The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus

An English Translation, Revised Edition

by William O. Stephens (Author)
Monographs XLVI, 336 Pages

Table Of Content

A Biography of Adolf Bonhöffer, Director of the Landesbibliothek,1 by Professor Dr. Constantine Ritter

Adolf Friedrich Bonhöffer was born on June 19, 1859, the son of Pastor Adolf Bonhöffer in Eschelbach OA. Öhringen and his wife Christiane, née Pistorius,2 as the fourth of six brothers. He lived in his birthplace only a short time, since his father already changed his ministry in the following year with one in Leutkirch, and later, in 1867, in Ilshofen. When he was seven years old his mother died, in whose place his father soon brought a second wife into the house. After first attending the elementary school in his little hometown, the bright boy was sent to the Gymnasium3 in Hall. From there, he entered the seminary in Maulbronn in the fall of 1873, after passing the state examination, and two years later routinely transferred with his co-graduates to Blaubeuren. The four seminary years always occupied a privileged place in Bonhöffer’s memory. The time at Maulbronn filled the most formative years of his youth. The peaceful, cozy monastery village, the marvelous architecture of the old Cistercian Abbey itself with its cloisters and its small cloister garden, the surrounding cloister yard, the esplanade in front of the Paradies4 with its shady linden trees and the murmuring fountain and the lakes of the immediate vicinity, the grave forests, which were explored in all directions during the sparse free time, they became familiar to him and dear to him like his own home. The composition of the graduating class was favorable. The companionship of about forty fresh fellows of his own age, who candidly devoted themselves to and received each other, in need of contact with each other, striving for the same goals, in part also richly gifted and multi-talented, engendered a feeling of fellowship, the pleasure of which was shared by all. But probably no one contributed more to the constant preservation and intensification of this pleasant fellowship than Bonhöffer himself, who, with his open, cheerful and friendly, gregarious manner, was always a good comrade to everyone and whose close friendship many contenders sought out. The seminary discipline, administered in a somewhat petty and narrow-minded fashion in accordance with the statutes which were definitely already outdated in those days, was endured without harm for a few years, and there is no doubt that it also had good effects. The comrades bonded so much closer, and through rigorous habituation to unassuming simplicity and well-ordered daily scheduling everyone felt benefitted. One would work with serious endeavor, but hardly with blind ambition, and without fear of the exams. During our last year at Maulbronn, after Bauer’s departure, which, by the way, we sincerely deplored, intellectually we were especially challenged by Professor Th. Weidlich who took his place, one of the best and most stimulating teachers of his time, both a man of good taste and thorough philological knowledge and ability, who then was in the prime of his young years, and precisely that induced in us the good feeling of profitable work. Most of all, the hours during which he read with us Homer and the Greek lyric poets have remained unforgettable for many, and the lasting joy of philological studies was probably also planted in Bonhöffer particularly by Weidlich’s instruction. In addition we enjoyed the good fortune of finding in Paul Mezger, one of the coaches, who later became municipal pastor in Stuttgart and then professor of theology at Basel, really an older friend. As everyone sensed, he felt a strong affection for us, and though superior to us in age and experience, he still all the same had a youthful feeling like ourselves, and he knew how to present his topics so that everyone listened attentively. One could confide in him what moved one’s innermost heart, and his entire person radiated a sunny ease.

The transfer to Blaubeuren widened the horizon and brought refreshing change. The relaxation of the reins, kept tight until then, was above all gratefully and pleasantly felt. The pretty yet somewhat busier little town, surrounded by the wall of the rock-crested mountains, the marvelous Blautopf,5 the beech forests on the slopes, the river with its crystalline water meandering through the green valley of meadows, the river which one has such a beautifully clear view of from the rocky block of the Rucken6 or from the ruins of Rusen castle, was really our new home, as undistinguished as it was compared with Maulbronn; all this was very much to our liking.

The teaching situation at Blaubeuren was less favorable than at Schöntal, yet the instruction we received from Karl Christian Planck offered a substitute. Of course he did not understand the art of drilling, but whoever paid attention when Planck explained Job, Psalms, and Prophets, whoever seriously participated when the translation was worked out in Tacitus, not merely learned Hebrew and Latin, and not only formed his taste and his linguistic versatility through the quite exquisite German expression into which Planck knew how to recast the foreign words, but was introduced by Planck into the spirit of Hebrew poetry and prophecy and into the understanding of the worldview of the Roman historian, and was seized by the mood that prevails in the books translated. This was because the unpretentious and serious man who interpreted their writings for us was standing before us like someone congenial to those ancient expounders and preachers of mores. And then, in the last seminary year, to Planck’s philological classes those of philosophical propaedeutics were added. Through them Planck gained a powerful influence on everyone whose mind was capable of moving along philosophical lines of thought. Bonhöffer was among Planck’s most loyal adherents in his graduating class. And he always understood and gratefully expressed at every opportunity that much of the best he had in himself he owed precisely to the instruction, the stimulation, and the example of Planck.

In the fall of 1877 the graduating class of Blaubeuren transferred to Tübingen. On October 1st Bonhöffer was found fit for military service, contrary to his expectations supported by expert medical opinion. He endured his year of service well and often extolled that it fortified his health. In accordance with his brothers’ precedence, he joined the King’s Society, in which he felt quite comfortable, and to which he always remained loyal in his heart. Besides his other social virtues which could unfold there in the most advantageous way, it was his great musical talent and his sonorous voice that elevated him above the crowd in the circle of his friends. As a good singer and member of the Diegel Quartet, he also especially participated in the choral society.

After the seminary discipline, the studies began with the attendance of philosophical and philological lectures. Even in later semesters Bonhöffer did not limit himself entirely to the discipline of theology. He was undecided for some time whether he shouldn’t rather prepare himself for a teaching post in philology. Meanwhile he exerted his effort in a prize competition on Original Sin proposed by the theology department. Spurred by having won the prize, he then requested from Prof. Christoph Sigwart a suitable subject for a philosophical doctoral dissertation, and Sigwart suggested to him a new account of the psychology of the Stoic Epictetus. Bonhöffer seized this suggestion with eagerness and thus took up an enterprise which both became an inexhaustible source of intellectual invigoration for him for the rest of his life and offered him extensive material for the academic work whose beautiful fruits we are privileged to enjoy in his writings on Epictetus. To begin with he had to eliminate a lot of false opinions. It was taught that all Stoics of the later period, and especially Epictetus, were eclectics who had amalgamated the doctrines of other schools, namely the doctrines of the Academy and the Peripatos, with the old genuine Stoicism. Eduard Zeller’s Philosophy of the Greeks was also to be read this way, and even the most recent interpreter of Stoic philology, L. Stein, had produced, in a voluminous opus, work that was more confusing than illuminating. Taking issue with him, Bonhöffer became more and more convinced that it would be worthwhile to extend the limits of his own work further than he had initially thought. And while he began to fashion his doctoral dissertation into the form of a book, it became for him the most noble purpose “to bring to light the essential dogmatic agreement of Epictetus with the ancient Stoa and his great importance for the clarification of many important concepts of Stoic philosophy, often handed down to us in such a fragmentary way.” For the gathering of material, residence in a city with a good library and the enjoyment of some leisure time was indispensable for him. It was in order to attain both that he accepted employment as a vicar at the Eberhard-Ludwig-Gymnasium in Stuttgart. As soon as he had put the second official theological examination behind him, he applied for the vacancy at Belsenberg OA. Künzelsau, where Karl Weizsäcker also began his official career. He obtained the position and with it the longed-for possibility of establishing his own household. Before departing from Tübingen the candidate of theology had quietly become engaged to Anna Mayer near the market square. She was a daughter of the pharmacist and aulic councilor Wilhelm Mayer. He spent quiet and happy years in the isolated little Hohenlohe village at the side of his faithfully caring spouse. He was fond of playing host to friends in his homey house, and through regular communication with one of his brothers, who was employed as a professor at the teachers’ college in nearby Künzelsau, he compensated for some of the things he missed. Under these fortunate circumstances he soon succeeded in bringing to a conclusion the book which he had been working on for nine years. It was published in 1890 by Ferdinand Enke in Stuttgart under the title: Epictetus and the Stoa, Investigations of Stoic Philosophy.

Immediately after its completion, he started on a sequel. In less than four years (in February 1894) the new work was ready for printing: The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus with the appendix: Excursus on Some Important Points of Stoic Ethics. This work too was meant to correct the error that Epictetus, like other theorists of the later period, supposedly deviated from the principles of the strict Stoa. The life of the Cynic, which he admittedly describes with admiration and warmth, is not supposed to be a model for the conduct of the ordinary man in orderly political and social conditions. The blessings which these conditions bring about are also fully appreciated by Epictetus. It is a duty to preserve them. Only when conditions are terrible will the internally self-sufficient human being have cause to free himself of their ties and of confronting the crowd like an apostle or missionary. “Nor am I ashamed of confessing that Epictetus’ fundamental views do not merely interest me theoretically, but they have also become practically valuable for me.” And therefore he says: “In any case, for all those who also recognize in Jesus’ religious worldview at the same time the highest revelation of the moral spirit, a precise knowledge of Stoic morality, to which it is most closely related, can only be of advantage, both for avoiding unjust derogatory judgments about the achievements of pagan ethics, and on the other hand for clear recognition and appreciation of the specific dissimilarity and superiority of Christian ethics.” And in this thought he has given us his account of Epictetus’ ethics.

Later too he always liked to recall this time at Belsenberg, whose cheerful remembrance was only mixed with a drop of bitterness owing to the fact that he had to mourn the loss of a little son, while two daughters grew up to the joy of their parents. In Stuttgart, in 1903, they had another baby daughter.

In the year 1897, when the second municipal parish in Gmünd had yet to be newly occupied, Bonhöffer exchanged his little village for this city, mainly because he was attracted by the thought that he might be able to develop, in addition to the evangelical religious instruction, a more productive teaching activity on the upper level. But as pleasant as it became to him, and as much as he appreciated the various stimuli that offered themselves to him in the bustling urban community, the duties of the position had become much greater, and the demands that were made on him from all sides no longer left him much rest. In particular, in his more frequent contact with colleagues of a different theological orientation, he became more and more painfully aware of how strongly his own conception of Christianity, which was determined in Blaubeuren by Planck and in Tübingen by Weizsäcker, differed from the “orthodox” one, and his conscientiousness was much occupied by the question of whether he was right to advocate and disseminate, as a servant of the church, a doctrine which was probably rejected, or at least not understood, by the majority of its living members.

The impediment of the insidious headache that had already tormented him at times during the seminary years became ever more frequent and more irritating. So in the summer of 1900 he decided to resign from the ecclesiastical office and apply for the advertised position of the head librarian at the Kgl. Landesbibliothek.7 He did not do this with a light heart. In the new occupation, which he entered on September 27, 1900, Bonhöffer delved into his work with the full dedication of his personality, without which he could not have felt satisfied in any position. His co-worker of many years and successor in the directorship of the Landesbibliothek, Dr. Rath, says of his work at the library: “Admirable was his unflagging zeal for work and his capacity for work which, despite many health related impediments, enabled him to have outstanding achievements, and above all his pronounced sense of duty, in which he made the highest demands on himself.” Yet he did not want to forego entirely further academic activity. With the greatest exertion of his strength, by restricting his contact to the circle of the next of kin and closest friends, he actually completely succeeded in conducting his studies of the Stoa to the goal which he had had in mind from the very beginning, namely, to show the affinity of the ethical doctrines of his favorite philosopher with the Christian outlook on life. Epictetus and the New Testament is the title of his book published in 1911. It is not only his concluding work, but at the same time Bonhöffer’s most mature work. An introductory page carried the simple dedication: “to the memory of my dear wife”—she had been snatched away from her family in the previous year by a quick death.

From the last pages of the book I should like to extract a few sentences because they not only express the scholarly conviction of the author, but at the same time characterize his conception of history and entire worldview, indeed, I should like to say they may really be regarded as his creed:

As a religion Christianity has triumphed over the Stoa, for as a religion the latter could naturally not compete with the former. But the main reason why the Stoa succumbed to Christianity, it seems to me, lies in something else. The ethicization of the masses could not be achieved by Stoicism due to its overall character, indeed, it could not even seriously aim for it. As a philosophical school it was bound to the traditional forms of propaganda, conditioned and limited by the social circumstances of the Greek nation-state, and could therefore naturally only make it its goal to reform the higher social strata, which, of course, were also open to the freed slave. Here Epictetus constitutes no exception; his listeners are not craftsmen and day laborers, tradesmen and farmers, but rather the sons of well-to-do parents, members of the jeunesse dorée8 who studied philosophy because it was part of good breeding and refined culture. The vulgarization of the philosophy was practiced by the Cynics, not by the Stoics, and it will surprise no one that the former, with their half repulsive, half ridiculous extravagances were incapable of reforming society. So it is to a certain extent the tragic fate of the Stoa that, while being the first school to proclaim the principle of the equality of human beings and the equal entitlement of all to the possession of truth and the full enjoyment of human dignity, it was prevented from fulfilling its universal mission by its historical dependence on the doctrinal forms of aristocratic particularism. Nevertheless, its work was not in vain, not even during the time of its existence as a school, and it would be quite mistaken to think that the sermon of the Stoics had no, or only little, success. What the Stoa accomplished in those days it is still capable of achieving today as well. But more important than any opinion is the inner experience of the steeling and consoling force of Epictetian idealism, which anyone can still have today. It is not really a matter of Stoic ethics being played off against Christian ethics, but how in the past the two peacefully co-existed in so many Fathers of the Christian church and quietly merged together, so they can still today complement each other and with united strength oppose ethical skepticism and nihilism. Of course we will not deny even these orientations their value for the economy of human intellectual life, because humanity can advance only through the conflict of outlooks. Nevertheless, the individual will today always attain a truly joyous vitality which outlasts even the most violent shocks if he adheres to Christian or to Stoic ethics or, even better, to both at the same time. If the former has the great advantage that it stimulates feeling and gratifies it infinitely more strongly, then the latter possesses the good that as it is purely grounded in reason, it is independent of all transformations of philosophical theories and religious notions and therefore is to a greater extent free of transitory elements.

The book appeared at Töpelmann’s in Giessen as part of the collection of essays and preliminary studies on the history of religion established by Albrecht Dietrich and Richard Wünsch.

How much respect and trust Bonhöffer had won in the meantime in the world of scholars became evident in the fact that he had been asked to take charge of the new revision of Windelband’s History of Ancient Philosophy, which had become necessary, and which Windelband himself was no longer ready to take on due to heavy engagements elsewhere. The task required a great deal of laborious detail work because since the appearance of the last (second) edition of this textbook, almost twenty years had passed, a span of time during which, as in other sciences, so especially too in the area of ancient philosophy, colossal work was done and considerable progress had been attained. The need “could therefore not be met by a mere revision, but rather the output of research of the last two decades had to be worked in as completely as possible.” At times great reorganizations also had to be undertaken, and that was carried out with such expertise and such skill and tact that the new edition is no less valuable for the progress to the point of view of the present than the older editions were for earlier decades, and to his great satisfaction he was able to declare in the preface that Windelband himself not only had approved in advance the submitted principles of the new revision, but had also subsequently approved the manner of their application in general and found the degree of effort at conservation which was thereby observed “not too small but rather too large.” Bonhöffer made more radical alterations especially in the presentation of Stoic doctrine and in Plato. The alterations in precisely these places represent quite considerable improvements.

His main work, of course, even during this time, continued to be devoted to the Landesbibliothek. The procuration of ancient philology, archaeology, philosophy, and pedagogy was entrusted to Bonhöffer. It goes without saying that in his scientific procedure he handled the new acquisitions in these areas, especially in philosophy, with great expertise and conscientiousness. His most distinguished activity, however, was concerned with cataloguing. First he completed the subject catalog of antiquities, begun by his predecessor. This was followed by the revision of the subject catalog of philosophy. In the meantime, the work, which had been planned for a long time, had already started on the alphabetic general catalog, which contains the entire holdings of the library alphabetically ordered according to authors, and for ten years Bonhöffer’s care and work was above all directed at its completion. Then it was time to take up again the work on the subject catalogs which in the meantime had been delayed, for which a new plan had been proposed which he recognized as useful and which, from then on, he took up and promoted with all zeal. It was especially important to him to be able to offer to the library patrons as soon as possible a useable part of this catalog which contained the latest literature since 1900. The work was making the best of progress, and especially during the war Bonhöffer had rapidly advanced that part of the catalog he had taken over personally, when he was taken by surprise by his illness and sudden death.

He endured with Stoic firmness the severe illness which broke his energies completely. What he tells us about Epictetus, that his wish for his dying hour had only been “that death might find him not in an attack of weakness, despondency, or joylessness, but rather at the height of his mental and moral strength, so that the end would coincide with the life which he, disregarding isolated disturbances and vacillations, had always been leading as a whole,” that was fulfilled for he himself, even though under severe physical pain. On August 14, 1919, at noon, Bonhöffer passed away. Post-mortem examination diagnosed cancer at the entrance of the stomach.

It hardly needs to be said that Bonhöffer’s friendly, affable, and cheerful nature, and the tender consideration which he was used to showing to everyone, won him lasting affection in the hearts of all. With Epictetus’ name Bonhöffer’s name will remain united for a long time as that of his best interpreter, and anyone who in the future should delve into scholarly studies of the Stoa will forever express quiet gratitude to Bonhöffer.


1.State library.

2.Adolf F. Bonhöffer senior married Christiane Luise Pistorius in Sulzbach Murr on June 16, 1815. Adolf Bonhöffer was, evidently, a distant relative of Dietrich Bonhöffer (1906–1945), the incomparably more famous theologian.

3.Secondary school.

4.Entrance hall.

5.A crater lake.

6.A mountain peak.

7.Royal state library.

8.Literally “gilded youth”—young rich people, elegant and lazy.

An Overview of Scholarship on Epictetus 2000–2020

This overview and the references that follow select those works in which Epictetus figures prominently. Predominantly for anglophone readers, this survey excludes works chiefly devoted to other Stoics.

The ancient Stoics divided philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics. Though the greatest logician of the Stoa is certainly Chrysippus, the study of arguments was also a serious matter to the Stoics of the Roman empire (Barnes 1997; Bobzien 1997), including Epictetus (DeLacy 1943; Xenakis 1968).

Arguably the most consequential dichotomy in Epictetus’ ethical arguments is the sharp division between things that are ‘up to us’ and things that are ‘not up to us’ (Frede 2007). The former includes our ‘choice’ or ‘volition’ (prohairesis) (Cassanmagnago 1977; Dragona-Monachou 1978–79; Dobbin 1991; Asmis 2001; Graver 2003). We are only, and yet completely, responsible for our prohairesis and other things up to us (Salles 2007). Our happiness or misery results from how well or poorly we exercise our prohairesis. The things not up to us, in contrast, are indifferent to our happiness and so are termed ‘indifferents’ (Bénatouïl 2019). Epictetus locates human freedom solely among the things up to us, specifically in our power of assent (Gretenkord 1981; Frede 2011). Causal determinism governs all else (Bobzien 1998; Braicovich 2010).

Epictetus was a slave for years early in life (Rist 1985; Manning 1986), so it is understandable that he taught the Stoicism he learned as a philosophy to free the uneducated from what he regarded as mental slavery. He conceives of happiness as freedom (Stephens 2007a). Desires for things not up to us shackle our minds—our true selves—whether our bodies are chained or not. But since the self is sovereign over its beliefs, judgments, desires, and choices, it is godlike (Dyson 2009; Wildberger 2013). The Stoic’s self mediates between traditional social relations and normative ideals (Reydams-Schils 2005). Since the behavior of others is not up to us, Epictetus sharply distinguishes how to evaluate others from how to evaluate oneself (Boter 2010). Regarding the latter, daily monitoring and assessment of one’s affective dispositions and comportment constitutes a key form of self-therapy (Newman 1989). Epictetus’ approach to therapeutic management of emotions has been examined (Long 2006a), as has the effectiveness of Stoic philosophy as psychotherapy (Sorabji 1997a). One study examines together the psychological and religious foundations of Epictetus’ ethics (Le Hir 1954). Harmful emotions include anger, envy, and fear. Epictetus argues that fear of death, not death itself, is the epitome of evil (Stephens 2014). The emotion of shame (aidōs), on the other hand, plays a corrective role integral to moral progress (Kamtekar 1998). The power to love belongs only to the person wise about what is good, what is evil, and what is neither (Stephens 1996), thus fools cannot love (Inwood 1997). Epictetus and the Stoic sage (Duhot 1996), his conception of philosophy as a way of life (Hadot 1995; Sellars 2003, Sharpe 2014), and his view of the meaning of life (Long 2018a) have been studied.

The Stoics defined the goal (telos) of life as living ‘in agreement with nature’ (kata physin). Thus, the operation of nature (physis) in Epictetus’ thought has received attention (Hijmans Jr. 1967). According to Stoic doctrine, from birth nature enables human beings to perceive what belongs to or is dear to them, as well as the impetus to seek out and appropriate those things. This is the developmental theory of ‘appropriation’ (oikeiōsis). This theory explains why human beings naturally associate, live and work together (Inwood 1996), bond with each other (Reydams-Schils 2002), and aspire to ideally harmonious community (Magrin 2018). The social dimension of the ethics of the three major imperial Stoics is significant (Bodson 1967). More recent work offers detailed study of Epictetus’ robust theory of ethical roles (Johnson 2012a, 2012b, and 2013). One of those roles is the Stoic hero (Mann 2015). The tyrant serves as an anti-hero for Epictetus. Studies of his relationship with the tyrant (Starr 1949), the imperial court (Millar 1965; Brunt 2013b), and his master (Weaver 1994) shed light on his analysis of power and coercion.

Epictetus also speaks to and about non-philosophers with no interest in becoming Stoics (MacGillivray 2020). His relations with students and visitors to his school have been charted (Hock 1991). One topic of debate has concerned the degree of fidelity with which Epictetus’ philosophy was transmitted from his mouth to the extant books of the Diatribai or Dissertationes (‘Discourses’) as written down, or creatively composed, or imaginatively reproduced, by Arrian (Hartmann 1905; Brunt 2013c). Some (Wirth 1967) contend that the Discourses are not a verbatim transcript of Epictetus’ lectures but were composed by Arrian, in imitation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, portions of which he imagined. Others (Selle 2001) go further to argue that Arrian deliberately stylized the diatribes of Epictetus into a set of unprocessed lecture notes to give the reader the vivid illusion of hearing Epictetus speak.

