in Epictetus. He seems to be almost exclusively concerned with ethics, with what is the correct way to live, what are the correct values in life. And because he was co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church and generations of the oligarchy in Europe and America, reading Epictetus can arouse some very distasteful associations in one's mind.(*) So, above all, be careful of the translation you read. Also, beware something called The Golden Sayings of Epictetus; that appears to be a cherry-picking of Epictetus made for the above-mentioned clientele.
In this book we have an English translation of the Discourses and the Enchiridion (also known as the Manual ). The Manual is exactly what the title suggests - a short summary of Stoic dogmas with an admixture of advice and admonishments. I discuss a French translation of the Manual elsewhere
and will concentrate on the significantly lengthier Discourses here. The Discourses, of which only about half has survived to our day, present in a very unorganized, non-uniform and sometimes repetitive manner Epictetus' thoughts on many matters. These are reports of lectures and conversations. They are not all of equal quality, but altogether I find them to be quite interesting.
At the center of Stoic philosophy is the faculty of reason, and the Discourses begins with it. Although Epictetus does not broach the subjects of physics and metaphysics, the Stoics view the universe as rational, though cold and cruel. It runs by its own rational laws without any concern for humans; the only advantage human beings have in this universe is that with the faculty of reason they may understand their limited place in it and come to accept these limitations. And central to this is understanding what is and what is not within our power. There is a distinction between that which depends solely on us (that which is solely within our power to affect) and the rest. And precious little is on this side of the line; even one's own body is not within our power in this sense, for it becomes injured and ill, ages and decays, none of which we would permit if it were actually within our power. Once this distinction is clearly understood, the next central Stoic axiom is posited: Don't be concerned with anything which lies on the other side of the line; only that which lies on this side of the distinction matters and should occupy us. The rest must be accepted and endured as it comes.
I find this to be a fascinating philosophical position. The Stoics isolate an inviolable core of control and will, make that the center of life, and dismiss the rest.
This is an austere and ascetic philosophy.
As for desire, for the moment, suppress it completely.
This follows because that which one desires lies on the other side of the line. But even those things on this side of the line, such as urges, likes and dislikes, follow them only lightly, nonsystematically, without excessive effort. All attachments to objects, people, ambitions, etc. should not be taken as essential or important. In fact, one must constantly remind oneself that they "do not depend upon us," they are outside of our control, and therefore should be taken or left as they come and go.(**)
Another central, but related dogma:
That which torments men is not reality but the opinions they make of it for themselves.
Our opinions do depend on us; we may change them as we will. Hence, if one feels torment, change your opinion so that you no longer do so. Epictetus grants, somewhat indirectly, that this may well be very difficult to carry out and repeatedly offers various concrete ways in the Manual to develop this ability to become unattached.
Do not expect that events will occur as you wish; decide to want whatever happens and you will be happy.
Again, not at all easy to do. Hidden within these maxims is the prospect of an enormous mental and spiritual effort.
Clearly, there is nothing passive about Stoicism's resignation to what is not within one's power. Stoicism is also not at all timorous. After pointing out that human beings have many gifts such as reason, fortitude and patience, Epictetus inveighs against those who fear that which is not in one's power.
...but you sit trembling, for fear this or that should happen, and lamenting and mourning and groaning at what does happen; and then you accuse the gods! In what does such baseness end but in impiety? And yet God has not only granted these faculties by which we may bear every event without being depressed or broken by it, but, like a good king and a true father, has placed their exercise above restraint, compulsion, or hindrance, and wholly within our own control; nor has he reserved a power, even to himself, of hindering or restraining them. With these things free, and your own, will you not use them, nor consider what you have received, nor from whom?
(This "God" is the great artificer who made everything, including the gods of the Greek pantheon. You can see how Christianity was able to absorb much of Epictetus' writings.)
It is difficulties that show what men are.
It is a pity that the word "character" (in the moral sense) has been so debased. Speaking only for myself, I can hardy write the word down. For I've seen so often that the word was shouted the loudest by those with the blackest characters and employed as a weapon to attain or maintain personal power and advantage. As soon as I hear the word, I start sniffing for the odor of shameless hypocrisy. And in my nostrils no stench is worse. However, it is a central notion in Greco-Roman philosophy, including Stoic philosophy. Character was developed, attained and proven, not endowed. And to develop, attain and prove character was for Epictetus nearly synonymous with understanding the universe, performing the arduous mental and spiritual work necessary to deal with the consequences of that understanding, and then to live that understanding in a completely consistent manner. This he makes clear in his many stories illustrating admirable behavior and despicable behavior.
One could well imagine that this philosophy could lead to a complete disengagement from society and one's fellow man, even to a disregard or disdain for them, but such is not the case at all. For how one chooses to behave in intercourse with other humans is one of the few things within our power, and those are precisely the matters the Stoics do take seriously. A natural consequence of the essential axioms above is that one does not take advantage of others, for there is nothing of value to be taken from them. One does not steal, cheat, lie, murder, etc., for nothing is to be gained. Though Epictetus writes that all creatures are selfish, he also writes that the universe is designed so that no individual can increase his (real) good without simultaneously increasing that of all. And, unlike the Cynics (with whom the Stoics have much in common), the Stoics did not spurn cooperating with societal norms as long as they did not directly conflict with the basic axioms and their consequences.
The Discourses is a very rich book, but this review is getting long, so I have to leave much aside.
I cannot close before re-emphasizing that Epictetus' informal, conversational style in the Discourses is a major factor in his 2,000 year long success, though, as you can see above, he sometimes has recourse to hectoring.(***) It is often a pleasure to read the Discourses, though, of course, I was careful just to note my pleasure, not to revel overmuch in it...
(*) When they translated Epictetus, the monks freely made substitutions (like the disciple Paul for Socrates) and chose wording which changed the content. In fact, I have an English translation from the beginning of the 20th century which makes Epictetus sound like he wrote Victorian Christian tracts... I'm looking forward to the upcoming Oxford Classics translation, which should have even less additional veneer than this one does.
(**) Clearly, Stoicism has many commonalities with Buddhism. In fact, at the beginning of the 17th century the Portuguese priest Matteo Ricci translated some of Epictetus into Chinese, because he felt they would recognize some of their own views. This was designed to gain their confidence, preliminary to pressing translations of the Bible onto them.
(***) An integral part of his style is to use stories about historical figures to exemplify his points, so be sure to get an edition in which his many references to these figures are thoroughly explained, as does this one.