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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911)

By Epictetus (c. 50–c. 138)

OF the three great authors among the later Stoics, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus offers the most cultivated literary flavor, Seneca the most varied and discursive knowledge, and Epictetus the simplest and most practical tonic. As compared with the two other writers, Epictetus shortens his sword; that is, his sentences. They have the merit which Thoreau set above all others: they are “concentrated and witty.” Some of them have attained to the rank of proverbs,—that is, of being quoted by those who never heard of the author; as when men say, “All things have two handles; beware of the wrong one,” which is not the precise phrase used by Epictetus, but comes very near it. What is more essential than any matter of language is that he, like the other later Stoics, and even more than the rest of these, had outgrown the earlier tradition of their predecessors and recognized human feeling. In this respect, indeed, he went further than many Christian teachers. When Cardinal Manning was on his way to Rome, after his conversion, he lost his portmanteau containing family letters. The moral lesson to be drawn from this is thus noted in his diary: “To be dead to earthly and natural affections.” Epictetus, although a Stoic by profession and practice, would not have gone so far.

The system of Epictetus is not hard to grasp, for it is very simple, and wholly practical. All objects, all events, in short, everything earthly, may be divided into classes: the things which are within our own control and the things over which we have no control. We must live for the one class—the things controllable; and must hold the other as absolutely secondary. All possessions that come to us from without, all joys, even those of domestic happiness, are beyond our own control and must be held as loans, not as gifts; the inward life is apart from these and goes on the same, whether they come or go, and this alone we can control. Children are dear, love is real, God is good; but we must acquiesce quietly in the loss of every human joy at the word of command, and never murmur. There is no hardness, as of the elder Stoics; no jaunty refusal of personal ties, as with Epicurus; behind the brief, terse maxims of this slave-philosopher there is an atmosphere of love and faith. It even meets curiously the maxims of some of the mystics. It teaches humility, unselfishness, forgiveness, trust in Providence. “What is the first business of one who studies philosophy? To part with self-conceit.” The philosopher, “when beaten, must love those who beat him.” There is a special chapter, headed “That we ought not to be angry with the erring.” “All is full of beloved ones … by nature endeared to one another.” “Who is there, whom bright and agreeable children do not attract to play and creep and prattle with them?” In several places he speaks with contempt of suicide; although he vindicates Divine providence by showing that we are not forcibly held down to a life of sorrow, since we always keep the power of exit in our own hands. To make this exit, at any rate, is but the cowardice of a moment, while a life of wailing is prolonged cowardice.

There is absolutely no hair-splitting, no cloud of metaphysics. He does not aim at these things; he bears hard on all pretenders to abstract philosophy, and brings all to a strict practical test. Even the man who professes such a modest practical philosophy as his own must bring it constantly to the proof. “It is not reasonings that are wanted now,” he says; “for there are books stuffed full of Stoical reasonings. What is wanted, then? The man who shall apply them; whose actions may bear testimony to his doctrines. Assume this character for one, that we may no longer make use in the schools of the examples of the ancients, and may have some examples of our own.” Elsewhere, in a similar spirit, he spurns the thought of measuring virtue by the mere degree of familiarity with some great teacher. He refers, for instance to Chrysippus, who was accepted as the highest authority among the later Stoics, although not one of his seven hundred volumes has come down to the present age. “Who is in a state of progress? He who has best studied Chrysippus? Does virtue consist in having read Chrysippus through?… Show me your progress! As if I should say to a wrestler, ‘Show me your muscle!’ and he should answer, ‘See my dumb-bells.’—‘Your dumb-bells are your own affair; I desire to see the effect of them.’” “The only real thing,” he adds, “is to study how to rid life of lamentation and complaint, and ‘Alas!’ and ‘I am undone!’ and misfortune and failure.” Thus at every step Epictetus brings us resolutely down to real life; let others, if they will, rest in the clouds.

He thus leaves, it may be, some of the loftiest spiritual heights and the profoundest intellectual processes to others; no man can do everything. Yet he has found readers at all periods, alike among men of thought and men of action. Marcus Aurelius ranked him with Socrates, and Origen thought that his writings had done more good than those of Plato. In modern times, Niebuhr has said of him, “Epictetus’s greatness cannot be questioned, and it is impossible for any person of sound mind not to be charmed by his works.” Toussaint L’Ouverture, the black patriot and general, kept this book by him; and one of the most delightful of modern actresses has the same habit. There is something extremely interesting in the thought that a Phrygian slave should have uttered thoughts which thus kept their hold for eighteen hundred years upon minds thus widely varying.

Little is known of Epictetus personally, except that he was probably born at Hierapolis in Phrygia, and that he was the slave of Epaphroditus, a freedman of Nero, living in Rome in the first century of our era. Origen preserves an anecdote of him, that when his master once put his leg in the torture, Epictetus quietly said, “You will break my leg!” and when this happened he added in the same tone, “Did I not tell you so?” Becoming in some way free, he lived afterwards at Rome, teaching philosophy. According to his commentator Simplicius, he lived so frugally that the whole furniture of his house consisted of a bed, a cooking vessel, and a lamp; and Lucian ridiculed a man who bought the latter, after the death of Epictetus, in hopes to become a philosopher by using it. When Domitian banished the philosophers from Rome, Epictetus returned to Nicopolis, a city of Epirus, and taught in the same way there; still living in his frugal way, but adopting a child whose parents had abandoned it. He suffered greatly from lameness. After Hadrian became emperor (A.D. 117), Epictetus was treated with favor, but did not return to Rome. In his later life his discourses were written down by his disciple Arrian. Only four of the original eight books are extant. This, with the ‘Enchiridion,’ a more condensed and aphoristic work, and a few fragments preserved as quotations by various authors, are all that we know of his teachings. Even the date of his death is unknown; but he wrote his own epitaph in two lines, preserved by Aulus Gellius (B. ii., Chap. 18): “Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, an Irus in poverty, and favored by the Immortals.”

His works have gone through many editions and a variety of translations, of which that of Elizabeth Carter—Dr. Johnson’s friend, and pronounced by him to be the best Greek scholar in England—has been most popular, being many times reprinted. It was somewhat formal and archaic in style, however, and was followed by that of Long, which was however the work of that author’s old age, was somewhat stiff and cramped in style, and not nearly so readable as his Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. In the sixth century an elaborate commentary on the ‘Enchiridion’ was written in Greek, by Simplicius. This was translated into English by Stanhope, and was in turn made the text for a commentary, longer than itself, by Milton’s well-known adversary Salmasius.