Socrates looms large for Epictetus (Schweingruber 1943; Döring 1974; Döring 1979; Long 2002; Brennan 2006; Johnson 2019). The influence of Cynicism is also considerable (Billerbeck 1978; Billerbeck 1996; and see below). Subtler are traces of Chrysippus’ practical moral teaching in Epictetus’ school (Brunt 2013a). One work selects texts from Epictetus, Teles, and Musonius, provides historical context, relates their teachings to Christianity, and elucidates features of the diatribic style (Capelle 1948). Another examines the views of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius on habit (Stephens 2013). A comparative study of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius argues that they all view philosophy as a practice and they all offer theoretical reflection on the nature of that practice (Bénatouïl 2009). The idea of philosophical exercise played an important role in the understanding of philosophy in late Stoicism (Sellars 2007). Two works discuss certain ideas in Epictetus and Marcus (Stanton 1968; Long 1982).

Other aspects of Epictetus’ philosophy explored include travel and providence (Stephens 2007b), his comparison of athletic training and competition with Stoic education (Stephens and Feezell 2004), and his analogy of moral progress to biological digestion (Tremblay 2019). A recent article re-examines the role and significance of divination in Epictetus (MacGillivray 2019). The monograph on Epictetus and the New Testament (Bonhöffer 1911) has been joined by a comparative study of Roman Stoicism and Roman Christianity (Thorsteinsson 2010). Some women writers have been drawn to Epictetus (Wright 2007). Yet the philosophies of the Roman Stoics have recently been weaponized by misogynists (Zuckerberg 2018). Several studies provide overviews of Epictetus (Spanneut 1962; Hershbell 1989; Graver 2009).

The longstanding popularity of the Encheiridion (‘Handbook’) continues (Boter 2017). Works include a fine critical edition (Boter 1999), a chiefly philological and literary commentary (Brandt 2015), and a translation of Simplicius’ commentary on the Handbook (Brennan and Brittain 2002a, 2002b). For the Discourses there is a commentary on the first book (Dobbin 1998) and a gigantic two-volume commentary on the first discourse of the fourth book (Willms 2011).

Two collections on various topics in Epictetan studies are available. The first (Scaltsas and Mason 2007) collects essays by leading scholars on a range of topics; these include the relevance of moral theory to moral improvement, logic, theology, the philosopher as God’s messenger, Cynicism, prohairesis and the self, death and the self, freedom in Epictetus and Wittgenstein, Epictetus’ moral perspectives, and his notion of a person. The second (Gordon and Suits 2014) contains eleven conference essays that can be loosely grouped as interpretive, tracing Epictetus’ later influence (Kant, Foucault), or illustrating his contemporary relevance (for the virtue of patience, for his account of beastly vices and animal virtues); the interpretive essays discuss Socrates, Heracles, and roles, the idea of taking the same things seriously and not seriously, Epictetus’ moral epistemology, names and comprehensive impressions, self-identity, moral apprehensive impressions, and a puzzling text in the Handbook.

Bonhöffer remains the only author of three monographs on Epictetus (Bonhöffer 1890; the one translated here; Bonhöffer 1911). The earliest French monograph (Colardeau 1903) argues that Epictetus’ teaching revolves around two main ideas, that philosophy is above all moral and that morality is above all practical. Another notes Plato’s influence on Epictetus in his portrait of Socrates, his moral intellectualism, moral rigorism, spiritualism, asceticism, and his religion, as Epictetus adapts texts from thirteen Platonic dialogues for the purposes of his own practical moral instruction (Jagu 1946). One Italian study is known to me (Riondato 1965). Epictetus’ educational system is the subject of one booklength study in English (Hijmans Jr. 1959). Another approach divides Epictetus’ philosophy into the topics of life as a game, logical puzzles, nature and God, value theory, pain and training, preventive therapies, remedial devices, and social dynamics (Xenakis 1969). The memoirs of a United States Navy Vice Admiral and aviator explain how, armed with Epictetus’ Stoicism, he preserved his sanity and dignity during more than seven torturous years as a POW in Vietnam (Stockdale 1993). Recent monographs in German have investigated the dialogic structure of the Discourses (Wehner 2000) and situated the form, content, and functions of prayers in Epictetus within the ancient prayer tradition (Landefeld 2020).

The last twenty years have seen three book-length studies of Epictetus in English. The first (Long 2002) identifies four concepts unifying his philosophy: freedom, judgment, volition, and integrity. Long rejects labeling Epictetus’ extant teachings diatribes because his Socratic methodology is far removed from Cynic sermonizing. Epictetus endorses three pedagogical styles: protreptic, elenctic, and didactic (doctrinal). His inspiration for the first two styles, Socrates, he canonizes along with Diogenes the Cynic and Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoa. Natures divine, human, and animal are explicated, as are the philosophical and pedagogical reasons Epictetus consistently proceeds from God to ethics. His idea of the self, Long argues, is to be understood through the interrelationship of rationality, volition (prohairesis), integrity, and autonomy. The final chapter treats appropriate actions, roles, emotions, and tolerance.

The second (Stephens 2007a) contends that Epictetus considers human ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ (eudaimonia) to consist in a certain kind of freedom. Fully grasping and always heeding the fundamental distinction between what is ‘up to me’ and what is ‘not up to me’ (externals) provides the basis on which to work toward achieving this freedom. Epictetus’ approach to dealing with externals, Stephens explains, is summed up in the motto: ‘Do your best and accept the rest.’ Epictetus’ understandings of feeling, affection, and love culminate in his argument that only the Stoic sage has the power to love. In the final chapter Stephens reconstructs Epictetus’ argument that living in agreement with nature requires the life of reason, which in turn calls for striving to perfect reason into virtue.

The third (Johnson 2013) argues that for Epictetus roles serve to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’ First, our most fundamental role is as human beings. Epictetus never tries to list or categorize all roles exhaustively, Johnson argues, because sets of roles vary from person to person. Instead, four criteria help to locate our many roles: (1) our particular abilities and sense of self-worth; (2) our social relations; (3) our chosen roles; and (4) divine signs, for example, the oracle of Delphi recruiting Socrates to philosophize in Athens. Johnson contends that roles do the justificatory work in Epictetus’ ethical theory that the canonical virtues do in other Stoics. Fulfilling our ordinary roles suffices to make us non-sages ethically good. Epictetus grants that roles may conflict. When they do, we resolve conflicts case by case. Whereas for Cicero a role is played by an actor before an audience, for Epictetus a role is a part with a function, whether seen or unseen. Johnson concludes that Epictetus offers a full-blown, original theory of ethics broader in scope and ambition than Cicero’s theory of four personae (roles).

Given the broad scope of scholarly work on Epictetus over the last several decades, and given the remarkable, growing surge of interest in practicing Stoicism among non-academics, Epictetan studies promise to thrive into the foreseeable future.


Algra, K., van der Horst, P., and Runia, D. (eds.)(1996), Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy (Leiden).

Asmis, E. (2001), ‘Choice in Epictetus’ Philosophy’, in Collins and Mitchell (2001), 385–412.

Barnes, J. (1997), Logic and the Imperial Stoa (Leiden).

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———(2019), ‘Épictète et la doctrine des indifférents et du telos d’Ariston à Panétius’, Elenchos, 40: 99–121.

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First Edition

I would like to thank all of the following people for their generous assistance: Sibylle Baur of the Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart for providing me with the biographical information on Adolf F. Bonhöffer; Prof. Ernst J. Brehm for his gracious help in translating Ritter’s necrology of B; Nanci Borg for her contribution to the word processing of the manuscript; Peggy Troy for her ever reliable and invaluable help in editing and proofreading the manuscript, and her stalwart genealogical and geographical research into B’s biography. I also owe thanks to JoAnn Frenschkowski for her help with the early stages of the translation, several years ago, when the kind support she gave was most needed. Thanks are also due to Roland Barthes for his assistance with the later stages of translation.

—Omaha, June 1995, W. O. S.

Paperback Edition

Interest in Epictetus and Stoicism has kept this book in such demand that, happily, a second printing is needed. That Bonhöffer’s scholarly work can thereby continue to reach a wider anglophone audience is welcome, and my gratitude goes to all the readers who have brought this about.

—Omaha, March 2000, W. O. S.

New Edition

With the second edition out of print for some time, a new revised edition is needed. Its new features are an overview of the last twenty years of scholarship on Epictetus with references and a short list of abbreviations. (A comprehensive list of abbreviations can be found in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.) I hope this revised edition will be useful for those who continue to benefit from B’s classic work.

—Scottsdale, May 2020, W. O. S.

The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus

Appendix: Excursuses on Some Important Points of Stoic Ethics by Adolf Bonhöffer

In the body of the translation bold-faced numbers within square brackets, for example [18], indicate Bonhöffer’s original pagination. (Tr.)

[iii] Foreword

The main purpose of my earlier published work Epictet und die Stoa (Stuttgart, Enke, 1890) was to shed light on the essential doctrinal agreement of Epictetus with the old Stoa and his great importance for the clarification of many important concepts in Stoicism, a philosophy that has been handed down to us full of so many gaps. What was done in the previous book for psychology and epistemology will be done in the present work for ethics, and in this respect it constitutes the continuation of the earlier work. Well-grounded objections to the main position of my book have not been advanced. One party pointed out that the Greco-Roman moral philosophy of the first century represents a very special type which is far removed from the original Stoic philosophy. In reply to this, let me remark first that the characteristic feature of this moral philosophy consists, among other things, precisely in a return to the strict principles of the old Stoa considered as the true heiress of Socratic philosophy; second, that Epictetus in particular occupies a distinctly exceptional position among the moral philosophers of the imperial period in so far as he is completely free of the eclecticism of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius; and, compared with his teacher Musonius Rufus, on the one hand he shows much less inclination towards Cynicism, and on the other hand, his work reveals a considerably closer connection to Stoic doctrine and terminology as developed mainly by Chrysippus. Nevertheless I am quite prepared to grant that Epictetus differs from the heads of the old Stoa in his physics and metaphysics—not by positive divergence, but by attaching less value to these disciplines and by his indifference to their problems. I also grant that even where he essentially agrees with them, one often notices a difference of tone and coloring—a point to which Theob. Ziegler has rightly called attention (Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, 1891, 26).

Nevertheless all this can change nothing in the main upshot. If Epictetus praises with enthusiasm Chrysippus and likewise Zeno on every occasion as the actual inventor and founder of the truth, if he moreover sometimes also names Diogenes, Antipater and Archedemus as authorities agreeing with Chrysippus, whereas the greats of the heterodox Stoa, Panaetius and Posidonius, mainly cultivated by Cicero and [iv] also highly celebrated and much used by Seneca, are not even mentioned one single time, then one may no doubt perceive in that not simply an accident; rather this is simply proof that Epictetus passed over the heterodox Stoics of the second and first pre-Christian centuries with clear awareness and has followed the doctrine of the old Stoa. This cannot be declared as impossible a priori, yet there are sufficient parallel occurrences in the area of philosophy and even more in theology.

But what is cynical in Epictetus is confined to the idea, which is certainly importantly prominent in his ethics, of the Cynic who has the task of getting people to change their ways by means of his personal example and thus of supporting with practical effectiveness the work of the theoretical teacher of the truth. This crowning ornament to the edifice of Stoic ethics is simply explained by the fact that Epictetus, as he himself admits, was formerly a Cynic (Diss. II, 12, 25) and converted from Cynicism, whose foolishness and unnaturalness he saw, to the Stoa, which he henceforth heeded with full conviction and resoluteness. He wants to be a Stoic, not a Cynic; to become a legitimate Stoic is his highest ideal (Diss. II, 19, 22; cf. II, 9, 19. II, 19, 19. III, 7, 17. III, 24, 40). He thus underwent a development similar to Zeno’s. From his earlier period, however, he retained the concept of the Cynic by idealizing and modifying it at the same time to such a degree that scarcely a trace still remains of the κυνικὴ ἀναισχυντία which essentially moved Zeno to found a school of his own (D. L. VII, 3). In fact even a Stoic of strict observance could take no offense at Epictetus’ Cynic since the noble type of Cynicism always counted as permissible in the Stoa. If we consider what crassly cynical views even Chrysippus is supposed to have expressed on occasion, and that the Stoics defined Cynicism as the “shortcut to happiness” (D. L. 121), so its legitimacy, like Epictetus, was not tied to one special, unique endowment and intended purpose, then we can say with every justification that in Epictetus’ ethics Cynicism plays a smaller role than in the old Stoa. But in any case, in Epictetus Cynicism is only one ingredient which in no way alters the overall Stoic character of his ethics.

I know I am in agreement with eminent scholars on this interpretation of Epictetus’ Cynicism as well as generally on the high regard of Epictetus. Bernays in his interesting paper “Lucian und die Kyniker” says: “only men of as deep insight as Epictetus has proved to be were able to combine the appreciation of the sincere Cynic with the contempt of the degenerate—with colors just as repulsive as Lucian uses to describe the insolent mountebank—he expresses clearly that in well-ordered social conditions nobody sensible could deal with being cynical—it required a knowledge of the depths and heights of human nature, a knowledge like Epictetus possessed, in order to justly mete out blame and praise to the double-natured phenomenon of Cynicism; a man like Lucian was incapable of it.” And Martha in his ingenious work “Les moralistes sous l’empire romain” rightly recognized in the figure of the Cynic in Epictetus an idea akin to [v] Christianity when he says: “no one in antiquity has ever expressed it with this resoluteness and simple greatness that the teaching of morality must be an apostolate; even today one could not better define the role of a Christian missionary.” In the famous chapter περὶ κυνισμοῦ (III, 22) he enthusiastically exclaims: “quelle morale et quelle éloquence! on doit lire tout le discours, qui se répand en impatiences généreuses, en interrogations pressantes, où l’on sent partout comme la fureur de la vertu et de la piété et où la plénitude d’un grand coeur précipite en tumulte un torrent de saintes pensées.” [“What morality and what eloquence! One should read the whole discourse which is suffused with instances of generous impatience and urgent questioning, where one feels throughout the passion of virtue and of piety and where the fullness of a great heart tumultuously precipitates a torrent of sacred thoughts.”]

As for the rest the focal point of the present work lies not in the comparison of Epictetus with the Stoa as in the earlier work, but in the description of his ethics, which may certainly lay claim to an independent interest. Consequently this book constitutes a work in itself and does not necessarily presuppose knowledge of the earlier published work, all the less since much which was discussed in detail there must be briefly repeated here and an index common to both works, even those things which the first does not have on hand, can provide sufficient information about the philosophical contents of study and linguistic usage of Epictetus. In the five excursuses which form the appendix I have dealt with those points of Stoic ethics which were suggested to me by Epictetus and appeared in need of a closer examination. I had no desire to write one about Stoic ethics. Yet the most important and most incisive questions of Stoic ethics come up for discussion in the appendix, especially in the two longer excursuses I and III, which deal with the doctrine of goods and duties.

The historic importance of Stoic ethics cannot be doubtful for those who are in the position or are willing to penetrate from the external form, which often seems little, through to the inner content and to extract from the paradoxical formulation and doctrinaire exaggeration the solid kernel of lasting truth. I should be permitted here to call attention to the just and insightful judgment of Stoic philosophy in the excellent book by R. Eucken Die Lebensanschauungen der grossen Denker: “it has ruled the minds of the best people not only at that time, but also exercised the most powerful influence on the church of the Orient and Occident and continues as a lasting characteristic type. Wherever there was the attempt to obtain a rational content of life from pure and naked concepts without consideration for history and experience, there is unmistakably a conscious or unconscious relationship with the Stoa (H. Grotius, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fichte).” The ethics of Spinoza especially shows a striking agreement and affinity with Stoic ethics. It is also well-known and duly emphasized by Zeller in his interesting monograph (1886) that Frederick the Great, especially in his later years, predominantly moved in the circles of thought of the Stoa and found in its strict idealism the strongest support of his life. What is also striking to me is the Stoic tone in Moltke’s “Trostgedanken” published after his death; one could almost be tempted to suppose that he borrowed his peculiar concept of the “ruling soul” from the Stoa, and sentences like this: “reason is absolutely [vi] sovereign, it recognizes no authority above itself; no force can compel it to accept as incorrect what it has recognized as true” read almost like a translation of a favorite thought of Epictetus (e.g. Diss. I, 17, 21).

That Stoic ethics and especially Epictetan ethics still have a practical and pedagogical value even today has, from a positive Christian standpoint, been expressed with delightful pluck by Professor Hilty in Bern in his appealing book which is rich in ideas entitled Glück (Leipzig 1891). I too am not ashamed to admit that the basic ideas and pithy sayings of Epictetus have not been merely theoretically interesting, but also practically valuable to me. In any case for all those who recognize in the religious worldview of Jesus at the same time also the highest revelation of the moral spirit, a more exact knowledge of Stoic morality, which is most closely related to their own, can only be conducive both to avoiding unjust disparaging judgments about the achievements of the heathens and on the other hand to clearer perception and appreciation of the specific difference and superiority of Christian ethics.

The quite outstanding, indeed almost unique, importance which Epictetus’ philosophy has in a formal and material respect for the understanding of the development and formation of Christianity, which was based on the Greek world, has been shown in a classical manner by the English scholar who unfortunately died prematurely, Edwin Hatch, in his pioneering Hibbert Lectures on Hellenism and Christianity (translated by E. Preuschen with supplements by Adolf Harnack and the translator, Freiburg im Breisgau 1892). Unfortunately the book has become known to me too late for me to be able to take it into consideration in my work.

Finally as for the external arrangement of the book I have for the sake of simplicity cited the earlier published work as “Volume I” and in the common index labeled it with I, the present work with II. To my regret, due to a misunderstanding the notes to the interpretative part have been attached after the individual larger sections instead of at the conclusion of the entire book. Yet this arrangement, I think, will not even be felt troublesome.

Belsenberg, February 1894

Dr. Adolf Bonhöffer

Table of Contents

PART I. Basis and End of Virtue

FIRST SECTION. The Foundation of Moral Obligation

SECOND SECTION. The Highest Good or the End (Telos)

PART II. The Content of Virtue

FIRST SECTION. Desire According to Nature or the Rational Outlook on Life

1. True Happiness

2. The Evils of Life

3. Death

4. Voluntary Death

5. The Joy of Life

6. The Effort for the External Goods

Appendix. The Use of the Mantic

7. Apathy

SECOND SECTION. Action According to Nature or the Correct Fulfillment of Duty

First Chapter. The Duties of Personal Perfection

1. Cleanliness and Bodily Exercise

2. Moderation, Modesty, and Chastity

3. Truthfulness

4. The Duty of Work and of Earning a Living

Second Chapter. The Religious Duties

1. Worship

2. Belief

Third Chapter. The Social Duties

1. Marriage

2. Piety

3. The Civic Duties

4. The Duties of Humanity

5. Friendship

THIRD SECTION. Judgment According to Nature (Intellectual Development of the Mind)

PART III. The Acquisition of Virtue

FIRST SECTION. The Moral Predisposition


THIRD SECTION. Moral Progress and Perfection

Concluding Consideration


Excursus I. The Stoic Telos Formulas

1. Chrysippus, Panaetius, Posidonius

2. Diogenes, Antipater, Archedemus etc.

3. The Stoic Doctrine of Goods

4. The πρῶτα κατὰ φύσιν

5. The Middle Stoic Telos Formula

Excursus II. The Stoic Doctrine of Suicide

Excursus III. The καθῆκον and κατόρθωμα

1. καθῆκον and Probability

2. καθῆκον and Legality

3. The Meaning of καθῆκον in Epictetus

4. καθῆκον and προηγμένον

5. The καθῆκον as μέσον

6. The καθῆκον τέλειον

7. The καθῆκον of the προκόπτων

8. The καθῆκον of the φαῦλος

9. Final Judgment

Excursus IV. The Stoic Doctrine of Acquisition

Excursus V. Stoic Pantheism

Greek Subject Index

Index of Names

List of Authors Cited

←xliiv | 1→

[1] Part I

Basis and End of Virtue

←1 | 2→

←2 | 3→

First Section

The Foundation of Moral Obligation

With respect to the foundation of moral obligation, ethical systems are divided into two classes, heteronomous and autonomous. Whereas in the former the standards of the moral life are derived from an objective authority which lies outside of the person, in the autonomous systems the individual counts as his own lawgiver. The distinction is, however, not as great as it seems, for in reality every authoritative ethics has validity for the individual only in so far as and so long as he finds the prescriptions appropriate to and suited for his nature. As soon as his thoughts lead him to doubt this belief, he will either reject the bindingness of the moral law for himself, or, in case he nevertheless conforms to it, he will no longer be moral. Every morality based on the assumption of a supernatural revelation has for this reason the understandable aim of proving the agreement of its commands with the facts of external and internal experience; the inferior theory, that the law-giving divine will could also be other than it is, indeed could even make into a duty the opposite of what it once commanded, has nowhere to stand against the deeper conception of God as a constant and unchanging will that is good in itself. Now if one considers that the belief in the deity and the recognition of his will can be claimed only under the presupposition that the human being is made in such a way as to receive divine revelation, then it is evident that even the theonomous morality is in the final analysis an autonomous one, ←3 | 4→for since the revelation must be thought of as necessary, because without it the person could not achieve his intended purpose, so then it too belongs to the economy of human spiritual life, and it is ultimately only a verbal dispute whether one says: I act morally because God has so ordered, or because my nature so demands it; for this too God has given to me.

[2] Just for this reason, however, there is on the other hand no autonomous morality which is not at the same time in a certain sense heteronomous. For if I derive from my human nature rules of action which could be and should be binding for everybody—otherwise I cannot speak of a morality—then with that I admit that in myself and every other human being there exists something which stands above individual arbitrariness and binds all people as common law. This assumption of an essentially equal aptitude and intended purpose of all, which is indispensable for every morality, leads with inner necessity to the belief in a world-order, in a law which is at work in the universe, whatever this law may be considered in greater detail.

What the face to face coexistence of the theonomous and autonomous foundation of moral action is in the Stoa and especially also in Epictetus is explained to us up front by these remarks. Epictetus fairly often speaks in expressions and deals in ideas which completely correspond to the standpoint of theonomous morality. It is not simply that he describes life as a service of God and that he sets the highest goal of the human being therein, to follow God, to please him and to bear witness to him,1 no, he even speaks outright of a divine law, which one should always have in sight, of commands and orders of God, which the individual must know and obey.2 He even knows the concept of revelation; the writings of Chrysippus, whom he praises as the greatest benefactor of mankind since through him the truth leading to the blessedness of God has been shown (I, 4, 28, etc.), also are regarded by him to a certain extent as a sacred code and form the basis for his instruction and his homilies in a way similar to how the biblical text does for the Christian sermon. When, on one occasion, he even claims for himself this honor of a mediator of divine revelation (III, 1, 36), this is not meant as though he brought something new in content, rather he wants to be nothing other than an advocate and teacher of the ancient truth, the ancient truth generally organized and scientifically proven by Zeno and Cleanthes, which in the main was already established by Socrates, but was first defined completely by Chrysippus.

Just as Epictetus often represents the moral duties as divine commands and accordingly depicts failure to perform them as disobedience to God,3 so too does he love above all his admonition to base a moral life on religious motives (Zeller, III, 2, 238), whether it be that he applies the ethical attributes of Zeus to it4 or, ←4 | 5→vastly more frequently still, that he makes ethically fruitful the doctrine of the relationship of the person with God. “If someone were truly convinced of that, that we have been created by God as privileged beings, and that Zeus is the father of human beings as well as the gods, then he would, I believe, not be capable of any ignoble thought or vile action.”“If the emperor would adopt you, then nobody could bear your haughtiness; how much more should you feel yourself exalted, if you recognized yourself as God’s son!”5“What? Do you misunderstand your nobility and forget where you have come from? When eating and drinking will you not think of who you are feeding? You have a God in you, unblessed one, and do not know it, and you defile him [3] without perceiving it through impure thoughts and filthy deeds! In the presence of an image of God you would not dare to do what you do; but now God himself, who sees and hears all, is in your presence, are you not ashamed to think and to do such things, you who forget your nature and are hated by God!” (II, 8, 11).

Just as here, from the idea of the kinship with God, Epictetus derives the duty of noble-mindedness, of striving for the ideal, of purity of the heart, so too does he ground the duty of love of one’s neighbor in the idea of the community of God’s children, from which the idea of cosmopolitanism, the brotherly solidarity of all human beings, results automatically.6 Likewise from the consciousness of having God as one’s father he infers the duty of acceptance in all situations of life and confidence in all adverse occurrences. “Regard yourself as safe from whomever is related to the emperor or any ruler; how much more should the idea of having God as the creator, father and provider, take away all fear and sorrow!” (I, 9, 7). This idea is expressed especially beautifully in the following explanation. “A cautious wanderer, who intends to travel through an area threatened by robbers, does not make the journey alone, but waits until he finds a travel-companion supplied with an escort. So too is it in life with the wise man; there as well dangers threaten from all sides. To whom should I now join myself? To the one who is rich, powerful? What does that help me? He himself can be robbed and overthrown, he still only wails and moans; and who knows whether even my companion himself won’t turn against me and turn into a robber? What do I do then? I want to make myself loved by the emperor, then nobody can do anything to me. But first, in order to achieve it, what a cost it is in trouble and humiliation! And if I achieve it, then even he too is mortal. But if on some occasion he becomes hostile to me, where do I find refuge then? In exile? Well, does fever not threaten there? What then? Is there then not any safe and faithful, strong and unassailable companion? He asks himself this and comes to the realization that he will get through unendangered if he joins God” (IV, 1, 91 etc.). One sees that ←5 | 6→in all these explanations there lies at bottom a higher and more refined concept of God. Only under this presupposition could so high a moral ideal naturally be derived from the kinship of the person with God. For—“Just as the gods are, must he too be who wants to obey and please them, to strive to the best of his ability to become a God himself; if the deity is loyal, free, beneficent, etc., then he must also be that way, he must appear as an imitator of God in all his speech and action” (II, 14, 13).

Were it Epictetus’ view that the correct knowledge of God is brought about through a special supernatural revelation or by way of intuition, then his morality would indeed be theonomous. But this knowledge of God, of his essence and will, according to Epictetus, comes to stand for nothing other than the knowledge of the truth generally, namely by means of thoughtful development of the innate concepts (prolepseis). Likewise the daimon which God has entrusted to the person and sunk in his chest is, as was shown in volume I p. 83 etc., surely not a consciousness of God working directly beside or above reason, [4] but rather nothing other than reason itself or rather the personality of the individual as it should be according to its intellectual ability and intended moral purpose.7

But isn’t this daimonepitropos identical with the conscience? Doesn’t Epictetus call it the inner guardian and judge, the true oracle which tells the person what is good and evil? This daimon certainly has a great resemblance to what we call conscience. Here, however, we must ask ourselves whether Epictetus was familiar with such a conscience in the sense of the categorical imperative, as a specifically moral organ working beside reason and independently of it. This question we must flatly answer in the negative,8 because Epictetus knows no conflict between duty and inclination; with an almost perplexing openness he explains to us that whoever takes the property of his neighbor to be worthy of desire must necessarily thereupon be ready to steal it, and is a fool if he does not do this.9 We should not be angry with the offender but rather thank him that he did nothing annoying to us: “for how does he think, from whom has he learned that the human being is a soft, loving being, and that whoever does wrong harms himself the most?” (IV, 5, 9). Consequently, what impels the person to virtue is not an infallible inner voice, but the knowledge of truth which must first be acquired. It is a principal doctrine of Epictetus that all action is based on opinions,10 and that therefore virtue results from correct opinion, from knowledge itself by itself.11 His ethics is decidedly intellectualistic, a genuine product of the Socratic philosophy: no Stoic more sharply expressed and more decidedly carried out the tenet that virtue is knowledge than Epictetus.

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His ethics is, however, also just as decidedly eudaimonistic, for the knowledge that produces virtue is not a knowledge of duty, but a knowledge of what makes a human being truly happy and unhappy.12 The mainspring of all action—this is a second fundamental tenet of Epictetus—is the presentation of a useful, beneficial thing that is supposed to be achieved by it, or of a harmful, disadvantageous thing that is supposed to be avoided by it. According to Epictetus this presentation of the useful or harmful operates with compelling necessity; a person can no more consent to a thing (inwardly) which does not appear to him as real, than he can desire something which he does not regard as beneficial, and not desire something which seems to him useful.13 On the one hand, according to Galen (V, 376 etc. K.) Posidonius sought to refute the Chrysippan doctrine that every passion is an aberration of reason and of judgment, through, among other things, reference to the words of the Euripidean Medea which tell of a conflict between passion and reflection. Epictetus, however, does away with this objection in an obvious polemic against Posidonius and as a true follower of Chrysippus by way of the remark that exactly this, namely the satisfaction of her revenge, seemed to Medea more beneficial than the preservation of the life of her children (I, 28, 6). Therefore, the basic drive which resides within everyone is the drive for happiness. There is nothing which exerts a stronger influence on us, or indeed can determine the will at all, than the presentation of a good that we could gain, or an evil that we could avoid.14 In this way Epictetus then arrives at the seemingly [5] crassly egotistic statement: “Nobody is more dear (more friendly) to me than I am,”15 yet he emphatically brushes aside the reproach of egotism. “If I say to a tyrant that I honor him solely for the sake of my advantage, then this is not egotistic (φίλαυτον); every being is created so that it does everything for its own sake. Even the sun warms and shines for its own sake, indeed even Zeus ultimately does everything for his own sake. But when he wants to be the Rain-bringer and Fruit-giver and the Father of human beings, then he must be beneficent in order to deserve those attributes. And he also has so established the nature of the rational being that it can partake in none of the goods peculiar to it without at the same time also contributing to the general utility. In this way the consideration of the well-being of one’s neighbor is not violated even if one does everything for the sake of one’s own self.”16 Here we clearly and distinctly have the synthesis of the egotistic and altruistic motives. Whether the ethics of Epictetus fulfills the promise given here, that is, whether, in his ethics, caring about the well-being of one’s fellow beings really gets its due, must come out in the course of my presentation. He himself at least is convinced that adherence to his doctrine would not merely produce gratitude towards God and constant joyfulness, but also peace ←7 | 8→and harmony in the home, in the State and in the life of nations (IV, 5, 35). However, the principle which Epictetus expresses here, that whoever is mindful of his own true happiness also best fulfills his social duties, is incontestably the highest conceivable principle which an ethics can establish.

How greatly the ethics of Epictetus is governed by the principle of eudaimonism may be gathered from the interesting confession: “Even if it were a mistake that everything external is worthless for the person, I would still gladly want this mistake if it helped me to a blissful life, to peace and to freedom” (I, 4, 27).17 So he would even give up the truth for the reward of inner happiness—if it were at all conceivable! For in reality one achieves happiness and truth and virtue above all, and nothing else can be true than what makes the person happy. “How would it be possible that what is the most important thing for people should be incomprehensible and unprovable?”18 Chrysippus has come exactly for that purpose, in order to prove that this doctrine which produces bliss is also true (I, 4, 28). “The universe is ruled truly badly if Zeus does not take care of his citizens so that they can be just as happy as he is. Yet it is sinful merely to think this” (III, 24, 19). We see that Epictetus’ ethics is not simply intellectualistic and eudaimonistic, but also idealistic and optimistic in the highest degree. By the way, Christian ethics as well, indeed even Kantian ethics, is eudaimonistic in the higher and highest sense of the word. By calling the intelligible equalization between happiness and worthiness a postulate of practical reason, Kant in truth also sets striving for happiness above the categorical imperative. For, whether he admits it or not, the individual would not be in the position to sacrifice all inclinations to obedience to the categorical imperative unless his strictly dutiful actions were done under the influence of such a hope for a future equalization. Without this [6] hope the categorical imperative itself would become more and more doubtful for him, and if he were yet to remain in strict obedience, then it would not be truly free obedience, not genuinely moral action.


1.I, 9, 16 ὑπηρεσία III, 24, 114. III, 22, 69 διακονία τοῦ θεοῦ. IV, 7, 20 διάκονος καὶ ἀκόλουθος τῷ θεῷ. Ι, 30, 1 θεῷ ἀρέσκειν. I, 29, 45 ὡς μάρτυς ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ κεκλημένος. III, 1, 37 τῷ θεῷ πεισθῶμεν ἵνα μὴ θεοχόλωτοι ὦμεν. I, 12, 5 τέλος ἐστὶν ἕπεσθαι θεοῖς. Αccording to I, 20, 15 Zeno has already denoted the telos like this. Seneca also calls it a vetus praeceptum (vit. b. 15, 5). Ant.12, 31 ἕπεσθαι τῷ λόγῳ καὶ τῷ θεῷ. Philo migr. Abr. 23 (456 M.).

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2.II, 16, 28 νόμος θεοῖς. III, 24, 42. IV, 7, 17 ἐντολαὶ θεοῦ. III, 24, 114. IV, 3, 12 νόμοι ἐκεῖθεν ἀπεσταλμένοι—διατάγματα. II, 16, 46 θεοῦ προστάγμασι καθοσιοῦσθαι.

3.IV, 4, 32. This interpretation is also not foreign to the older Stoics, though they stated that every sin is an ἀσέβημα (Stobaeus ecl. II, 105 W). And if they defined devoutness as ἐπιστήμη θεῶν θεραπείας (Sext. IX, 123), then they surely understood by it less the external than rather the internal worship of conviction and of obedience. It is also to be understood solely in the ethical sense when they called the wise man the true priest and seer (D.L. 119. ecl. II, 67). Cf. the section about the religious duties.

4.III, 11, 5 Πατρῷος, ᾿Ομόγνιος etc.

5.I, 3, 1 etc.—cf. Cic. leg. I, 59 tanto munere deorum (sc. ingenio suo) semper dignum aliquid et faciet et sentiet.

6.I, 13, 3: Wretch, shouldn’t you endure your brother who, like you, has Zeus as his forefather? cf. fin. III, 66 minime convenit, cum ipsi inter nos viles neglectique simus, postulare, ut dis immortalibus cari simus et ab iis diligamur.

7.I, 14, 12 and 17. II, 8, 23: keep this (sc. the daimon) just as it is, modest, faithful, noble-minded etc.

8.The term τὸ συνειδός, which is found only once (III, 22, 94), that is applied to the Cynics, means less the conscience than rather the self-consciousness, the consciousness of one’s divine calling. Most likely what coincide with the concept of the conscience are αἰδῆμον and ἐντρεπτικόν, whose dulling and deadening the discussion is about in I, 5. See full particulars about this in Part III.

9.I, 18, 4 οὐδὲν ἔχουσιν ἀνώτερον τοῦ δοκοῦντος αὐτοῖς. I, 22, 14. III, 7, 15.

10.III, 9, 2 παντὶ αἴτιον τοῦ πράσσειν τι δόγμα. I, 11, 33 ὑπολήψεις καὶ δόγματα. I, 28, 10 μέτρον πάσης πράξεως τὸ φαινόμενον—δόγματα ταράσσει I, 19, 8. En. 5. θλίβει I, 25, 28. En. 16. βαροῖ καὶ ἐξίστησιν II, 16, 24. ὑβρίζει, βλάπτει En. 20. IV, 5, 26. III, 3, 19. τὸ δόγμα ἐστὶ τὸ θηριῶδες, τὸ διακόπτον τὴν φιλίαν etc. The δόγματα are the person, they constitute his essence: III, 2, 12. III, 9, 12. IV, 5, 20. IV, 8, 2. Ant. 2, 15 everything is ὑπόληψις. 3, 9.

11.I, 1, 3 etc. The δύναμις λογική tells the person what he must do and stop doing. I, 17, 14 εἰ καταμεμάθηκας τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἀνάγκη σε ἤδη κατορθοῦν. II, 12, 4 and often. Seneca ep. 31, 6: quid est bonum? rerum scientia. ep. 121, 3 tunc demum intelleges, quid faciendum tibi, quid vitandum sit, cum didiceris, quid naturae tuae debeas. Ant. 11, 5 ἀγαθὸν εἶναι—γίνεται ἐκ θεωρημάτων. cf. Cic. fin. III, 73.

12.Epictetus is used to distinguishing the συμφέρον as the object of the ὄρεξις from the καθῆκον as the object of the ὁρμή. Yet it is not even important to him to make the συμφέρον the common object of ὄρεξις and ὁρμή (I, 18, 2), and indeed throughout he classifies the fitting under the beneficial; it is respected only as long as it at the same time appears as useful, and is immediately put aside if the συμφέρον advises the contrary.

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13.I, 18, 2 ἀμήχανον ἄλλο μὲν κρίνειν τὸ συμφέρον ἄλλου δ’ ὀρέγεσθαι. III, 22, 43. En. 31, 3. III, 7, 15. I, 27, 12 πέφυκε ὁ ἄνθρωπος μὴ ὑπομένειν ἀφαιρεῖσθαι τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἢ περιπί πτειν τῷ κακῷ.

14.II, 22, 15 πᾶν ζῷον οὐδενὶ οὕτως ᾠκείωται ὡς τῷ ἰδίῳ συμφέροντι. III, 3, 2 and 4 τὸ ἀγαθὸν φανὲν εὐθὺς ἐκίνησεν ἐφ’ ἑαυτό. III, 24, 2 ἐγὼ πρὸς τὰ ἀγαθὰ τὰ ἐμαυτοῦ πέφυκα. ibid. 83, III, 23, 34 θέλουσι μὲν γὰρ τὰ πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν φέροντα, ἀλλαχοῦ δ’ αὐτὰ ζητοῦσι. III, 22, 26—This is the common Stoic doctrine. Plut. stoic. rep. 12 οἰκειούμε θα πρὸς αὑτοὺς εὐθὺς γενόμενοι (Chrysippus). ecl. II, 64 all virtues have one goal, happiness. ibid. 77. Galen 597 αἱρούμεθα τὸ φαινόμενον ἀγαθὸν. Cic. ac. II, 38 non potest animal ullum non adaptere id, quod accommodatum ad naturam (= οἰκεῖον) adpareat. Tusc. IV, 12 natura omnes ea, quae bona videntur, sequuntur fugiuntque contraria. Sen. ben. IV, 17, 2 nemo in amorem sui cohortandus est.

15.III, 4, 10. IV, 6, 11 ἐμοὶ δ’ οὐδείς ἐστιν ἐγγίων ἐμοῦ. cf. Cic. fin. III, 59 se ipsi omnes natura diligunt.

16.I, 19, 10 etc. Seneca expresses this idea even more succinctly as follows: alteri vivas oportet, si vis tibi vivere. ep. 60, 4 vivit is qui multis usui est, vivit is, qui se utitur. Cf. also in addition Epict. II, 8, 1 τὸ ἀγαθὸν ὠφέλιμον and D. L. 103 ἴδιον τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ τὸ ὠφελεῖν.

17.The passage IV, 11, 24 is similar: “not even if I would become wise would I want to go to such a (vile) philosophy.” This too is naturally only to be understood hypothetically; true wisdom produces purity of the heart and at the same time also external cleanliness and decorum (IV, 11).

18.II, 11, 16 Philo de sacr. 28 ὁ θεὸς τὰ γνωρίσματα τῆς ἀληθείας ἐναργῶς ἐπιδέδειχε.

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[7] Second Section

The Highest Good or the End (Telos)

(see Excursus I)

If striving for happiness is the root of everything, even moral action, then consequently happiness is the highest goal of the human being, for even truth is for the human being an object of the striving, wanted not for its own sake, but only because it is the indispensable means for attaining happiness. Whereas the Platonizing orientation in the Stoa, that is at least Posidonius and Seneca, where he follows the latter, such as particularly in the preface to the naturales quaestiones, has set theory above practice and has made knowledge of the truth as such the final end, Epictetus absolutely places principal worth on practical truth and demands the acquisition of other knowledge only if it serves as evidence and support for it. It is true he sometimes states that knowledge or the correct operation of reason generally is the highest good. God is reason, knowledge, logos orthos, and consequently we human beings must recognize our true good in our rationality, which distinguishes us from the beasts (II, 8, 1). Frequently Epictetus describes as the highest end development with respect to the perfection of reason, the possession of the correct dogmata or the correct (i.e. reasonable) use of presentations.1 But in his case what still predominates by far is the concept of the correct prohairesis, of the free will, of rational self-determination; it is this whereby the human being raises himself high above the beast, which makes him truly happy.2 ←11 | 12→Epictetus really has practical reason in view first of all when he speaks of the correct conduct of the hegemonikon and of the rational use of presentations. We will see later on that he also ranks theoretical right conduct with virtue and demands in a certain sense an all-round development of the mind. But the development of reason according to its ethical side is usually the main thing which he insists on.

Reason, developed in this sense perfectly and correctly, is identical with virtue and with happiness. The tenet to [8] which the Stoics obstinately adhere not just against the hedonistic systems which make external well-being the highest good, but also against the Academics, who are not skeptically oriented, and the Peripatetics, as far as the latter also met them half-way on this matter, is this, that happiness is based solely on virtue, on intellectual right conduct and cannot suffer the least increase or decrease through external goods or evils. It is this which is really the Shibboleth of Stoic ethics, and it was by no means obstinacy, as their opponents believed, when they did not budge from this tenet, but rather the clear feeling that with the abandonment of this tenet they would give up themselves. Epictetus as well defends this tenet with body and soul; he covers not only hedonism in its coarser and finer form with the ban of contempt (II, 11, 22. III, 7, 28, fr. 52), but also does not allow himself the slightest concession to the standpoint of the Peripatetics. Happiness consists exclusively in the acquisition and the maintenance of the intellectual goods, in the moral, rational operation of the will. He who wants to know what autarky means, strictly realized, can inform himself about it best in Epictetus. No one has expressed it more gruffly than he has, no one has consistently carried out the doctrine that the proper essence of the human being, his entire self, consists in reason, in the intellect, for which the conditions of the body and external circumstances are entirely indifferent for well-being and right conduct. Correctly Stoic, he applies the concept of the good only to the rational being. In the case of the beasts one can speak neither of happiness nor of misery (II, 8, 5), and indeed for the human being only what is rational is a good.3 Epictetus does not even let health count as a genuine good (IV, 1, 76). Yet when he sometimes speaks of external goods, of goods of the flesh (III, 7, 4), this is in fact an almost inevitable adaptation to customary usage, one also used by the older Stoics.4 So Epictetus can then also formulate the highest good and end as safeguarding what is one’s own and turning away from what is foreign.5 Entirely in the manner of the old Stoic syllogism he seeks to establish his tenet by proving that the good can only be of an internal, intellectual kind6 since it belongs to its concept to be firm and constant, free and removed from all constraint and hindrance, worthy of pride and of joyful exaltation.

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The eudaimonism of his ethics receives, in this way, a very earnest impression, and this is seen even more when one observes the additional point that Epictetus, like the old Stoics, also grants that virtue is the goal of striving not on account of the intellectual enjoyment derived from it, but for the sake of itself. It is true the highest joy and satisfaction is connected with the exercise of virtue, but this enjoyment is not the aim, but only the necessary attendant of virtuous action.7 When Epictetus sometimes describes happiness (εὐδαιμονεῖν) as the highest goal, as this too was already done before him in the Stoa (ecl. II, 77), then it is to be noticed that for the Stoics the concept eudaimonia stood much closer to the concept of virtue than our concept of happiness. This becomes evident especially clearly from the definition of Chrysippus, who describes eudaimonia [9] as the condition of the complete agreement of the daimon (of the personality, of the inner agent) with the will of God (D. L. 88): a proof that for the Stoics happiness consists less in enjoyment than in action, or rather, that it exists as the moral good (honestum) and what is useful (Cic. off. II, 9, III, 11 and 34. leg. I, 33 and 48. Clem. Alex. strom. II, 499 P. Dio Chrys. III, 139 R.) so likewise happiness and virtue are in truth identical. Hence there is no reward for virtue and no punishment for sin which lies beyond virtue and sin, but virtue itself is its only true reward, while sin suffices to itself as fully valid punishment. As Dante exclaims in his Divine Comedy: O Kapaneus, it itself, rage, should be punishment for your rage! “Of what use to Helvidius Priscus is his inflexibility to him, the individual? Well, of what use is the purple-stripe to the garment? What else than that it glitters on it as purple and—gives to the other a beautiful example!” (I, 2, 22). The good man never does anything for the appearance but does everything for the sake of the good deed; this itself is his greatest reward (III, 24, 50). To demand a special reward for virtue would be just as silly as if the eye wanted a reward in return for seeing (Ant. 9, 42). The true joy of the human being consists in doing that which is proper to the human being (ib. 8, 26); to do good means to enjoy life (ib. 12, 29).8 Likewise, vice versa, sinfulness and suffering injury or being unhappy are identical: the sinner loses his humanity, he turns from a human being into a beast, a wolf, a snake, wasp etc. (Epictetus II, 9, 3. IV, 5, 16. IV, 1, 119). When one speaks of losses, most people, to be sure, think only of money and the like; they do not know and perceive that there are also moral losses (II, 10, 10. IV, 9, 9. I, 20, 11 and often cf. Zeno in Philo quod omn. prob. 8 and frag. 649 P). The first and greatest punishment of sinners is that they have sinned (Sen. ep. 97, 14. ira III, 26, 2). One does not wish the wrath of the gods upon the wicked man, he already has the gods, even himself, for an enemy anyway (ep. 110, 2. Cf. Epictetus ←13 | 14→II, 8, 14 and often θεοχόλωτος).9 The life of the wicked man is the true Hades (Philo congr. quaer. erud. grat. 11).

Consequently we have the peculiar phenomenon that exactly that school which is most consistently eudaimonistic is, at the same time, farthest of all distant from that school which one ordinarily imagines to be under eudaimonism, still more distant than Christian and even Kantian ethics, which counts as the highest end not the virtuous conduct within this temporal life, but the perfection or full enjoyment of virtue in an extra-temporal life.

Yet up to now the discussion has not been about the customary Stoic telos formula, the life according to nature. This same formula is found in what is given to us by Epictetus, though to be sure not in the literal wording. This is really the signature of his philosophizing, that he operates in total connection with the Stoic terminology, yet at the same time he expresses himself very freely and independently, indeed creatively, in the arrangement of material and in the formulation of his thoughts. He gives a proper definition of the telos only in three passages (I, 12, 5. I, 20, 15. IV, 8, 12) where he declares obedience to [10] God, or rather possession of logos orthos, to be the end. But even the concept of the life according to nature is not absent in his case, rather it plays a downright commanding role. The purpose of philosophical education is to form the hegemonikon (the prohairesis or dianoia) according to nature. Moral perfection and with it also blissful happiness consist in desiring, willing (acting) and judging according to nature.10 Epictetus obviously has the Stoic formula in view when he calls naturalness the law of life (I, 26, 1), or when he says: if we do not act according to a determined order and method and according to the nature and constitution of each thing, then we will not achieve our telos (I, 6, 15). Just as for the Stoics the concepts ‘according to nature’ and ‘according to reason’ were identical (D. L. 86), so too does Epictetus declare ‘rational’, ‘according to nature’, ‘perfect’, ‘correct’ to be all one and the same (III, 1, 25. I, 11, 5). If, as is reported to us, a disagreement reigned among the older Stoics over the question of the telos in so far as one group understood by the nature according to which one should live only the universal nature, while the other group also understood the human nature, then Epictetus has confirmed to us what is already evident in and of itself, namely that no importance can be ascribed to this difference (Zeller III, 1, 211). This is because when Epictetus speaks of the life according to nature, he sometimes has in view the nature of the universe (En. 49), sometimes specifically the human nature (I, 19, 13. II, 24, 12), sometimes the nature of all individual things (I, 16, 9), but in reality he always means the same thing.11 Although he explicitly differentiates a double physis, the individual and the universal, he does so without laying down a ←14 | 15→contrast between the two, but evidently on the presumption that every being that follows its individual nature—and this is the case in all non-rational creatures without exception—thereby at the same time also follows the universal nature, which Marcus Aurelius then also bluntly expresses.12 We have here one of the not infrequent cases in which from Epictetus’ usage we are able to recognize the groundlessness of the differences which injudicious doxographers wanted to find in the doctrine of the individual Stoics.

A substantial deviation in the version of the life according to nature exists in Panaetius who, as Hirzel has already duly stressed, in contrast to the uniformist tendency of Stoic ethics, was endeavoring to give individuality its due and for this reason established the doctrine that everyone is by nature endowed with two personae, one general and one particular (Cic. off. I, 107 etc.). A suggestion of this doctrine of Panaetius is contained in the Epictetan concept of the prosopon (I, 2). But on closer examination the resemblance completely disappears. Panaetius understands by the propria natura the physical and mental individuality of the human being, which entails that one person distinguishes himself more in this virtue, another more in that virtue. Epictetus’prosopon, however, signifies partly the external situation of life of the individual, the role which he has to play on the stage of life, partly the personal dignity and honor, the moral self-esteem, which is certainly in actual fact very different in people, but should be the same in everyone because he is also of the view that the educated man must be in the position [11] to find his way in every external situation of life, and to play every role correctly and with dignity. According to Epictetus the moral end for every human being is the same; it is simply a matter of whether one wants to be an educated person (φιλόσοφος) or an uneducated person (ἰδιώτης). It is true he gives people the advice that before they apply themselves to philosophy, they should test their nature to see whether they can even bear it (III, 15, 9), because taking up philosophy means a complete renewal of one’s heart and life; however, this advice by no means has the sense that the attainment of this goal would be in principle impossible for someone, or that there was a lower goal that would also be relatively moral, and at which one would be allowed to rest easy to a certain extent. With that advice Epictetus only wants to say that each person reaches the goal of which he takes himself to be worthy and lives commensurate with how he values himself. Among the educated themselves there are certainly some few who have an extraordinary strength of moral self-assertion, but everyone can and should become a philosopher or kalokagathos.

The telos, however, as is generally known, was in addition also defined by the Stoics other than by means of the concept of the life according to nature. ←15 | 16→According to Stobaeus (ecl. II, 75) Zeno did not declare the life corresponding to nature, but the life united with itself, the inner uniformity and agreement of action, to be the telos.13 This distinction certainly seems at first glance to be more substantial than the one discussed a short while ago, because this definition lays down a purely formal principle of action, the other lays down a material principle of action. It is also known and not to be denied that in the philosophical writings of Cicero, especially in De fin. III, exactly that supposedly Zenonian concept of ὁμολογία, of inner agreement and consistency, stands out prominently. Nevertheless, it can easily be proved that even these two apparently very different definitions ultimately come to the same thing. First, the testimony of Stobaeus conflicts with the testimony of Diogenes, who attributes the formula of the life according to nature to Zeno (87). Second, Diogenes even cites the work in which this formula was found, and there this work carried the title “On the Nature of the Human Being,” so the supposition is more than justified that Zeno employed the concept of nature, that is, not just the concept of universal nature, but also the concept of human nature, for the definition of the telos; how odd too, when the concept of the life according to nature, which everywhere counts as specifically Stoic (despite fin. IV, 14), would have been foreign to the author himself! Third, on the one hand Diogenes attributes to Cleanthes in addition to the formula of the life according to nature also the concept of homology,14 while on the other hand Stobaeus, shortly after he has taken that notice of the difference between Zeno and Cleanthes, treats the idea of ὁμολογία and of ὁμολογούμενος βίος as a universal Stoic idea and declares the three concepts of the virtuous life, the life united with itself, and the life according to nature to be identical (ecl. II, 76). Fourth, in Cicero De fin. III where, as already mentioned, the concept of homology plays a special role, we find it in addition as equivalent to the universal Stoic concept of agreement with nature.15 It is entirely the same way in Seneca, who uses the two concepts without distinction and even justifies this philosophically by means of the explanation that [12] only he who can live and act in unity, regularity and consistency with himself lives correctly, that is according to reason and nature.16 So the Stoics had no knowledge of a regularity and persistence of the evil will. The essence of sin, as Zeno and Epictetus unanimously teach (ecl. II, 75 ὡς τῶν μαχομένως ζώντων κακοδαιμονούντων—Epictetus II, 26, 1 πᾶσα ἁμαρτία μάχην περιέχει), is simply the internal contradiction, the obscurity and idleness of the will. It is true the expression homology is not found in Epictetus, but the fact that the idea is not foreign to him is proven not merely by the concepts of εὔροια (the even flow of life) and ἀμεταπτωσία (the continuous certainty of action) which come very close to it, and in addition by the demand ←16 | 17→that, like Socrates, one should constantly show one face (I, 25, 31. III, 5, 16), but especially by the remark already cited that the person misses his end if he does not regulate his life κατὰ τρόπον καὶ τεταγμένως, that is according to a definite plan and principle. Yet with this he evidently wants to say the same thing that the older Stoics referred to with the expression ‘homology’, and if he precisely there still demands in addition that one should live according to nature, then he has accordingly, just like his teacher Musonius,17 viewed the two concepts of homology and the life according to nature as internally belonging together. By the way, it should not be overlooked that homology and constancy, as often as it too appears as the proper essence of virtue, or, at least viewed aesthetically, represents the whole of virtue inasmuch as it is beauty of the soul (Tusc. IV, 31. off. I, 14), yet again on the other hand forms only a part of virtue, properly speaking only a part of sophrosyne, in so far as it is pretty much covered by the concepts εὐκοσμία, εὐταξία, εὐκαιρία (ecl. II, 61). It is also introduced beside εὐκαιρία in fin. III, 45 and is to a certain extent distinguished from the bonum ipsum, that is virtue proper.

A brief enumeration of the different telos formulas which are found in Epictetus, or rather lie at the basis, may form the conclusion.

  1. to follow God, to occupy the place assigned by him, to adapt or submit one’s own will to him, to imitate him, to keep association with him.18
  2. to recognize nature, to follow it, to live according to it.
  3. to develop the soul (the logos, the hegemonikon, the prohairesis, the dianoia and their particular functions: ὄρεξις, ὁρμή, συγκατάθεσις), and to form and preserve it correctly, that is according to nature and reason.
  4. to maintain what is one’s own (the prohairesis) and renounce what is foreign, aprohairetic.
  5. to keep the daimon unharmed, not to abandon the prosopon, moral honor and dignity.
  6. to suffice unto oneself, to be free, dispassionate and sinless, constant and unshakable.


1.IV, 8, 12 The goal of the philosopher is ὀρθὸν ἔχειν τὸν λόγον. III, 9, 20 τὸν λόγον ἐξεργάζεσθαι, III, 6, 1 ἐκπονεῖν, III, 1, 26 κοσμεῖν καὶ καλλωπίζειν. III, 9, 2 δόγματα ὀρθὰ ἔχειν. IV, 10, 26 τὴν δύναμιν τὴν χρηστικὴν τῶν φαντασιῶν ὀρθὴν κατασκευάσαι. II, 19, 32 and often ὀρθὴ χρῆσις τῶν φαντασιῶν. I, 12, 35 and often χρῆσις οἵα δεῖ φαντασιῶν. III, 1, 25.

←17 | 18→

2.I, 25, 1 τὸ ἀγαθὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ προαιρέσει καὶ τὸ κακόν. I, 28, 21 ζῷον θνητὸν χρηστικὸν φαντασίαις λογικῶς. ΙΙ, 23, 27 τί ἐστι κράτιστον τῶν ὄντων; ἡ προαιρετικὴ ὅταν ὀρθὴ γένηται. Ι, 4, 18 τὴν προαίρεσιν ἐξεργάζεσθαι καὶ ἐκπονεῖν, IV, 10, 26 ἐκκαθαίρειν.

3.Vol. I, 33 etc.—cf. D. L. 94 ἀγαθόν ἐστι τὸ τέλειον κατὰ φύσιν λογικοῦ ὡς λογικοῦ. Sen. ep. 124, 13 etc.: in the case of plants and animals as well as children who are not yet rational there is no bonum; not everything which is natural merits the name ‘good’, only what is secundum universam naturam perfectum (perfecte secundum naturam ep. 118, 12). Rationale animal es: quod ergo in te bonum est? perfecta ratio.

4.D. L. 95 ἀγαθὰ περὶ ψυχήν and ἀγαθὰ ἐκτός. Philo leg. all. III, 28: even health can improperly—καταχρηστικώτερον—be called a good.

5.II, 16, 28 ὁ νόμος ὁ θεῖος τὰ ἴδια τηρεῖν τῶν ἀλλοτρίων μὴ ἀντιποιεῖσθαι. IV, 5,s 7. I, 1, 17 τὰ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν βέλτιστα κατασκευάζειν τοῖς δ’ ἄλλοις χρῆσθαι ὡς πέφυκεν. IV, 4, 39 μία ὁδὸς πρὸς εὔροιαν, ἀπόστασις τῶν ἀπροαιρέτων. En. 19 καταφρόνησις τῶν οὐκ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν.—Sen. vit. b. 4, 2 animus fortuita despiciens, virtute laetus.

6.II, 11, 19 τὸ ἀγαθὸν δεῖ εἶναι τοιοῦτον ἐφ’ ᾧ θαρεῖν—ἐπαίρεσθαι—ἄξιον. III, 26, 24 τῇ προαιρέσει μόνῃ θαρρεῖν ἐνδέχεται.—III, 22, 40 ἐν ποίᾳ ὕλῃ δεῖ ζητεῖν τὸ εὔρουν καὶ ἀπαραπόδιστον; ἐν τῇ δούλῃ ἢ ἐν τῇ ἐλευθέρᾳ; ἐν τῇ ἐλευθέρᾳ. IV, 1, 52 etc. μέγιστον ἀγαθὸν ἡ ἐλευθερία—τὸ μὲν σῶμα ἀλλότριον, ὑπεύθυνον παντὸς τοῦ ἰσχυροτέρου—ἀλλ’ ἔχομέν τι ὃ ἐφ’ ἡμῖν μόνοις ἐστίν. I, 17, 27 τὸ ἴδιον μέρος οὐ κωλυτὸν ἢ ἀναγκαστόν. Sen. tranq. 9, 2 divitias a nobis petere non a fortuna ep. 124, 24 tunc beatus—cum tibi ex te gaudium omne nascetur. ad Helv. 5, 1, Ant. 4, 25 ἀρκούμενος τῇ ἰδίᾳ πράξει. 6, 51. 9, 26. Musonius in Stob. flor. II, 70 etc., at which however it is to be noticed that this Roman Stoic, beside all ideality, is yet at the same time so prosaic and practical that he seeks to prove down to the greatest detail how banishment is also not so bad from the standpoint of worldly interest.

7.D. L. 94. Ep. III, 7, 7 and frag. 52. See Volume I, 295 etc. and 313. Sen. ep. 59, 16 sapiens nunquam sine gaudio est—non postet gaudere nisi fortis, nisi justus, nisi temperans. But vit. beat. 15, 2 ne gaudium quidem quod ex virtute oritur, quamvis bonum sit, absoluti tamen boni pars est—sunt ista bona sed consequentia summum bonum non consummantia. Ibid. 9, 2 voluptas non est merces nec causa virtutis sed accessio, nec quia delectat placet, sed si placet et delectat; 8, 1 rectae et bonae voluntatis non dux sed comes est voluptas; de otio 7, 2.

8.III, 24, 118 ἀρκοῦ αὐτὸς ὑγιαίνων καὶ εὐδαιμονῶν. En. 23.—Sen. clem. I, 1, 1 recte factorum verus fructus est fecisse nec ullum virtutis pretium dignum illis extra ipsas est. ep. 102, 18 bene fecisse gaudeo. ep. 113, 31. ben. IV, 1, 3 quid consequar, si hoc fortiter—fecero? quod feceris: nihil tibi extra promittitur. Ant. 10, 33 ἀπόλαυσιν δεῖ ὑπολαμβάνειν πᾶν ὃ ἔξεστι κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν φύσιν ἐνεργεῖν. Philo de parent. col. 10 πᾶσα ἀρετὴ αὑτῆς γέρας.

9.I, 12, 22 τίς οὖν ἡ κόλασις; τὸ οὕτως ἔχειν ὡς ἔχουσι. II, 13, 18 δύναταί τι ἄλλου ἁμάρτημα εἶναι ἄλλου κακόν; I, 28, 10. III, 18, 5. IV, 12, 18. IV, 13, 8. III, 24, 43 ἔστω ταπεινός, δυςτυχείτω. st. rep. 16 τὸ ἁμάρτημα τῶν βλαμμάτων ἐστί. 18 κατὰ κακίαν ζῆν and κακοδαιμόνως ζῆν are the same thing. Cic. leg. I, 41. nat. d. III, 85. Tusc. III, 34 ←18 | 19→malum nullum esse nisi culpam. rep. III, 33 ipse se fugiet ac naturam hominis aspernatus hoc ipso luet maximas poenas etc. Sen. ep. 9, 22 omnis stultitia laborat fastidio sui. clem. I, 13, 2 quid eo infelicius, cui iam esse malo necesse est? ben. III, 17, 1 Ant. 5, 25 ἄλλος ἁμαρτάνει τι εἰς ἐμέ.—ὄψεται. Musonius in Stob. flor. I, 155. Clem. Al. strom. IV, 620. Philo quod det. pot. 15. de praem. et poenit. 12.

10.I, 15, 4 τὸ ἡγεμονικὸν τηρεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἔχον. III, 9, 11 τὸ ἡγεμονικὸν κατὰ φύσιν ἔχειν καὶ διεξάγειν. III, 6, 3. III, 9, 17 εὐσταθεῖν, κατὰ φύσιν ἔχειν τὴν διάνοιαν. III, 4, 9 τὴν προαίρεσιν τηρεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἔχουσαν, I, 4, 18 σύμφωνον ἀποτελέσαι τῇ φύσει. III, 3, 1 χρῆσθαι ταῖς φαντασίαις κατὰ φύσιν. IV, 4, 14. I, 21, 2 and often ὀρέγεσθαι, ὁρμᾶν, συγκατατίθεσθαι κατὰ φύσιν. III, 10, 10 κατὰ φύσιν ἔχειν καὶ διεξάγειν. I, 6, 21 σύμφωνος διεξαγωγὴ τῇ φύσει. III, 24, 102 κατὰ φύσιν διεξαγωγή. En. 49 καταμαθεῖν τὴν φύσιν καὶ ταύτῃ ἕπεσθαι. I, 17, 17 τῷ βουλήματι τῆς φύσεως ἀκολουθεῖν.

11.In Epictetus we can distinguish five different meanings of the word φύσις, namely 1. kind, essence, concept, for example II, 16, 7 τίς ἐπαίνου φύσις. 2. universal nature (ἡ τῶν ὅλων φύσις, I, 20, 16), nature simply, identical with God or with the truth (II, 2, 19). 3. particular nature, φύσις ἐπὶ μέρους (I, 20, 16), the law of nature as it were localized and particularized in the particular being (I, 16, 9 and 11. III, 1, 3 καλὸν = τὸ κατὰ τὴν αὑτοῦ φύσιν κράτιστα ἔχον). 4. human nature (properly speaking only a special kind of particular nature), in so far as it is common to all (IV, 1, 122 φύσις τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εὐεργετεῖν. IV, 11, 1 and often). 5. human nature as an individual (III, 15, 9 consider your φύσις, what you can endure or rather accomplish).

12.Ant. 5, 3 εὐθεῖαν πέραινε ἀκολουθῶν τῇ φύσει τῇ ἰδίᾳ καὶ τῇ κοινῇ̇ μία γὰρ ἀμφοτέρων τούτων ἡ ὁδός. Even in the telos formula of the “younger Stoics” (Clem. Al. strom. II, 129 ζῆν ἀκολούθως τῇ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κατασκευῇ) I am not able, like Hirzel (II, 516), to catch sight of an innovation. It may be that in the case of the oldest Stoics, namely in the case of the poetically and speculatively talented Cleanthes, the connection to Heraclitus also therein betrays that they understood by nature predominantly the κοινὴ φύσις and the κοινὸς λόγος. But, as is generally known, even Marcus Aurelius shows a great predilection for Heraclitus, and he is exactly the one who declares the κοινή and the ἰδία φύσις as striving for the same thing. For this reason naturally the possibility is not excluded that those who used the aforementioned telos formula deviate with regard to content from the old Stoa, that is when they, like Antiochus, whose definition of the telos is very similar to theirs (fin. V, 26 vivere ex hominis natura undique perfecta et nihil requirente), also ranked striving for the external earthly goods with the human κατασκευή. This simply cannot be decided just from the formula alone.

13.τὸ τέλος ὁ Ζήνων οὕτως ἀπέδωκε τὸ ὁμολογουμένως ζῆν̇ τοῦτο δ’ ἐστὶ καθ’ ἕνα λόγον καὶ σύμφωνον ζῆν ὡς τῶν μαχομένως ζώντων κακοδαιμονούντων.

14.At least in D. L. 89 it is immediately before the discussion of Cleanthes, before virtue is defined as διάθεσις ὁμολογουμένη or ὁμολογία παντὸς τοῦ βίου.

15.fin. III, 21 summum bonum positum est in eo, quod ὁμολογίαν Stoici, nos appellemus convenientiam—26 cum hoc sit extremum (cf. Sext. hyp. II, 8 ἔσχατον τῶν ὀρεκτῶν) congruenter naturae convenienterque vivere. Likewise usually the concept of the ←19 | 20→convenientia occurs as a synonym of the “life according to nature”: fin. V, 66 vita consentiens—et honesta et constans et naturae congruens. rep. III, 33 vera lex recta ratio naturae congruens—constans. leg. I, 45 virtus est constans et perpetua ratio vitae—perfecta ratio, quod certe in natura est. off. III, 35 recta et convenientia et constantia natura desiderat aspernaturque contraria. Concerning the life according to nature cf. in addition Tusc. V, 82. fin. II, 34 (consentire naturae = e virtute or honeste vivere—the additional “interpretation” of this formula will especially be discussed). fin. IV, 26 and 27, off. III, 13 summum bonum a Stoicis dicitur convenienter naturae vivere. leg. I, 56 ex natura vivere summum bonum est. Concerning the idea of homologia cf. Lael. 100 in virtute est convenientia rerum, stabilitas, constantia. Parad. 22 una virtus est consentiens cum ratione et perpetua constantia. Tusc. IV, 34 virtus = affectio animi constans conveniensque. IV, 61. 11. 47. III, 9. ac. II, 23 sapientia = ars vivendi, quae ipsa ex se habet constantiam II, 31. nat. d. II, 34. fin. III, 50 virtus stabilitatem, firmitatem, constantiam totius vitae complectitur. Tusc. IV, 31 opinionum judiciorumque aequabilitas et constantia cum firmitate quadam et stabilitate. off. 1, 90 aequabilitas in omni vita et idem semper vultus eademque frons (cf. Epictetus I, 25, 31). I, 119 constare sibi in perpetuitate vitae. 125 in omni re gerenda consilioque capendo servare constantiam. I, 14 pulchritudinem, constantiam, ordinem in consiliis factisque conservandam putat—quibus ex rebus conflatur—honestum.

16.ben. IV, 25, 1 secundum naturam vivere (et deorum exemplum sequi). de otio 5, 1. tranq. v. 5, 1. ep. 41, 8. vit. b. 3, 3 beata vita = consentiens naturae.—vit. b. 8, 6 animi concordia. 5, 2 in recto certoque judicio stabilitata et immutabilis vita beata est. ep. 89, 14 ut in omnibus tibi actionibus ipse consentias—tunc ergo vita concors sibi est. ep. 71, 32 virtus = judicium verum et immotum. ben. VI, 21, 2. ep. 23, 7 placidus vitae et continuus tenor (εὔροια) unam premens viam. ep. 20, 2 ut ipse ubique par sibi idemque sit—nec hoc dico, sapientem uno semper iturum gradu sed una via (thus the action’s inner uniformity and being regulated by principle, not rigidly lawful pedantry). ep. 120, 10 etc.: idem erat semper et in omni actu par sibi—ostendit virtutem nobis ordo ejus et decor et constantia et omnium inter se actionum concordia (cf. Cic. fin. III, 20 etc.). ep. 92, 3 in rebus agendis ordo, modus, decor etc. ep. 20, 5 semper idem velle atque idem nolle. licet illam exceptionem non adicias, ut rectum sit, quod velis: non potest enim cuiquam idem semper placere nisi rectum. cf. Lael. 65 neque qui non isdem rebus movetur naturaque consentit, aut fidus aut stabilis esse potest.

17.Stob. flor. IV, 87 ζῆν ὁδῷ καὶ κατὰ φύσιν.

18.I, 12, 5. I, 20, 15 θεῷ ἕπεσθαι. En. 31, 1 τοῖς θεοῖς πείθεσθαι καὶ εἴκειν. I, 30, 4 θεῷ ἀκολουθεῖν. III, 24, 32 τὴν αὑτοῦ χώραν ἐκπληροῦν εὐτάκτως καὶ εὐπειθῶς τῷ θεῷ cf. I, 9, 24. I, 29, 49. En. 22. II, 19, 26 θεῷ ὁμογνωμονεῖν, II, 17, 23 συνθέλειν καὶ συνορέγεσθαι, fr. 169 σύμψηφον γενέσθαι. II, 19, 27 θεὸν ἐξ ἀνθρώπου ἐπιθυμεῖν γενέσθαι (cf. Sen. ira II, 16, 2 homo deum ut solus imitetur solus intellegit). I, 9, 5 κοινωνεῖν τῷ θεῷ τῆς συναναστροφῆς.—For the rest see the supporting evidence in the previous volume.

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[16] Part II

The Content of Virtue

Just as in the definition of the highest good or the telos Epictetus is in all essential agreement with his school, yet does not slavishly adhere to any one of the formulas handed down, so too in the treatment of virtue, in accordance with the freer and more popular orientation of his philosophizing in general, does he appear absolutely independent of the dry schematism and formalism of Stoic ethics inaugurated by Chrysippus. What is remarkable about this orientation is surely the fact that the word virtue (ἀρετή) occurs strikingly rarely.1 The reason for it is evidently that this word predominantly belongs to scholastic terminology, which was repugnant to our philosopher because he so frequently observed that the students were only aiming at committing the theory to memory, but not at all troubling themselves to employ it practically. “Which of us cannot τεχνολογῆσαι, i.e. expound the theory about the good and bad etc., that only virtue is a good but wealth and the like are indifferent? But if, while we are speaking, an uproar arises or one of those present mocks us, then we lose our composure. Where are the words, philosopher, which you have spoken? From where did they come? Only from your lips” etc. (II, 9, 15. cf. II, 19, 13). “What awareness it is, on the other hand, to be able to say to oneself: what the others in school put forth theoretically in beautiful, grand words, I now put forth practically; those people sit there and describe my virtues, I am the subject of their investigations and ←21 | 22→glorifications” (III, 24, 111).2 This instinctive dislike of Epictetus for the word ‘virtue’ comes to light especially clearly and characteristically in III, 16, 7: “Why are those (the worldly people) superior to you? Because they at least support their inferior conceptions with conviction (ἀπὸ δογμάτων), but you support your good ones only with words; for this reason they are powerless and dead, and it disgusts the people to hear your exhortations and the miserable virtue which you are always constantly babbling about: so the worldly people (ἰδιῶται) get the better of you, because everywhere conviction is strong and invincible.”3

Closely tied with the diminished importance of the concept of virtue is Epictetus’ disregard for the long used division of virtue into the four [17] cardinal virtues (understanding, courage, justice, self-control), which even Panaetius, yet with total freedom and independence, has all the same laid as the foundation in all his writing about the duties (off. I, 15). Epictetus speaks of friendship, freedom, resignation, unshakableness, purity, adiaphora and similar topics, but never of justice or any other cardinal virtue. In substance certainly all the cardinal virtues with their subspecies are abundantly advocated in Epictetus, in fact in places in the same terms. By and large these subspecies are due not just to the Stoic obsession with schematizing their origin, but in reality describe a specific aspect of the chief virtue referred to. Nevertheless they are nowhere used as a principle of division for the broad field of moral action. For this reason we will do best if we hold ourselves to that division which runs through all of Epictetus’Discourses and without doubt is original as well, namely, the differentiation of the three stages (τόποι) of desire, volition or action, and judgment (ὄρεξις, ὁρμή and συγκατάθεσις). It is true that according to Epictetus it is not specifically ethics, but the whole of philosophy, which falls into these three parts, and in Volume I p. 23 etc. it has been shown that in a certain respect the same thing corresponds to the division into physics, ethics, and logic. But since Epictetus’ philosophy is in truth only ethics, and on the other hand even the older Stoics have differentiated a physical, ethical, and logical virtue (D. L. 92), we are certainly entitled to lay this division as the basis of Epictetan ethics.


1.In the Encheiridion not at all, in the Dissertationes only at I, 4, 3 etc. (virtue has the ἐπαγγελία of producing happiness). I, 12, 16 (God has arranged summer and winter … ἀρετή and κακία). II, 1, 6 cf. fr. 16 (every ζῷον is beautiful when it possesses the ἀρετή peculiar to it). III, 22, 59 (in misfortune the virtue of the Cynic shows even ←22 | 23→more brilliantly). IV, 8, 32 (the Cynic is the μάρτυς of virtue). fr. 169 (the whole of virtue consists in the correct use of the φαντασίαι) cf. Ench. 1. Moreover Epictetus uses the word ἀρετή lecturing in IV, 1, 164. II, 9, 15. II, 19, 13 and III, 24, 111. Finally there is in addition an exegetically difficult passage, namely III, 3, 20, which even Schweighäuser despairs of explicating. Without entering into a formal interpretation here, I mention only this much, that Epictetus has in mind either the skeptics or the sham-philosophers, who constantly talk about virtue all right, but do not apply it, whereby they bring philosophy itself into discredit in the world, as if it were something variable and shaky, as Epictetus aptly explains in IV, 8 (cf. II, 21, 8 and En. 42). The strong term σκοτωθείς would well suit the skeptics, who disputed the possibility of fixed presentations and secure perception, but the context of the chapter, if the queer passage has not at all gone astray in this elsewhere, speaks decidedly for the second explication.

2.In content II, 9, 15 and II, 19, 13 are to be compared to D. L. 101 and Stob. ecl. II, 57. We learn from that that Epictetus, in his theory, which he by no means looks down on, but only declares to be worthless without practical observance, closely follows the old Stoa. Furthermore, it may further be noticed how Epictetus in II, 9, 15 also ranks himself with those whose lives are still not in accord with their doctrine: we will come across such testimonies of the humility of our philosopher even more often.

3.By the way, in saying that Epictetus naturally by no means wants to put the bad, immoral conviction on a par with the good, moral one in strength of effect and constancy; often he does express himself in the sense that where the (moral) truth is expounded with conviction, it must necessarily be victorious over falsehood—since all sin is ἀπάτη to him—and likewise he often explains that the principles of the wicked are properly speaking not principles, but due to their nature are variable.

←24 | 25→

[18] First Section

Desire According to Nature or the Rational Outlook on Life


The foundation of all morality, according to Epictetus, is the correct view of what is a good or an evil, what produces happiness and what produces unhappiness. This is because every human being by nature strives for good things or beneficial things, and likewise it is natural that each person is satisfied only at that time when he also achieves the goal of his wish.1 In fact, Epictetus is not satisfied with a partial attainment of his wish, or with the probable attainability of his most important wish; he sets the goal of the human being higher. He asserts in complete earnestness the possibility of anyone attaining with absolute certainty a perfect happiness. Epictetus does recognize that whoever seeks his happiness in external things can attain his goal to a certain degree and even with some assurance of success. Everyone, he says, in the area to which he applies himself with zeal, has some advantage over the one who does not trouble himself about that area.2 Like Jesus in the parable of the unjust housekeeper (Luke 16), so too does Epictetus often present the zeal, which common people display for the purpose of gaining earthly goods, to his students—naturally mutatis mutandis—as a model.3 But he also makes us clearly notice that people can prosper in earthly things as a rule only with the sacrifice of their moral worth and personal honor. He for whom ←25 | 26→these moral goods are of no value can certainly get ahead of people in wealth and honor, and he is then relatively satisfied; in any case he is more clever than the one who carries water on both shoulders, who wants to attain both virtue and temporal goods and hence falls behind in both.4 But obviously Epictetus wants to say neither that those worldly people who have attained their goal to a certain extent are then also really satisfied and truly happy, nor that it is possible for anyone, even in an immoral way, to attain for certain the fulfillment of their wish. Aside from the lack of inner satisfaction and self-respect,5 aside from the eventual reproaches of the conscience or the eventual punishment and vengeance which meet the wrongdoer, it is, as Epictetus often demonstrates, the essence of ἐπιθυμία, that is of the irrational appetite, to be insatiable and never to come to rest. And even in so far as it is satisfied, the fear of losing what one has gained and possesses is still its constant companion. [19] “They may still pity you for this reason, if you are a failure outwardly you must not dispute it. They also do not dispute it if you pity them; for what is theirs suffices them and they do not desire what is yours. If you were really convinced that you have chosen the good share but those people missed their happiness, then you would not care at all about what they say about you” (IV, 6, 36 etc.). Therefore it is not simply that, as life sufficiently shows, only comparatively few people can get wealth and luxury, but also the happiness of these people is little, aside from the fact that it does not at all deserve the name ‘happiness’, it being utterly insecure and deceptive. This is because precisely the wealthy, the kings and tyrants, are those who must experience the tragedy of life, whereas the poor man, Epictetus believes, does not act as a tragic hero, unless he is a member of the cast (I, 24, 15. Cf. I, 4, 25: “what else is a tragedy but the passions of people who cling to external things portrayed in this art form?”).

For Epictetus, however, it is part of the concept of happiness that it can be attained and held on to by anyone with unconditional security, so it is not dependent upon any external change of fate, but is solely dependent upon one’s own free will.6 He is also convinced that everyone actually thinks of happiness in this way, namely as a state of complete freedom and satisfaction,7 but most people seek this freedom where it is not to be found. The slave has no other wish than to be free; he believes that if only once he escaped slavery, then he would be in heaven. But then, in his obsession to rise ever higher and to act the free man in every respect equally, for the first time he falls into real slavery, namely into shameful dependence on the favor of human beings, and he lives in constant anxiety of a change of his happiness. And when he has ascended to the highest stage—by which means one can imagine—he finds himself in the most beautiful and most ←26 | 27→marvelous slavery (IV, 1, 33 etc.); the more he is in favor with the emperor, the less he can deceive himself about the misery of his life, the more he longs for his earlier life to be back which, even though it was outwardly poor, was all the same inwardly more free. True happiness, of course, only becomes part of the one who is inwardly completely free, who desires nothing belonging to others any longer and fears nothing external any longer, whose appetite does not miss its goal, and who seeks to avoid only that which he can also really avoid.8

We will have to grant to Epictetus without hesitation that such an ideal is not to be attained as long as one seeks his happiness, be it entirely or only partly, in external things. It is another question, however, whether a human being is really in the position, as Epictetus claims, to tear his heart completely from all external goods of life, moreover, whether he is really in the position to avoid moral evil entirely, and therefore, whether his desire and aversion are really so free and arbitrary. For Epictetus, of course, this is unshakably certain. As forcefully as he claims that in order to be happy, a person must confine himself to what he can do, so too is he equally certain that this total renunciation of earthly goods and the complete overcoming of moral evil is possible.9 On his [20] presuppositions, this view is entirely consistent and in no way to be disputed. Since the idea of a personal continuance after death, and along with that also an otherworldly perfection of virtue and happiness, was foreign to him, he had to believe, with his idealistic and optimistic worldview, in the realizability of absolute mental freedom within this earthly life. “Zeus himself has released me”—he exclaims—”or do you think he would let his own son be enslaved?” (I, 19, 9). “If Zeus had made that part of himself, which he gave to us from his own being, so that it was dependent upon anyone, then he would no longer be God and he would not be taking proper care of us” (I, 17, 27). “What good man is unhappy? The world is, in fact, ruled poorly if Zeus does not take care of his citizens, that they be happy like him: but it is unjust and sinful even to think such a thing” (III, 24, 19). “Two mistakes must be overcome, first, conceit (οἴησις), as if one lacks nothing for happiness, second, weakness of faith (ἀπιστία), as if one cannot become happy in such a world” (III, 14, 8).

This freedom, which so often inspires Epictetus’ praise,10 is, however, anything but unbridled license11; it is rather restraint in God, free submission to God’s will, unconditional resignation in the course of the world, and joyful fulfillment of the divine law. He thus demands nothing less than tearing the heart away from everything which is not dependent upon one’s will, and the undivided devotion to the mental-moral purpose of life, the fulfillment of which alone brings true happiness. Now in what follows it will only be a matter of pursuing ←27 | 28→this all-governing basic conception in its application to individual moral questions. In doing so we proceed according to the rule, which Epictetus himself establishes for moral upbringing and education, that one should first of all learn deferment of desire for the time being, avoiding nothing which is involuntary, but only moral evil.12

2.The Evils of Life

The doctrine for the sake of which the Stoics were so violently attacked and much reviled, and which they firmly held on to as their Palladium with such tenacity and obstinacy in defiance of all the objections of their opponents, namely, the doctrine that only the moral good (honestum) is a good and only what is immoral (turpe) is an evil, is also defended by Epictetus with complete conviction. For him, what counts as the basis and condition of all virtue is the realization that only in the interior of the person, in the prohairesis, is true good and evil to be sought.13 Everything which people commonly regard as evil, that they fear, and under the pressure of which they moan, is only an imaginary evil. This is one of the most important tenets of Epictetus, that all unhappiness, all harm and lamentation, arises simply from false opinion; the locale does not make a person unhappy, but the dogma (I, 25, 28 and elsewhere). A person can no more make us unhappy than the events of nature (ἄλλος δι’ ἄλλον οὐ δυστυχεῖ I, 9, 34. III, 24, 63). Only he who does wrong is harmed, not [21] he who suffers wrong. Likewise the conduct of our fellow beings toward us, their whole moral constitution, belongs to the involuntary, hence it can be no source of unhappiness for us (I, 15, 3). “It is better when your child is bad, than when you are unhappy (i.e. bad)” (En. 12). It is true this sounds harsh, but on Epictetus’ presuppositions it is incontestably correct and actually entirely rational as well. A person should be concerned about the moral improvement of others all right, but he must first of all take care of his own moral development; and when he then, in the second place, endeavors to effect purification upon others as well, then all the same here too he is not allowed to want to see a result at any cost, because otherwise he would make his own happiness dependent upon what belongs to others (III, 24, 22). Since, therefore, as we saw already earlier, the concepts of good and bad only find application to rational beings, but these beings have it in their power to keep all evil away from them, Epictetus can thus with good reason make the daring statement: “there is nothing in itself bad (no κακοῦ φύσις, En. 27) in the world!” As senseless as it would be if someone were to set himself a goal with the intention of missing it, ←28 | 29→it would be just as senseless to suppose God has created something whose nature would be bad, because ‘bad’ is simply that which misses its mark. But it is inconceivable that God should have produced a being that must, by necessity, miss its mark entirely or at least partly. “God has created all human beings for happiness and the means to it have been given to them—should we allow ourselves to be shamed by the birds, who are cheerful all the time? Should the gods have given us reason to that end, that we be unhappy and mourn?” (III, 6, 2).

This optimism, by virtue of which Epictetus denies the existence of an evil in itself, nevertheless does not stop him from recognizing that there is some unpleasantness, difficulty, and adversity in life14; he even allows that the distinction of what is according to nature and contrary to nature is carried over to external things, just like Zeno as well had divided the adiaphora into things according to nature and contrary to nature.15 But he also indicates that one is allowed to call these things contrary to nature only in the improper sense, namely, in so far as the human life is regarded ἀπολύτως, that is in isolation, outside of its connection with the nature of the universe and world-order. He illustrates this by means of the following example: “for the foot it is according to nature to be clean (thus it is contrary to nature to be dirty), but if I regard it as a foot, i.e. not as a thing for itself but as a member of an organism, then it will suit it (i.e. be according to nature) sometimes even to go into the mud and to step on thorns, and if necessary, even to let itself be cut off for the welfare of the whole.” Consequently, in the place cited Epictetus by no means wants to oppose the Stoic usage according to which for example sickness is described as contrary to nature, rather, he accepts it by distinguishing what is in itself or truly according to nature from what is only relatively or apparently according to nature,16 and we have every reason to assume that the Stoa has thought from time immemorial just exactly like Epictetus. (Cf. Excursus I on the Stoic telos formulas). So, for example, health is according to nature only in so far as, where the choice is free, [22] it is reasonably enough preferred to sickness. However, sickness affects the person without it being his fault, so it is by no means contrary to nature, but it is just as much a component of life as, for instance, a walk or a voyage etc. (III, 10, 11), and is positively according to nature, since the person is in the position to keep his hegemonikon according to nature even in sickness. Epictetus, following the precedence of Chrysippus, even goes so far as to say that a person, if he knew that fate intended sickness for him, would have the duty to work towards the sickness.17

Now there is no more a contradiction in the fact that Epictetus denies the existence of a natural evil, and yet on the other hand accepts the division of external things into according to nature and contrary to nature, than there is ←29 | 30→a contradiction when he admits at one time that there is some unpleasantness and difficulty in life, but at another time exclaims: “nothing in life is difficult” (IV, 10, 27). The latter is undoubtedly his actual view, whereas in the first case he adapts to the customary outlook and manner of expression, but only in order to immediately demonstrate its incorrectness, or expressed differently: the first is the momentary way of looking at things, the latter is the definitive way of looking at things, by means of which the first is continually overcome. This also finds its application to passages like IV, 13, 16, where Epictetus describes the high value of a good friend who helps carry the adverse strokes of fate (περιστάσ εις) like a burden and by way of his condolence lightens it. In truth the educated man should not at all even perceive the peristasis as a burden, as this is explained with most desirable clarity at II, 6, 16 etc. Peristasis is everything περιεστηκός, that is every external event that is not dependent upon the will of the person, the pleasant ones as well as the unpleasant ones; we ourselves incorrectly import the concept of difficulty, adversity, burdensomeness into the word. Therefore, for the educated man even a helpful friend can contribute nothing to his happiness since he himself knows how to help himself in all predicaments. Even the help of one’s friend thus belongs to the adiaphora, and Epictetus carries out this thought completely. However, the fact that the good man does not need a friend nevertheless for Epictetus does not preclude the good man from appreciating such a friend if he has him and thanking God for having him. It is this same antinomy which can in the first place make him expect of the educated man gratitude for the earthly gifts of God, and yet simultaneously demand of him that he not regard the loss or the privation of those gifts as misfortune. So I also do not find any contradiction in the fact that Epictetus permits making known the bodily sensation of pain (I, 18, 19), and even the expression of sympathy with the misfortune of another (Ench. 16 μέχρι λόγου μὴ ὄκνει συμπεριφέρεσθαι αὐτῷ κἂν οὕτω τύχῃ καὶ συνεπιστενάξαι), because he requires simply that there may be no inward moan, which the judgment that the pain in question is an evil would include. How very serious Epictetus is that the philosopher is not permitted to regard and perceive even the most extreme misfortune as evil is shown in passages like III, 8, 4: “his son has died, nothing more,” III, 17, 8, I, 28, 26: “if wife and children are caught and slaughtered, is this not an evil? Where do you get this from? Only the mistaken opinion adds this”—passages which certainly give us [23] the impression of an unnatural hardness but are simply consistent with the Stoic presuppositions. Even the phrase πρᾶγμα ἔχειν (to have trouble), which occurs frequently, contains no inconsistency. Epictetus advises the malcontents to depart from this life in order that they not have any more hardship (II, 1, 20). His opinion, however, is by ←30 | 31→no means that life could bring a real hardship to the educated man; the educated man becomes free from hardship not by abandoning his life, but by acquiring the correct outlook on life (I, 25, 2: “if we are convinced that good and evil lie only in what is internal, then what can still burden us?” II, 2, 2).

The educated man regards life as a festival which also does not lack little inconveniences of all kind, but with which no rational person finds fault in the knowledge that this is just necessarily connected with the enjoyment of the festival, yet without adversely affecting it in a way worth mentioning. Therefore, just as the visitor of the festival entirely forgets the little adversities and does not regard them worth mentioning over the joy in the beauty that he sees and hears, so too will the educated man pay little regard to the external disturbances of life for the sake of the inner edification and satisfaction which he experiences in obedience to God and in the displays of his wonder. Whoever knows this inner joy and always has his intended purpose as a human being in mind can easily endure everything, even what is most difficult. Each thing has two handles; depending on how one takes hold of it, it becomes unbearable or bearable.18 Exactly that is what matters, that one recognizes all accidents of human existence as something that is necessarily grounded in the nature of the human being and in his position in the world as a whole; even if the gods had wanted to, they would still not be able to free human beings from all so-called evils.19 Epictetus aptly remarks that when people hear of misfortune happening to others, they immediately calm down at the thought: “well, so it goes in life,” on the other hand, when the misfortune strikes they themselves, it is considered outrageous.20 The idea that God should then simply not have created any human beings does not occur to Epictetus at all—he would reject it as sacrilegious.21 But not once does he accept that the human being, now that he has been so created, should not also want to desire perfect happiness. Rather, from the presupposition that such a thing is possible, he insists on viewing so-called evil as something, as it were, not at all present, that in no way disturbs inner happiness. Education consists in wanting everything this way, as it happens, that is as the steward has arranged it—thus we should not change the basic elements of existence (ὑποθέσεις), the nature of things—because we cannot do it, and it would not even be better if we could—but we should conform our will to what happens: therein consists education.22

Nevertheless, Epictetus knows an even higher way of looking at things: evil is necessarily grounded not just in the physical world-order, but even in the moral world-order. There is adversity in life, but from God we have received the powers to bear it: the virtues of steadfastness, high-mindedness, courage etc. constitute the counterbalance, that is arranged by God, against so-called evil. God has ←31 | 32→given human beings, together with evil, the means [24] of eradicating it too; evil and virtue correspond to, and mutually require, each other. “Have you not received the powers with which you can bear all occurrences? Magnanimity, courage, perseverance, generosity, patience?”23 There certainly seems to be the acknowledgment of a real evil in this; yet Epictetus posits the evil only to negate it again immediately, for precisely by means of every possible application of the corresponding virtues it is abolished again, as it were, in its emergence it is at once annihilated again. Virtue is the staff of Hermes which transforms all apparent evil into a good by presenting itself and being able to stand the test precisely through its dignified endurance of evil. Without labors, Heracles would not have become what he is (I, 6, 32). The peristaseis (mishaps) are what show the man (I, 24, 1), what gives the person the opportunity to test his education. “When any adversity happens to you, think like this, now the moment has come in which you can show what the human mind (λογικὸν ἡγεμονικόν) is able to do against chance (ἀπροαίρετοι δυνάμεις, II, 1, 39. I, 29, 33). Evil is a competition to which God summons us to show what we have learned.”24 So evils are not just paralyzed by means of the moral powers against them which are invested in the human being, but they are even to his benefit since he demonstrates his virtue in them by being able to distinguish himself through steadfast and courageous endurance of them. “All omens are propitious to me, if I wish; because whatever may happen, it is up to me to derive benefit from it” (En. 18, cf. Letter to the Romans 8, 28). Philosophy should give us a provision (ἐφόδιον) for life by means of which we can bear every occurrence with dignity and honor (III, 21, 9. III, 22, 59. I, 6, 37 κοσμεῖσθαι, καλλωπίζεσθαι ταῖς περιστάσεσι). Philosophy transforms every adversity into a good (III, 20, 4); it teaches us to be sick divinely and to die divinely (II, 8, 28. II, 19, 24. IV, 6, 3). Just as whoever endures evil is also at the same time useful to others through his example, so too has Socrates rendered to humankind an even greater service through his death than through his life (IV, 1, 169).

One clearly recognizes in this how close the Epictetan interpretation of evil comes to the Christian interpretation. If we disregard the dogma of the origin of evil from sin, we find in Epictetus practically all the standard New Testament ideas about evils. These evils are above all not to be regarded as an outflow of divine anger, or as proof of divine indifference or injustice, but as signs of his wisdom and love. “Is there anything better than what pleases God?” (II, 7, 13. IV, 7, 20). To be pious means to accept everything as coming from the best will (En. 31). Evils have the purpose of exercising and testing one’s moral strength. God sends them neither out of hatred, nor out of indifference, but by virtue of his educational wisdom (III, 24, 113), because everything that happens to the ←32 | 33→pious man can serve as a blessing for him. Even the idea that suffering evil is an honor, a dignity which God has intended for his favorites, is reminiscent of Epictetus.25 Yet in every similarity the fundamental difference is unmistakable. What is entirely absent in particular is the idea that evil has a humiliating effect on the person, that it is supposed to strengthen [25] his conscience and remind him of his sin, and, in connection with this, also the idea that the evils are supposed to aim at a purification of the person comes before the other less important idea that they give him opportunity to show his virtue26; according to Epictetus, the person is not supposed to become better through evil, but only bring to light his existent moral goodness. What also reveals itself in this is that overestimation which characterizes the Stoa overall, namely the overestimation of the moral strength of the human being, which often is just like a challenge of God27 and would have to repel us if we did not have a counterbalance against it in the numerous proofs of true humility and modesty which are found in Epictetus’Discourses.

We do not find expressed in Epictetus the idea that without the evils of life certain virtues would be entirely pointless, or that virtue could be realized at all only to a lesser degree, still much less the idea that the gods, who are entirely free of evils, actually are inferior to human beings in virtue since they can manifest no courage, no perseverance and the like. This conclusion, which without doubt necessarily results from the proposition that evils are nothing other than the matter corresponding to the respective virtues (κατάλληλα ταῖς δυνάμεσι), and, for example, from the remark that Diogenes’ poverty gave him direct opportunity to demonstrate his virtue in a brighter light (III, 22, 59), is also not drawn in Christian ethics. And perhaps it can be said that it is the one beautiful, and to a certain extent necessary, inconsistency, inasmuch as the moral essence of God is plainly incommensurable for us. In any case, Epictetus is far from regarding suffering in itself ever as a gain, or even as something desirable that one must seek out for oneself. It is true that one time he expresses the idea that just as certain swordsmen are indignant when they are not allowed to open the attack, the philosopher should long for misfortune in order to find opportunity for moral proof of worth (I, 29, 36).28 Nevertheless it is to be remembered that Epictetus directs these words to his students with the intent of very vividly pointing out to them the reprehensibleness of aversion to suffering, softness, and indolence. Therefore, these words have only hypothetical meaning and pedagogical value. Craving for suffering appealed to him just as little as fleeing from suffering. At I, 6, 35 Epictetus rebuffs the question of whether, since suffering has brought such honor to Heracles, one should then bring it on oneself and deliberately seek it out, with the words: “that would be folly and madness; but since it came and turned up, it ←33 | 34→was fitting for displaying and exercising a Heracles.” And at I, 1, 26 he mentions approvingly the answer which his teacher Musonius Rufus had given Thraseas to his remark that he prefers to be killed today than banished tomorrow: “if you choose it as something more difficult, what folly of choice! But if as something easier, who has left it up to you? Don’t you simply want to be intent on letting what is given satisfy you?” These remarks, which form the counterpart to the saying of Chrysippus (St. rep. 30) that those who regard wealth, health, painlessness etc. as nothing are crazy, strikingly show us how down-to-earth, free of all sentimentality, and free of all propensity for an ascetic view of life [26] the Stoics were. Exactly their doctrine of the autarky of the wise man prohibited them from making happiness and the realization of virtue dependent upon a fixed measure of evils. Epictetus’ ethics also ultimately culminates in the proposition that the human being is born for and is capable of setting moral freedom and purity into action in every situation in life (ὕλη), be it externally pleasant or unpleasant. Consequently, the idea that God is more pleased with those more afflicted with suffering than with those living in better circumstances could gain no real importance in the whole of his outlook on life, just as in the Christian outlook on life as well, at least nowadays, that idea is scarcely carried out seriously.29 For Epictetus the point is simply that the person acquire the mentality which equally equips him for enduring good fortune and misfortune, that is, in their extremes. By the way, the time in which he lived sufficiently ensured that he who lived in accordance with his high principles could not complain about lack of opportunity for putting his passive virtue to the test; yet he himself says that the times are such that one must constantly live like one is arrayed for battle, that is faced with death.30


Just as the so-called evils of life are grounded partly in the bodily nature of the human being, partly in his situation in the universe, so too does death belong to the essence and concept of the human being,31 and so it is not an evil (I, 24, 6) but an adiaphoron like life is as well, like health, wealth, pleasure, and pain (II, 19, 13). Even the time of its commencement and the way it happens is adiaphoron.32 Epictetus seeks to divest from the idea of death not just its frightfulness but, one would well near like to say, even its seriousness, by not merely denouncing with bitter scorn the opinion that the individual life would be so important for the cosmos, but by calling death a mask behind which there is nothing. He even objects to the use of the word ‘die’; in so far as it is as simple and natural ←34 | 35→an event as the disintegration of a substance into its components, it assumes a superfluous importance.33

And yet Epictetus, as was already pointed out from the anthropological viewpoint in Volume I (p. 65), is not familiar with a life after death.34 The fact that this hope turns up nowhere among the reasons for comfort in the face of the so-called evils of life is already by itself proof of this. However, a man for whom the belief in an otherworldly life has meaning only up to a point must necessarily advance precisely this belief, if not always, then still as a rule, as a reason for comfort in the face of the imperfections of the temporal life. The human being is denied immortality; it is the privilege of the gods. The highest thing that a human being is able to do is (live and) die divinely.35 Life is a festival that, like everything else, must also one day come to an end; to complain about it would be the greatest folly and insatiable greediness. “Do you desire that I leave the festival? I go, thanking [27] you from my heart that you have deemed me worthy to take part in your festival and to behold your works and to discern your governance” (III, 5, 10). “Hasn’t God brought you into the world as a mortal? In order to behold its governance and to celebrate with him a short time? … but I wanted to celebrate still further. And so do the mystics and the visitors of the Olympic festival. But the festival has an end, go—that is, depart gratefully, make room for others … why are you insatiable and never satisfied, and why do you crowd the cosmos?” (IV, 1, 106). Epictetus often rebukes this sinful clinging to life. “If one dies a young man, then he complains about the gods; if an old man suffers from the infirmities of old age, then he too complains that instead of having rest now, he is still troubled. But when death approaches, he nevertheless still wants to live and sends for the physician and begs him to make every effort. People are strange who want neither to live nor to die!” (frag. 95. III, 20, 6). If our philosopher had had in mind a life after death, then he would have had to say: the festival certainly comes to an end, but it is only interrupted and replaced by even a much more beautiful festival. There is, however, no mention of this anywhere. And when he says that one can even extract benefit from death, namely, by means of magnanimous sacrifice of one’s life (III, 20, 4), he does not in the least mean, for instance, an exaltation of the hero up with the gods as the reward for his virtue, but rather the whole profit of his hero’s death consists in the fact that he has maintained “the patriot, the high-minded man, the faithful man, the noble man.”

When it is said at Ench. 15: “then you will be a worthy guest of the gods—even their co-ruler,” we must remind ourselves that for the morally educated man even this earthly life is a banquet, a blessed association with the gods, and that according to the doctrine not only of Epictetus, but of the Stoics in general, the ←35 | 36→wise man is as such a king in the kingdom of the mind, a partner of the divine dominion.36 Even the beautiful passage I, 9, 10 etc., where, as he himself wishes for, he puts words of the longing for liberation from the fetters of the body into the mouths of the young men, is no proof of the assumption of a life after death. This is because he does not approve of this sentiment absolutely, but only vis-à-vis the base, worldly sense, not definitively, but as it were only propaedeutically, as a point of passage to the truly reconciled and free outlook on life from which the so-called evils of life and even the imperfection of the body are not felt as a hardship, but recognized as a means of moral activity. It may be that that expectoration of his students was not too much unlike Epictetus’ own sentiment; why should he too not sometimes have had a sudden, pessimistic impulse to flee the world? But every expert on Epictetus will have to admit that compared with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and especially compared with Seneca, his Discourses are conspicuously free of a melancholy weariness of the world and sentimental yearning for the other world, and that a cool sobriety and a stubborn consistency of ethical optimism precisely distinguish him. The questionable passage is to be judged no differently than the remark in I, 19, 20, where Epictetus says: “that would be a joy to me, if one of you were displeased about that fact that while his comrade [28] is allowed to test his moral strength in a peristasis, he has to sit idle in the corner; as you all should agree!” In truth the educated man, as we saw, is no more allowed to long for the peristasis than to wish it away. Completely analogously, he is naturally also allowed to let no weariness of life and no yearning for death arise in himself. In both cases Epictetus permits those who are learning to exceed moderation toward the one direction in order to make them conscious, all the more drastically, of the error of the other direction (fearing suffering and death), true to his pedagogical principle that one must most zealously struggle against those false notions and inclinations of which the soul is especially prepossessed.37

Death is certainly no annihilation of the person, according to Epictetus, but only dissolution of the individual into his parts which return to the elements (στο ιχεῖα).38 The question of whether the human soul, the rational hegemonikon, upon this separation, dissolves into air or fire or into a higher, finer substance which more closely approaches the mental, call it prime pneuma or prime fire, is difficult and hardly to be decided with certainty. Whatever the case may be, Epictetus has evidently not conceived of the continued existence of this soul separated from the body as individual and conscious, as close as he was to precisely this conclusion, because he often completely ignores the bodily component of the human being and fixes the essence of the human being solely in reason and the will. But it seems that he has envisioned this reason as a personal, active one only as long as ←36 | 37→its union with the body continues. Otherwise he could not say death is a change not to not-being, but only to what is at present not-being (III, 24, 93), because if the human being were after death a personal, conscious, and desiring being in the same way as in the temporal life, then death would not be a change into another form of existence, but a continuation of the former one. The difference that the body is missing after death would simply not be so important for Epictetus that he could for this reason call death a change into what is at present not-being. On top of that, the fact that even the consciousness comes to an end with death also leads us to the comparison of death with the harvest (II, 6, 11 etc.). “As it is the intended purpose of the ear to become ripe and harvested, so it is the intended purpose of the human being to die. But since we are the same things that become harvested and are ourselves aware of it, we lament (as if something out of the ordinary happened to us).” Here Epictetus quite correctly recognizes the deepest reason why the person recoils from the thought of death, that in this harvest the person is at the same time subject and object, that the consciousness becomes aware of its own approaching annihilation. However, it does not occur to Epictetus to see in that something terrible (δεινόν); rather, he most definitely rejects all lamentation and sorrow about the fate of death as a sign of the lack of insight into the conditions and laws of human life: “we do not even know who we are, and do not consider what being human is.” And if even the reference to what is “at present not-being” sounds like a postponement of an afterlife, then nevertheless in reality the comfort for Epictetus lies only in the fact that this [29] regularity of the alternation of coming into being and passing away sets his mind at ease about his finitude and makes his own life, though it is finite, appear not as the play of blind forces, but as a necessary link in the chain of being, and therewith even as something meaningful and valuable, and in a certain sense eternal. He means only this ethical immortality when he calls the mental and moral goods what is immortal and by nature free, in contrast to earthly things, which are transitory and unfree,39 and when he exclaims: “the tyrant kills me—how? Not me, only my body” (III, 13, 17). This is because the moral, mental life, even when it ceases, can still not be killed or annihilated; it is as such perfect and immortal, even at the point at which it is broken off.

Not the least important evidence for the correctness of the view expounded here lies in the fact that Simplicius, in the excellent introduction of his commentary on the Encheiridion, praises exactly that as what is great in Epictetus’ teaching, that even without the belief in a (personal) immortality, it is able to make the person happy and blissful (Preface p. 2). As a Platonist he would have to have had a sincere interest in furnishing evidence of signs of this belief in Epictetus. ←37 | 38→Simplicius certainly believes Epictetus’ ethical principles in reality logically lead to it. Nevertheless, this will be a matter of opinion, and in any case it is a matter of fact that Epictetus has not drawn this conclusion.

4.Voluntary Death (cf. Excursus II)

Since death and even the time of its occurrence is an adiaphoron according to Stoic conception, and on the other hand the so-called evils of life in truth are not evils and the happiness of the educated man can in no way be adversely affected, then one should think that exactly from the standpoint of the Stoa no rational motive for suicide can be imagined. Doesn’t the entire pretentious doctrine of the autarky of virtue fall on that point? Isn’t the so confidently and triumphantly proclaimed ethical optimism illusory if even the educated man can be forced into the necessity of putting an end to his life? Not in the slightest, the Stoics reply to this: we indeed do not teach that any external fate can drive the wise man to death, but what motivates him to it should the occasion arise is only virtue itself, which he can apply just now only in this way. Were he even only this one time to act contrary to the command of reason and virtue (by not killing himself), then his whole subsequent life would be worthless, whereas the abbreviation of his life for the sake of virtue in no way harms its value since the moral life consists not in including as many moral deeds as possible, but in constituting an unbroken chain out of such deeds.40

This is the Stoic doctrine of the justification of suicide, in its main features clear and plain, but yet in its details [30] still leaving open many questions. Here too the careful examination of the remarks of Epictetus can bring some light.

We can divide Epictetus’ remarks about suicide into three classes, first those in which it is undoubtedly considered as a moral act, second those which clearly reject it as immoral, and third those which appear to assert the right of suicide per se without a moral motive. To the first class belong above all the passages where suicide is represented as an act of obedience to the call of God. Usually the comparison of life with war service, which is so popular in Epictetus, lies at the bottom in this case. Like a general, God has assigned each his post, and it is his solemn duty to maintain it with the utmost bravery and perseverance. If, however, God no longer needs his fighter and gives the signal for the retreat, then it is just in the same way his duty to obey willingly and without any protest. But then isn’t this obedience, as one would like to ask, also performed owing to the fact that one is always prepared for death and willingly surrenders to the fate of death? ←38 | 39→Certainly, says Epictetus, but yet it could also enter cases where without external coercion God gives the human being a clear hint that his life’s task is now fulfilled, and suggests to him the voluntary departure from this life. The question is only by what means the human being can recognize this hint of God. Epictetus doesn’t know anything about a direct inner manifestation of God, perhaps in the manner of the Socratic daimonion; it is rather solely reason which puts him in the position to recognize the divine call. The consideration that under the prevailing circumstances a life according to nature is no longer possible constitutes the general criterion for the duty of voluntary death. This case occurs either when God no longer offers whatever is necessary for life, or when the continuation of life would be possible only by means of a violation of honor or duty, through an immoral or degrading act.41 With the first case Epictetus ranks the absolute lack of food, and as the case may be the deprivation of freedom and banishment.42 But if we then consider how Epictetus demands the utmost frugality concerning the satisfaction of bodily needs, how he scoffs at the anxious, weak-in-faith concern about food, how with an almost Christian confidence of belief he trusts in the goods of providence, how he furthermore does not even regard the most menial work as degrading, indeed, as it seems, even regards the appeal to human charity as no shame, then we rightly ask whether the case is then at all conceivable that the human being is robbed of all means of just managing to keep alive. In III, 26 Epictetus holds before the eyes of his students the example of the runaway slaves who, under the most incredible deprivations, only for the love of freedom, just manage to keep alive, and furthermore that of the beggars who as a rule live to a ripe old age, that of Socrates, Diogenes, Cleanthes, who studied and did hard day laborer’s work at the same time, and then exclaims: “if you are willing to have it so, you will never be lacking in the essentials—could an honest man fear that he lacks food? The blind and the lame do not lack it; should the good man lack it? The brave soldier receives his [31] board, the laborer, the craftsman; shouldn’t the good man receive it? Does God so neglect his creatures, his servants and witnesses etc.?”“When you have become sated today, you sit there and whine because of tomorrow about where you are supposed to eat. Wretch, you have today, so you will also have tomorrow! But if you do not— then now it certainly means move on—so go, the door is open.”43 It is very important in any case for the judgment of Epictetus’ doctrine that he makes it the duty of the human being with the most modest requirements of all to do everything and to neglect no means in order to obtain the necessary subsistence. And surely he was of the conviction that this case of complete loss of nourishment is only the rarest of all exception. Nevertheless, if it really occurs, namely like this, that there is really ←39 | 40→absolutely no more prospect of later help, then why should the human being not simply wait until death from starvation happens by itself (cf. Attalus in Seneca ep. 110, 19 famem fames finit)? Doesn’t this require greater moral strength than the arbitrary relinquishing of life? Shouldn’t the human being also recognize therein a peristasis which God has sent him in order to test his ability to suffer? Doesn’t voluntary death fall under the reproach of the προηγεῖσθαι τῶν πραγμάτων, of the anticipating that Epictetus usually condemns so resolutely? These questions which force themselves on us involuntarily are evidently quite far from Epictetus. The latter he would have unconditionally answered in the negative, since he indeed teaches that the occurrence of the circumstances which justify the departure be regarded as a divine declaration of the will, so that accordingly that is always a consequence, a submission of oneself. Without doubt he would also have protested vigorously against the opinion that greater demands are put on the strength of endurance than in the case of the prohibition of suicide. He is aware that he demands the utmost measure of steadfastness and courage that is to be expected of a human being. He is equally convinced that there are cases where God himself gives the permission, indeed the order, for death. Therefore, whoever does not make use of this permission, or respectively does not comply with this order, is on the same level as he who in his wantonness causes himself pains and tempts God. One could indeed even perhaps say with some good reason that in waiting for death by starvation, a certain clinging to life still reveals itself. In any case, Epictetus interprets not waiting as a sign of the complete tearing away of the heart from the earthly and as an act of obedience to God, and in so far as his doctrine is at least subjectively considered, the reproach of immorality cannot be made. It can be explained as a theoretical error, indeed even as a monstrosity of superstition. However it is not to be disputed that Epictetus, just as he generally shares the belief of his school in the reality of the mantic, so too was really convinced that there is an omen by which the human being must recognize the divine order to depart. The judgment of the objective value or disvalue of this doctrine depends solely upon whether there are such circumstances, and what they would be, in which God’s hint to exit from life may be recognized without inherent untruth.

The issue would be comparatively simple if we had a clear remark that a certain measure of bodily [32] pain and misery made even the free operation of reason and the fulfillment of the intellectual and moral purpose impossible. Seneca expresses these ideas clearly (ep. 58, 34 etc.) when he says that an incurable illness justifies suicide because in this case the body would be a hindrance to everything one lives for. It would be weak and cowardly to die on account of the ←40 | 41→pain, but foolish to live for the sake of the pain—he expresses himself like this in his apt, succinct manner (cf. also ep. 98, 16). He therefore supposes that there are physical conditions which hamper the activity of the soul in which a rational thinking and a free self-determination is impossible and is also not to be expected in the future. Marcus Aurelius also recommends taking into account the case that a disturbance of the power of the mind could occur whereby reason would be incapable of the performance of its moral tasks in theory and practice.44 And although he demands in genuine Stoic rigorism that the educated man not just bar the lighter physical pains from his consciousness and keep them away from his intellectual center, but also, where this is no longer possible on account of the henosis of body and soul, at least leave aside the notion of evil (V, 26), then we are perhaps yet entitled on the ground of the last remark to suppose still a third case, namely that in which the pain increases so that reason is really impaired and is incapable of correct judgments themselves. But in Epictetus of all people we search for such a concession in vain; he constantly proclaims the independence of the mind from the conditions of the body without any restriction. In every peristasis the human being can keep his hegemonikon in accordance with nature, and the endurance of pain and of illness is, according to Epictetus, a completely adequate moral aim of life. I am still reminded of Epictetus’ view mentioned earlier that sickness constitutes a natural component of life, but he makes no illness an exception to that; consequently, he can also see in illness no moral ground for escape (ἐξαγωγή) since this is really nowhere explicitly mentioned by him as a ground for justification. Indeed not once can the sickness of the mind be allowed as such by him since he—on this point advocating the stricter standpoint of Cleanthes, who declared virtue to be simply unlosable, whereas Chrysippus regarded it as losable through drunkenness and insanity (D. L. 127)—sees in it the highest stage of education, that even in drunkenness and delusion one does not fail to meet the command of reason (II, 17, 33). In spite of all that I am convinced that Epictetus has not flatly denied the justification of dying on the occasion of an incurable or especially painful illness. For if the human being is permitted to kill himself on account of the deficiency of food, then no other rational reason can be conceived of for this than that of causing oneself no unnecessary pain. In the same way, if Epictetus regards the case as possible that reason advises bringing to an end a long or onerous imprisonment through voluntary death, then properly speaking only the idea that it is foolish to suffer unnecessary torments can be decisive for it. Epictetus, who in such inspired words praises the freedom of the educated man, that freedom which depends upon nothing at all, would [33] hardly admit that he would not be in the position to persevere lifelong in prison without feeling ←41 | 42→unhappy. Yet he says that he who willingly, that is with joyful resignation in his fate (like Socrates), is in prison does not lie in bonds, whereas vice versa whoever is somewhere unwillingly finds himself in prison (I, 12, 23). But on the other hand he evidently also does not regard it as necessary to carry the perseverance (ὑπομονή) to an extreme; he no doubt thought that life offers for he who lives according to his principles so much opportunity to exercise them that the interest of morality could not suffer privation by allowing suicide in the most extreme cases of all. If one further considers that this could still also be interpreted as an act of self-abnegation and is always placed by Epictetus, as far as moral courage is concerned, on the same level with the innocent suffering of a violent death, then one is in no case able to reproach his theory for cowardice. Even banishment Epictetus declares to be a legitimate reason for exagoge, but naturally this too only under especially onerous circumstances. Nevertheless he often says that the human being, in spite of his innate instinct of sociableness, could even submit to solitude and feel happy in it. “You are alone, so you should call this not solitude, but peace and freedom and consider yourself like the gods” (I, 12, 21). For that as well the human being must be in the position to be sufficient for himself and to associate with himself, like Zeus in the world-conflagration.45 Therefore, banishment in itself as solitude can impart no justification for suicide, but only in so far as other unbearable evils would be connected with it.

On the whole, then, we must reach the judgment that Epictetus regarded suicide as justifiable only in the most extreme of all cases of physical misery. Throughout he demands from the educated man an almost unlimited steadfastness and ability to endure, explicitly emphasizing that one is allowed to grasp hold of that last resort not thoughtlessly, not out of softness or under an arbitrary pretense (I, 9, 17. I, 29, 29). The philosopher should consider all so-called evils only as means for exercising the corresponding virtues, make even illness into a good by distinguishing himself in it, preserve his inner peace and contentment, the equilibrium of his soul, not cajole the physician and not long for death (III, 20, 14). Yet Epictetus could not speak this way if he had regarded it as moral to end any somewhat painful illness by voluntary death. Even the loss of a sense or another physical affliction he seems not to have considered, like other Stoics,46 as sufficient reason for exit. At least he requires that one also look upon the paralysis of the leg as an adiaphoron that can have no hindering effect on the prohairesis.47 If he once makes the remark that we pity the blind and lame (I, 28, 9), then it can still not be inferred from this that he would have regarded the life of such a person as contrary to nature and so suicide as justifiable in this case, since here he is speaking only from the common conception. However, he ←42 | 43→admits about himself that he has not yet [34] progressed to full inner freedom since he still esteems the body and has a high regard for its integrity—a proof that in such bodily deficiency in and by itself he still saw no justification for suicide.

The fact that he explicitly approved of the suicide of an athlete who did not want to live on with a mutilated body (I, 2, 26) does not stand in contradiction with that point. When someone asked him whether he acted as an athlete or as a philosopher, he replied: as a man, that is he owed it to his manly honor. With this we come to the second justifiable motive for suicide, namely, personal honor, which comes close to the motive of the avoidance of an immoral action. In order to act rationally, Epictetus teaches, one may weigh not just the external values, but one must also take into consideration τὸ κατὰ πρόσωπον, that is the command of honor. The question of whether this demand of honor is the same for all educated people or is different according to the position of life of the individual we can leave aside here. As is generally known, in Cicero De officiis Panaetius decidedly advocates the latter view and also applies it to the question of the justification of suicide by saying that Cato would have been entitled to kill himself after the ruin of the republic on account of his individual disposition and with regard to his whole personality and past, whereas the same deed for others would rightly have been reproached (off. I, 112). Here it is only a matter of establishing that Epictetus also permitted suicide in the case of bodily afflictions, of course only in very special cases that concern personal honor. Indeed he even regards it as a duty of honor of the philosopher to avoid the deprivation of the beard by means of death, a view which would have to appear bizarre to us if we did not know that Epictetus sees the beard as the God-ordered external mark of distinction of the sexes, and sees the removal of it as a violation of modesty and manly honor, the symbol of a womanish mentality.48 Also to be considered from the point of view of personal honor is the passage where Epictetus advises Agamemnon to die voluntarily with his army instead of lamenting over the ruin of the Hellenes. Of course this remark cannot count as full-weighted evidence for Epictetus’ conception because he generally presents Agamemnon as a model of the uneducated man and indeed credits his expedition to Troy as a mistake.49 Honor demands one kill oneself especially in the case when one could barely manage to stay alive only by means of unworthy dependence upon another or by means of degrading entreaties and flatteries.50 Thus Epictetus exclaims: I would rather not live at all if I had to live by the mercy of an overbearing freedman (IV, 1, 150). And generally in this regard he lays down the principle that one is allowed to cultivate comfortable relations with tyrants and despots, but only so long as they demand nothing unjust and absurd. ←43 | 44→One must avoid an unworthy, exacting demand by voluntary death if there is no other way.

If we now scrutinize still more closely this case, that suicide is committed in order to escape a moral evil, then we will have to ask: according to the conceptions of the Stoa [35] and of Epictetus, is this case conceivable at all? Doesn’t the latter teach on every page that the prohairesis of the human being is free and that consequently it can be compelled to a disgraceful deed by no one? But even supposing it were possible that the educated man, even if he could be compelled not to a word or act unworthy of him—since this is not conceivable—then nevertheless to the unwilling sufferance of an immoral deed on his person, then Epictetus must also regard this as an adiaphoron properly speaking. For he teaches quite clearly that although the body is hindered by force, one must carry out what the will has perceived as a duty, but for that reason the latter is in this way by no means interfered with in its freedom since the value of the dutiful deed consists in the correct desire, not in the execution. From this it results with necessity that if the human being is compelled by external force to the performance or sufferance of an action which he abhors, this inner reluctance (ἀφορμή) secures him against any moral damage.51 So consequently, in fact, no case could be imagined where the Stoic, in order to escape a real disgrace, had to take his own life. Nevertheless, here too we must again make use of the concept of personal honor and have in mind that Epictetus regarded certain situations, in which the human being could be disturbed by force or a certain treatment which he would be exposed to, as incompatible with personal honor, and he regarded suffering those situations simply as foolish, but not as morally valuable. The independence of the mind from all external compulsion is for this reason not frail, since departing from this life without help is a free act and the true happiness of the human being sustains no loss owing to the fact that he abandons his life before its natural end by reason of a rational decision. In the main this case will actually occur, as the examples used by Epictetus show, only where, in the event the human being refused to do a disgraceful deed, his violent death would be upon him in any case. Seneca says that in this case no general rule can be established about whether it is a duty to await death or to anticipate it, since grounds for both can be cited; Socrates had his special reasons for waiting, namely in order to submit himself to the law and to provide his friends the enjoyment of the departing Socrates (Socrates extremus) (ep. 70, 11). In general, however, for the Stoic the threat of violent death is just a hint from God that God wants to have his life; consequently, he proves his obedience to God in fact only more perfect owing to the fact that he obeys instructions immediately at the first hint.

←44 | 45→

Now it is certainly one of the most remarkable phenomena in Stoic philosophy, I would like to say a moral puzzle, that the Stoics and Epictetus as well put what we call suicide in all impartiality on a level with the voluntary suffering of a violent or unjust death or even with the voluntary sacrifice of one’s life for the well-being of another. Immediately after Epictetus (I, 29, 29) has permitted suicide under the conditions already mentioned, he continues: “but when God gives the signal to retreat, as he did to Socrates, one must [36] obey him as the general.” And even apart from that the death of Socrates often appears in a context in which the discussion is about suicide. So Epictetus has not any sense at all that in a moral respect the two could be judged very differently. We may or may not recognize in this view an important lack of moral judgment, but this much we must admit, that just that naive equation of suicide with the martyrdom of Socrates is an additional strong proof that he permitted the voluntary curtailment of one’s life only from the moral motives that are most serious according to his view. From the standpoint of the Stoa, everything which is moral is equally moral; consequently voluntary death is too, whether as things stand according to our concept it is a martyr’s death or a suicide, according to its moral value it is the same if only it is based on rational reflection. Indeed even the self-sacrificial death of Menoeceus evidently stands no higher than any other rational renunciation of life for Epictetus; for he says that if Menoeceus had not done this, he would have lost all moral worth, thus thereby making the same deed under the same circumstances a duty for everyone (III, 20, 5). Exactly like this the Stoics too (according to D. L. 130) interpreted the sacrifice of one’s life for one’s country and friends and suicide on account of severe pains, mutilation, and incurable illness as equivalent applications of the “rational exit.”

From the former it is already sufficiently elucidated that Epictetus as well is familiar with an immoral suicide; namely, it is immoral when it is reckless, without rational consideration of all reasons for and against, when it results from passion, softness or cowardice. Here belong the passages where Epictetus advises the dissatisfied people who quarrel with God’s world-order to depart from life; in their case suicide is of course no moral act, but only as it were the seal that they themselves impress on their misspent life. Of course comparatively their leaving is still better than their staying because the first is the correct consequence of their whole irrational outlook on life which clings to what is external, whereas their staying is not simply worthless, but really properly speaking a contradiction. Likewise the good-for-nothing man who has learned nothing of justice and who can be used for nothing, since he can and will not work, or since no one places their confidence in him, he would be doing the best ←45 | 46→thing, according to our philosopher, if he ended his life voluntarily. “Why has God brought me into such a life?”“If it does not suit you, then go! He needs no peevish spectator—he will not reluctantly see the pitiful and cowardly leave the festival; because even while they were there they did not live like they were at a festival and did not occupy the proper place, but complained and scolded the deity, fate, and their company, forgetting what (good) was bestowed upon them, and their powers against adversity which they received.”52 Most suicides of our day, which, since they wantonly ruin their life, seek death out of despair about their moral strength, Epictetus would certainly not speak any better of than that they have indeed acted consistently, but, as always, immorally, and he would refuse them any emotion of sympathy. An especially interesting case of immoral suicide, [37] or rather of attempted suicide, occurred in the case of a friend of Epictetus himself (I, 2, 25 etc.). The way this friend, who solely out of a false sense of shame wanted to starve himself in all seriousness because in his rashness he had made the decision to die, is turned away from his intention by Epictetus, and the way Epictetus brings his folly and his wrongness to his consciousness, for all the humor of the situation, is one of the most beautiful things that we have from Epictetus; and at the same time it best allows us to recognize that he knew how to unite the permission of suicide with the full estimation of the moral value of life and with the idea that life itself is a duty from whose fulfillment only the utmost necessity relieves us. “What one has decided, one must keep to,” says the candidate of death. “But only,” Epictetus replies to him, “if the decision was rational. Do you, however, without any reason, want to drive a dear friend of ours from life, a fellow citizen in the great and in the small state? And now, while you effect a murder and annihilate a human being who has done nothing wrong, you say: one must keep to what one has resolved! If it once were to occur to you to kill me, would you then too have to carry out your resolution?” One notices here first the fact that Epictetus calls the unjustified killing of oneself a murder, thus applying to such an act the strictest moral standard, then that he expresses quite frankly the view that the human being is in the world not merely for his enjoyment, but also has to fulfill social duties as a friend and as a fellow-citizen, as well as duties to God as a citizen of the cosmos, which in any case must be taken into consideration with the question of whether the exit from life is permitted.

As little as it is now doubtful that Epictetus considered voluntary death usually from a moral viewpoint and hence either explicitly permits, indeed demands it, or rejects it as sin, so too all the same are such remarks not lacking according to which the decision about one’s life is removed from the moral judgment and ←46 | 47→appears placed entirely in the arbitrary whim of the individual. “Whoever is at liberty to leave the banquet when he wants and to play no longer, will he indignantly stay, and not rather, like in a game, stay just only as long as it delights him?”53

Such and similar remarks in the line of thought that anyone is at liberty to kill himself when it pleases him or when his life seems unbearable to him, we must, from the pedagogical standpoint, unconditionally describe as reprehensible. It is certainly not Epictetus’ opinion that even the educated man would be allowed to put an end to his life for any reason whatever; rather, he should demonstrate his education precisely therein as well, that he keeps up the game as long as possible and still finds delight where others perceive an unbearable burden. And on the other hand exiting from life without valid reasons is always a sin to him, but certainly no more terrible than any other manifestation of a mind quarreling with God. Precisely this, however, must strike us as odd, that herewith Epictetus so easily accepts declaring the life of a human being a failure and, instead of exhorting and spurring on these dissatisfied or earthly minded people to converting to and striving for a satisfied [38] life, rather cold-bloodedly shows them the door. It is this aristocratic trait of Stoic philosophy which derides the sin of the multitude as folly and has at most a cool pity, but no heartfelt compassion, for the mistaken and forlorn. Though on the other hand, what appears therein is also that sober truthfulness which reckons with the undeniable fact that comparatively only few people work their way up to perfect morality, while most remain behind at a more or less imperfect stage. It is in any case a deficiency, which certainly stands out far less in Epictetus than in the older Stoa, that the Stoics have drawn no sharp line between permissible and impermissible or rather immoral suicide; and by the way, it will have to be granted as an excuse that this is a difficult task to solve, since naturally in no ethical problem does individuality so very much come into consideration than in this one.

Summarizing and completing the former, the following sentences may conclude this section:

  1. Suicide is not an act of extraordinary courage, on the other hand the omission of it, where it would be indicated, is one of cowardice.54
  2. It is by no means the necessary or highest exercise of inner freedom. The older Stoa cannot lay aside the reproach that it considered suicide from this viewpoint also. The anecdotes about suicide of the first heads of the Stoa may or may not then be based on the truth (Wendland, in Berliner Wochenschrift f. kl. Phil. 1887, 12, decides for the first view, Zeller III, ←47 | 48→1, 306 for the latter), yet are without doubt a reflection of that conception that perfect freedom must also appear in voluntary departure. Seneca brings these ideas more often to expression and it is scarcely to be supposed that this was his private opinion. When he says that Socrates teaches us to die when it is necessary, but Zeno before it is necessary, then by that he evidently wants to set the contempt for life of the latter above that of the former (ep. 104, 21). It is really a vain flaunting of the readiness for voluntary death when he (ep. 70, 27) makes the remark: what depraved people are able to do (the fighters of beasts), shouldn’t the philosopher be able to do?55
  3. Suicide is moral in the full sense only when it is based on a clearly recognized call of God. The idea that God himself summons the human being to his departure lies indeed at the root of the anecdote about Zeno’s suicide who, when he sprained his finger in a fall, is supposed to have exclaimed: I am coming, why are you shouting at me? (flor. I, 169). Nevertheless, it is not to be overlooked that Zeno had done this at a ripe old age; it would have been ridiculous indeed if, without the addition of other circumstances, he had regarded committing suicide for such trivial reasons as justifiable. We must not, then, after all, think Zeno capable of such ridiculousness. The actual reason for it can only have been that he perceived in the fall which he suffered the symptom of such a fragility which seemed to him to make a fruitful continuation of living impossible. The same idea is also suggested to us by the story of the death of Cleanthes, who abided by his decision because he had already lost the remaining conditions [39] of a life according to nature (D. L. 176). The quotation of Seneca already mentioned will no doubt be true of both, that old age justifies departure when the body has, so to speak, already previously died (ep. 58, 34). Within the Stoa, Posidonius advocated the strictest moral view about the justification of suicide; if he too seems to have not entirely disavowed it, then he has still far more emphasized the duty to remain than the right to depart and in this way restricted the right to suicide still more than even Epictetus.56 This strict view of Posidonius is, by the way, closely connected with his belief in a blessed afterlife in heaven. Herein he comes close to Christianity, which naturally recognizes no justification of suicide. Possibly Posidonius has understood by the “ justa causa” only those cases which are not to be described as suicide but are to be put on a level with the martyr’s death.
  4. ←48 | 49→ If the suicide is based on a call of God, then it is no more and no less moral than any other act according to reason, and so stands morally on the same level with the martyr’s death and the self-sacrificial death.
  5. It is immoral if it is the result of softness, thoughtlessness, or obstinacy,57 or, as the case may be, vanity and thirst for glory and amidst disregard of the social duties.58
  6. Epictetus has not fixed precisely how far the enduring of physical evil should be driven before one is allowed to proceed to suicide. However, the limits are drawn fairly narrowly since he demands a considerable frugality, he regards no work as dishonorable, not even the appeal to human charity provided that it can be done without personal degradation, and he considers not just illness, but also bodily mutilation as means for the exercise of virtue.
  7. Even the concept of personal honor, whose violation one is permitted to, or rather should, avoid by means of suicide, is a pretty unclear and elastic one, in so far as on the one hand it is asserted that nothing coming from outside can injure and hurt the wise man, and on the other hand comparatively trivial things are looked upon as incompatible with one’s honor.
  8. Suicide for the purpose of avoiding an immoral action is properly speaking inconceivable by Epictetan principles. For really it seems as if in this connection he has in mind only those cases where violent death would take the place of suicide.
  9. In the case of the immoral or entirely earthly minded people, suicide is not really a detestable act which puts the crown on their sin, but relatively correct as the proper consequence of their whole way of living and in any case more welcome than the further continuation of their ungodly life.59 [40]

5.The Joy of Life

The most elementary claim of Epictetan ethics is the principle that one regard as an evil and hence be allowed to fear nothing external. We saw how strictly Epictetus carries through this principle considering all so-called evils of life, how he knows how to take away all frightfulness, even from death, despite his renunciation of an afterlife, and how the permission of suicide too by no means arises from any aversion to suffering, but rather only the thought that death is nothing bad should be brought to the most powerful expression. The fear of ←49 | 50→the adversities and pains of life does not drive the wise man into death, but the obedience to God, the fear of the real and sole evil, of the corruption of the soul, because according to Epictetus he who is free and happy is not the one who fears nothing at all, but the one who fears nothing other than sin. This fear of sin is of course no pathos, that is no disorderly emotion, but rather a rational, moral fear, a eupatheia (cf. Volume I, p. 291 etc.). The whole first chapter of the second book of the Diss. deals with how one can unite fearlessness with caution (ὅτι οὐ μάχεται τὸ θαρρεῖν τῷ εὐλαβεῖσθαι). By θάρρος Epictetus understands the equanimity which awaits all external strokes of fate fearlessly and confidently. But then eulabeia surely does not mean, as one could suspect, the caution that, to the best of one’s ability, tries to prevent the apparent evils, but only the moral caution which is wary of sin. For the solution of the problem of how both functions are to be united consists in the often repeated proposition that one should employ θάρρος (confidence) in the face of the aprohaireta, but εὐλάβεια in the face of the prohairetika. So both of these concepts together then represent the fear according to nature (ἔκκλισις), the former in a negative way as fearlessness in the face of everything external, the latter in a positive way as carefulness and vigilance against sin. In the moral sphere the human being can, if only he seriously wants to and uses constant caution, avoid any harm; whoever fears what is external and tries to escape it will not be able to avert that which he fears and hence will be unhappy; on the other hand, whoever confines his fear to the moral sphere has it in his power to fend off every injury.60

But with the overcoming of irrational fear, the extermination of irrational desire is then automatically yielded; no one can be free from that fear who has not also torn the desire for the so-called good things of this world out of his heart. Epictetus demands exactly this in explicit opposition to the Peripatetic half-measure which is satisfied with a moderation of the desires and passions.61 All unfortunateness comes for this reason, that what one wants and wishes does not happen62; hence there is no other road to happiness than that one recognizes the worthlessness of all external goods63 and confines his desire to the true goods. With merciless consistency Epictetus carries through this principle; not once may desire be directed at health (IV, 1, 76), [41] indeed the heart may not even be so attached to wife and child that it would become unhappy by their loss; whoever ardently wishes to be allowed to keep his child forever resembles one who wants figs in winter. “When you kiss your child, do not give yourself over to joy too much, but say to yourself always it can be dead tomorrow.”64 One should always be ready to give back the earthly goods without grumbling, rather thanking God for the set time of use that he grants.65

←50 | 51→

From the latter sentence, however, it emerges that as seriously as Epictetus emphasizes the worthlessness of external goods for true happiness, he by no means values them as entirely trivial, but means to please himself with their possession and enjoyment so long as it is offered. The apathy which he demands is, I would like to say, not a psychological, but only a moral one; whoever does not possess these external goods should not desire them, and when he loses them he should not mourn and complain about it, because by this means his inner peace is disturbed and his moral purpose of life is missed. Yet whoever has them is allowed to be pleased with them and must thank God for it. Nothing is our philosopher more against and is able to irritate him more than a dissatisfied, ungrateful mind which does not recognize or regards as trivial the gifts of God.66 One should be thankful for the daily bread, for life and health, for the strengthening sleep, for the aid of human beings, for the exalting sight of the wonder of the sky and the colorful splendor of the earth; in the whole arrangement of the world, in the orderliness of human life the human being should recognize the divine wisdom and goodness and praise God for the sublime spectacle that he displays to him daily, for the enjoyments that the festival of life continually bestows.67 Epictetus is no ascetical, gloomy world-hater, but shows throughout a temperament alert to everything beautiful and noble, an inspiring piety and affection for the contemplation of nature. The sense for the beauty of nature, which one would no doubt wrongly want to deny of the ancient world, is strongly developed in him. “It is not enough for you what you see daily? Can you see anything greater or better than the sun, the moon, the stars, than earth and sea?” (II, 16, 32). “God himself has put the wanderlust into the heart of the human being and it is his privilege that he, instead of being without his will rooted into the soil, can travel from place to place, be it for practical reasons, be it out of pure curiosity” (III, 24, 12). “Who does not see with joy a herd of horses or cattle? Who does the sight of a fleet not delight? What more pleasant spectacle is there for the philanthropist than a great crowd of people?” (IV, 4, 27). Our philosopher delights in the lively play of children and still feels in his old age the desire to participate in it.68 Genuinely Hellenic, he judges the value of physical exercise and knows how to perfectly appreciate the charm of the Olympic festival.69 He does not renounce the taste for bodily beauty and praises in particular Socrates and Diogenes for it and for the strength and suppleness of their body, and the grace of their outward appearance.70 He has appreciation of and admiration for the products of industry and art (even for luxury goods) and knows how to be fascinated by even the simplest product of human skill.71 He esteems music highly and is also not averse to the joy of sociableness. This [42] surely goes to show that if he compares ←51 | 52→life to a banquet (En. 15 and often), that he, in this again entirely in agreement with the old Stoa, does not reject the occasional plentiful consumption of wine.72 Anyhow, according to his view it lies in the nature of the human being that he gladly associate with his peers.73 He highly rates the value of friendship by, almost in contradiction with his doctrine about the evils of existence, expecting from friendship a lightening of the burdens of life.74 He also regards the joy in research as something according to nature,75 and he declares the art of oration as a gift of God which it would be impious and cowardly at the same to despise (II, 23, 32. III, 23, 25). Nevertheless, with all grateful appreciation of all the external things and gifts which make life pleasant and very enjoyable, he always keeps in sight that gift of God which alone has an unconditional value and truly makes one happy, reason, which has its highest task in the moral ordering of one’s whole life.76 Often he admonishes that one should thank God for the external gifts that one possesses, but also ungrudgingly leave to others their advantage, mindful of the superior, the highest thing which each has or can have, the inner happiness that is based on the enjoyment of mental freedom and on the equilibrium of the soul.77 This mental happiness must be sufficient for the individual so that, aside from what is absolutely necessary, he can easily do without everything else. When Epictetus has explained to his students how they obtain through virtue certainly not any wealth and honorary posts, but in this respect achieve rather less than the bad, yet how they in return become inwardly happy, then he usually asks them: does this seem nothing to you, does this seem to you to be little? (I, 1, 13. II, 9, 11. III, 5, 16. IV, 9, 3) if you seek something greater than this, then do what you are doing, no God can help you any more in that case (IV, 9, 18).

6.The Effort for the External Goods

But now Epictetus allows or rather requires not simply that the human being gratefully accept and enjoy the earthly gifts of God, but he also ranks the “faithfulness in little things,” that is the careful and circumspect effort for the preservation and gaining of the earthly goods, among the duties of the human being, naturally provided that a higher duty does not relieve him from it, like for example the Cynic by his extraordinary calling. Many expressions could certainly be understood as though Epictetus would reject the self-active effort for the external goods. Thus for example when he says one should be satisfied with what is given (II, 16, 28. I, 1, 27 ἀρκεῖσθαι τῷ διδομένῳ. I, 1, 17. IV, 10, 30), and compares life to a banquet in which one must wait for what is offered to one (En. 15), or compares ←52 | 53→the external goods with a lot of scattered figs that one should not bend down to pick up, but that one is allowed to accept if one of them falls into one’s lap. Epictetus’ true view will meanwhile become evident from the following. What the Middle Stoa in a one-sided manner made the sole end of the human [43] being, namely the rational selection of the things according to nature, in Epictetus has its correct position as a sphere of moral action beside others. On this point his doctrine is as clear as possible and without doubt also correctly Stoic.78 It is true he does not use the words proegmenon and apoproegmenon, but he operates entirely with the same concepts. The external things are adiaphora in so far as they contribute nothing to the happiness or unhappiness of the human being. However, a distinction between them still occur: the ones have a (relative) value (ἀξία), the others a disvalue (ἀπαξία) (I, 2, 10. II, 23, 5. En. 36), the ones are (relatively) according to nature, the others contrary to nature (II, 5, 24). Now whoever ignores these conditions of value and gradations of value lying in the things themselves without compelling moral reasons violates the divine order, he acts immorally and irrationally. The things themselves (ὗλαι) are indeed adiaphora, but not their use (χρῆσις, II, 5, 1). We must for this reason weigh the values against one another (I, 2, 7) and, in the event a specific moral good is not at stake (ecl. II, 109), prefer what is according to nature to what is contrary to nature, therefore for example health to illness, wealth to poverty, public activity to the private life. For God himself has made us ἐκλεκτικοὺς τοιούτων, that is conferred upon us the gift and with it also the task of distinguishing the values of external things and of directing our action according to these distinctions.79 Whoever does not do this makes himself guilty of carelessness (ἀμέλεια), and this is surely not merely a secondary offense, but just as immoral as any other immoral act. That this is really Epictetus’ opinion becomes evident from the following quotation: we should for example take care of our eyes, yet not as the most important thing, but for the sake of the most important thing; for indeed this (the hegemonikon) is only in a condition according to nature when it acts rationally (εὐλογιστεῖ) about that also and prefers the one to the other (τὰ ἕτερα παρὰ τὰ ἕτερα αἱρούμενον, II, 23, 35). Therefore, if it was earlier said to be the highest task to keep the hegemonikon in accordance with nature, and now it is also demanded that one should also guard the external things (τὰ ἔξω τηρεῖν) in so far as reason demands it (μέχρι τοῦ εὐλογι στεῖν, III, 10, 16. IV, 3, 11), then it does not add a new moral task, but simply describes the previously mentioned one from another aspect. Epictetus emphasizes sharply enough that that attention in the sphere of the external things has a value only as rational operation of the will, but not on account of any external result. One may, indeed must, develop a certain knack with these external things (φιλο←53 | 54→τεχνεῖν περὶ τῶν ἐκτός), but without considering them as valuable in themselves. What is valuable is not the material, but the skill and care which proves itself in it, just as in the ball game not the ball but the skill of the throwing is the essential thing. This, however, is the task of the individual, to combine the inner indifference about all external events with the care, circumspection, and considerateness which neglects nothing and leaves no advantage unused.80 Epictetus illustrates this in the following example: “If I am going on a voyage, then I can pick out the helmsman, the crew, the day, the favorable occasion. Now a storm comes. What’s that to me? My task is fulfilled. [44] Another task now ensues which is the helmsman’s. But the ship goes under. What should I do? The only thing I can, namely, die fearlessly, without shouting, without scolding God.”

II, 23, 36 etc. shows especially clearly that this free wiggle room in the selection of relative valuableness has its definite limits in the duties that already previously exist or exist by nature. Whoever is traveling to his homeland and stops at a beautiful inn is not allowed to make himself a resident there and settle in domestically, since his intended purpose is to return to his native land and to fulfill his duties as a citizen there: “for you are not there for that purpose, to pick out the more beautiful site, but to spend your life where you were born and were enrolled as a citizen; just in the same way too when you are interested in this or that area of knowledge, forgetting the chief goal, you may not become obsessed with it since the knowledge should be merely the means to lead you to inner freedom.”

One will have to admit that this doctrine of Epictetus about the selection of the things according to nature (ἐκλογὴ τῶν κατὰ φύσιν) is distinguished by clarity and logical consistency. What will certainly continue to exist is the theoretical objection that their opponents advanced against this Stoic doctrine all along, namely, how is it to be explained that God has put a difference of value in external things that the human being must respect, without it still being the case that these things themselves contribute something to his happiness or unhappiness. But the fact is that Epictetus has regarded it as possible to unite both the contempt of the external and the conscientious consideration of the relative value of it. And if we consider that in this case he operates entirely with the same concepts as Chrysippus and his successors (ἐκλογὴ τῶν κατὰ φύσιν, εὐλογιστεῖν, ἀξία and ἀπαξία etc.), and how he is obviously conscious of advocating herein exactly the doctrine of these predecessors, then it is in my opinion a thing of impossibility to suppose that he should have substantially deviated from them; that is even those older Stoics, when they in the same way defined the telos one-sidedly as conduct according to reason in the selection of what is according to nature, still, exactly ←54 | 55→like Epictetus, must have considered the rational operation of the hegemonikon in fact as the supreme goal and must have delimited and regulated that rationality (ε ὐλογιστία) by means of the duties that are moral in and by themselves. By the way, one will also not be able to deny that Epictetus, although he has incorporated the concern for the earthly under the moral duties, still lets it get the worst of the deal, and if by means of his doctrine of the irrelevance of external goods for happiness he has not paralyzed interest in the improvement of the earthly conditions of life, then nevertheless he has substantially diminished it.

Appendix: The Use of the Mantic

The whole doctrine of Epictetus about the position the human being should take towards the external goods of life is mirrored like in a focal point again in the prescriptions that he gives about the use of the mantic. This is really the reason why the mantic is dealt with in this section on desire according to nature. [45] For it could appear as though permitting the use of the mantic cannot be joined with the principle that the human being fears and may desire nothing external. The following account will dispel this appearance.

It is well-known that all Stoics believed in the reality of the mantic; only Panaetius, in keeping with the rationalizing, enlightening tendency of his philosophy, ventured to doubt it. This belief in the mantic is explained in the Stoics first by the conservatism with which they adhered to the popular religion generally, then specifically by their mystical-pantheistic doctrine of the intimate connection of the universe (συμπάθεια τῶν ὅλων), which promoted the supposition that every coming event has its preceding sign (σημεῖον). They considered even the mantic as a necessary consequence of the belief in a divine providence, just as, conversely, they inferred the existence of the gods and providence from the fact of the mantic (Cic. div. I, 9 etc.), and their opponents did not fail to reproach them for this diallelon [circular reasoning] (see especially Gercke, Diogenian frag. 4). Now herein Epictetus again shows himself as a genuine and legitimate Stoic; he is completely convinced of the existence of the art of prophecy, and it does not occur to him to doubt any of the usual methods of the mantic. He believes both in the natural (oracles of incubation and dream oracles) and in the artful mantic (sacrifice inspection and bird display)81 and considers the non-observance of an oracular utterance as a disobedience to God.82 There is, however, in fact a mantic, so it goes without saying that the human being really has the duty to make use of it, otherwise he would indeed make himself guilty of a contempt for the gifts of God.

←55 | 56→

Nevertheless, the sphere of the mantic is, as Epictetus strongly emphasizes, only that of the external things, of the adiaphora. The seer can only predict the external results of an act; but whether they are good or bad is due to no judgment of his about it, this depends solely on the moral condition of the recipient who, if he is wise, turns every fate into a good.83 For the same reason the mantis can also disclose to us no moral duties; rather, these are recognized solely from oneself, that is from the logos, which Epictetus calls the inner mantis.84 So where an indubitable moral duty exists, it would be sinful first to question the oracle and to make the action or omission of the intended action dependent upon its dictum. Epictetus most harshly condemns this needless use of the mantic which very often detains people from the fulfillment of clear moral commands; he rightly recognizes in it nothing other than a sign of cowardice, of a mind which is afraid of suffering and clings to the earthly.85 With subtle irony he castigates the moral weakness and unclarity which reveals itself therein, that by flattery people seek to elicit from the seer a favorable dictum and, when they get it, thank him as though he himself were the lord God (II, 7, 9 etc.).

But now we ask why the wise man questions the mantis at all if, after all, everything that the latter announces to him is without significance for his happiness? For the same reason why the wise man [46] in fact troubles himself to a certain degree about what is external; the use of the mantic falls under the general duty of carefulness in the earthly, the ἐπιμέλεια. But since this carefulness must be combined with the inner peace that considers everything external as indifferent for happiness, so must the human being go to the mantis free of fear and desire (δίχα ὀρέξεως καὶ ἐκκλίσεως), exactly like one in an unknown region asks for the right road without any preconceived interest in whether it leads to this or that direction (II, 7, 10). Now if by these determinations the use of the mantic is already restricted to a small sphere, then the range becomes still narrower when we hear that even in the cases where the decision about what one should do depends solely on the expected external result,86 the mantic may then be resorted to only when all other considerations based on reason or experience do not lead to a secure decision. Should one object to this: yes, why should one reflect long anyway, why not go at once to the mantis if he is after all always in the position to say whether this or that is advisable or not—then Epictetus’ answer without doubt would run like this: because indeed the logos and the arts and skills (τέχναι) have been given to us by God for the purpose of making conscientious use of them as aids to our decisions; so whoever questions the mantis about every triviality fails by ignoring that other means which surely is undeniably closer to us than the mantic. If we summarize the whole thing once again, three clear and sensible ←56 | 57→prescriptions result: 1. do not consult the mantis when the inner mantis, that is your conscience, unambiguously suggests a duty to you; 2. when you can arrive at a rational decision on the basis of circumspect reflection or tested experience; 3. when you do consult him, do it without inner disquietude and agitation, do it with simple resignation in the fate determined for you by God.


Δίχα ὀρέξεως καὶ ἐκκλίσεως—free of fear and desire—that is Epictetus’ slogan for the use of the mantic, but that is in fact the fundamental command on which his entire moral philosophy is based. He who has overcome false fear and desire, that is clinging to what is external and earthly, is thereby free of passions, he is ἀπαθής and ἀτάραχος (II, 17, 31). This is certainly properly speaking a tautological judgment, because irrational fear and desire themselves represent just two of the four Stoic passions (namely φόβος and ἐπιθυμία). But with these two automatically go the two other passions (λύπη and ἡδονή), as Epictetus explicitly asserts, at least as far as grief is concerned.87

So whoever is free of fear will also no longer lament, grieve, and complain, he is ἄλυπος; and whoever has rooted out desire will also give himself over to no irrational pleasure, no sensual joy.88 Nevertheless, Epictetus describes the effect of the first [47] topos (the first ethical stage) not simply with the concept apathy and its four subspecies (ἀφοβία, ἀλυπία, μὴ ἐπιθυμεῖν, μὴ ἥδεσθαι τῇ σαρκί), but in addition to this, corresponding to his freer manner of instruction, uses in diverse variation an abundance of expressions that can nevertheless all be subsumed under those four principal passions. Synonyms of fearlessness are the imperturbability (ἀταραξία) which lets itself be upset by nothing, the composure which always looks confidently to the future (θάρσος, called θαρραλεότης by the older Stoics), moreover indeed the magnanimity which has little regard for what is external (μ εγαλοψυχία), courage, and perseverance (ἀνδρεία, καρτερία).89

The freedom from grief (ἀλυπία) is manifested in particular in that one no longer sighs, grieves and laments, scolds and complains (μέμφεσθαι, ἐγκαλεῖν), no longer is irritated (προσκόπτεσθαι, I, 28, 10) and troubled (ἄχθεσθαι, III, 25, 1), but also in that one feels no envy (I, 1, 12. I, 9, 20), no jealousy (II, 17, 26) and no pity (III, 22, 13); for both, as is generally known, according to Stoic doctrine, are subspecies of the pathos lype (λύπη). Epictetus no doubt has the overcoming of irrational desire (ἐπιθυμία) chiefly in mind when he describes the freedom from any compulsion and hindrance (μὴ ἀναγκάζεσθαι, μὴ κωλύεσθαι, II, 17, 22 and ←57 | 58→often) or freedom purely and simply (ἐλευθερία) as the effect of philosophy, by which of course it should not be said that this freedom does not also include the deliverance from the other passions. According to Stoic doctrine, as is generally known, under the concept ἐπιθυμία comes also the passions of anger, hatred, and eros. So according to Epictetus philosophy also promises freedom from love, hatred, and anger (III, 13, 10). Through this thorough purification of all passions (ἀπάθεια), calm and peace, freedom and happiness (ἐλευθερία, εὐστάθεια, εὐθυμία, εὔροια, γαλήνη and εὐδία ἐν ἡγεμονικῷ, I, 4, 5. II, 1, 21. II, 18, 30. I, 1, 22 and often) grow in the human heart.

But now how little this apathy is identical with absolute insensitiveness is in part already evident from the former, particularly from what was observed about the joy of life. Volume I, p. 284 etc. deals in detail with the permissible and justifiable feelings to which I refer herewith, meanwhile, reiterating only what is most important here, I limit myself to several additions. As is generally known, according to Stoic doctrine three normal feelings (εὐπάθειαι), rational fear (εὐλάβεια), desire (εὔλογος ὄρεξις or simply βούλησις) and joy (εὔλογος ἔπαρσις, χαρά) stand opposite the four passions. Previously there was discussion of rational fear, and to some extent of joy as well. Epictetus does not have much to say about rational desire; he advises the beginner, in fact, to give up ὄρεξις for the present entirely. According to III, 13, 21, a rational desire is actually not possible until one has in oneself a true, that is moral, good. Now strictly speaking, the human being, according to Stoic doctrine, can certainly only have either the whole good or none at all; but if he has the whole, then he no longer needs to desire it. Nevertheless, Epictetus was not so pedantic that he would have conceived of the opposition between the moral and immoral life so sharply and would have accepted no transitions and intermediate stages at all. If [48] for example one time while rebuking he exclaims (III, 26, 13): “you have never yet striven for inner peace etc.,” then evidently he regards a rational desire even in one who is still not completely rational as possible. In the one who is already morally educated, however, rational desire takes a somewhat different shade; it is not so much the striving for something which one does not yet have, but as it were the constant will that keeps or incessantly obtains anew what one already has. When Epictetus says one should devote his desire (i.e. his heart) to God or unite it with God (θεῷ συνορέγεσθαι, II, 17, 23. IV, 7, 20), then this is not properly speaking a desire, not a striving after something in the future or something yet lacking in the present, but nothing other than satisfaction with the present, the joyful inner assent to all happenings. So too have the older Stoics conceived of rational desire, namely as the condition of the heart which welcomes everything which happens as God’s ←58 | 59→act of providence (ἀσπασμός and ἀγάπησις).90 Moreover, they even ranked with it goodwill towards one’s fellow beings (εὔνοια and εὐμένεια), so that one can say that the rational orexis represents what we Christians call the love of God and of one’s neighbor: it is the will united with God and directed at the well-being of one’s fellow beings.

Epictetus is as little acquainted with a rational grief opposite the passion of grief as his predecessors were. He rejects pity as well as anger, ill will, and envy (III, 22, 13. IV, 1, 4); he declares it to be a confusion of moral concepts that human beings look upon it as the sign of a well-meaning feeling (II, 21, 5), and he even regards pity for moral misery as only relatively justifiable (IV, 6, 2 ἐφ’ οἷς—εἴπερ ἄρα—ἦν ἄξιον, ἐπὶ τοῖς ἁμαρτανομένοις). It is true he considers grief over one’s own sin as better than indifference toward it; he sees in the former a sign of a good predisposition (IV, 10, 3), and even to a certain extent considers it as the beginning of conversion, as a necessary point of passage to the moral life.91 But nonetheless, for him there is no rational grief, because the road to salvation leads through remorse not at all necessarily, but only as a result of the empirical corruptness of the world (III, 19). And it is not just in the case of the morally educated man that every rational ground for grief over oneself is certainly abolished, since he is in a position to avoid every sin. But the beginner, too, who is concerned about his inner condition, is surely not admonished for letting this pain of sins rightly affect him, but immediately pointed out the irrationality of this grief over himself, since it is entirely in his power to become better (ibid. τὶ ἀγωνιᾶς; ἐπὶ σοί ἐστίν, ἀσφαλὴς ἴσθι).92 Here again, with all that is in common, the dissimilarity in principle of Stoic and Christian ethics appears striking. By the way, however strictly Epictetus in theory adheres to the Stoic doctrine of the irrationality of any grief, this theoretical untruth in reality has still taken its significance from the fact that Epictetus—like the old Stoics too—always makes the presumption, in his judgment of the truly moral life, that scarcely anyone of those presently living is truly wise and morally educated.93 Thus [49] Epictetus really reproaches himself for not developing enough zeal and devotion in the instruction of his students, and for that reason no doubt even feels personally guilty that they do not make better headway.94 And exactly remarks such as these, which slip from our philosopher virtually in contradiction to his theory and show us that he did not, after all, merely look upon life through the spectacles of his theory, are among the most precious and most valuable pieces of evidence of his moral outlook.

Aside from the rational passions of the soul (εὐπάθειαι), however, Epictetus, in conformity with his school, acknowledged still other feelings as according to nature and inevitable, namely, the natural feelings of affection and shame as well as ←59 | 60→certain emotionlike impulses that properly speaking do not concern the psychic center, but are of a more physiological nature, like for example involuntarily being startled and turning pale at a sudden item of alarming news, at a loud noise, etc. (Volume I, p. 307 etc.). If he does more justice to all the realities of the human life of the soul, then on the other hand we must see a strong bias in the fact that he simply rejects as foolishness the anxiety of the one who appears in public as an orator or singer, and he considers as proof of it that the one concerned does not just wish to do his job as well as possible, but what is more to reap glory (II, 13, 1 etc. 20). However certainly Epictetus has, with a keen eye, drawn attention to the principal reason for this anxiety, and however sensible his remark is that every art imparts a certain self-confidence and instills courage in the human being, he still seems to have had no sense that, as a rule, even for he who has completely mastered his art, a certain uneasiness before a public performance is inherent and is founded in the nature of the human heart.


1.I, 4, 1 ἡ ὄρεξις ἀγαθῶν ἐστιν—IV, 1, 4 τίς θέλει ζῆν ὀρεγόμενος καὶ ἀποτυγχάνων, ἐκκλίνων καὶ περιπίπτων; οὐδείς.

2.II, 6, 3 etc. “do not be vexed if others have more in those things—let whoever devotes himself to that thing take precedence in it, but you let yourself suffice for your inner happiness!” IV, 6, 25 τί εὐλογώτερον ἢ τοὺς περί τι ἐσπουδακότας ἐν ἐκείνῳ πλέον ἔχειν ἐν ᾧ ἐσπουδάκασι.

3.I, 10, 1: “if we were to pursue our concern (the development of the soul) with as purposeful an energy as the old men in Rome pursued theirs, we would no doubt also achieve something.”

4.III, 17, 2: The ἄδικος has more, in money etc. Certainly, since he flatters, degrades himself, is sleepless from fear and worry and grudges no pains. Small wonder—so why do you vex yourself when, for what he gives for it, he receives something? Ench. 25: “it is unfair if you, without paying the price for it that that one pays, you nevertheless want the same thing.” IV, 10, 19 προῖκα οὐδὲν γίνεται. II, 1, 10 “to do something disgraceful gives us no second thoughts if only we attain the goal of our wishes (ἐν τοῖς ἀπροαιρέτοις εὐστοχῶμεν).”

5.At IV, 6, 31 etc. Epictetus describes especially drastically the unworthy doings of those who strive for nothing else than wealth and the like.

6.II, 11, 20 cf. Tusc. V, 40 quid enim deest ad beate vivendum ei, qui confidit suis bonis? aut qui diffidit beatus esse qui postet? at diffidat necesse est, qui bona dividit tripertito (i.e. whoever, with the Peripatetics and Antiochus, accepts other goods besides virtue). Qui enim poterit aut corporis firmitate aut fortunae stabilitate confidere? Atqui ←60 | 61→nisi stabili et fixo et permanente bono beatus esse nemo potest. Philo, quod det. pot. 37: οὐκ ἐπί τινι τῶν ἀβεβαίων χαίρειν ἔνεστι.

7.IV, 1, 46: what does everyone seek? εὐσταθῆσαι, εὐδαιμονῆσαι, πάντα ὡς θέλει ποιεῖν, μὴ κωλύεσθαι μηδ’ ἀναγκάζεσθαι. III, 24, 17 εὐδαιμονία and πόθος τῶν οὐ παρόντων are mutually exclusive, τὸ γὰρ εὐδαιμονοῦν ἀπέχειν δεῖ πάντα ἃ θέλει, πεπληρωμένῳ τινὶ ἐοικέναι οὐ δῖψος δεῖ προσεῖναι αὐτῷ οὐ λιμόν. II, 1, 23 “Freedom is the power to live as one wishes (cf. off. I, 70 libertas cujus proprium est sic vivere ut velis). But no one wants to live in sin, fear, distress, and uneasiness, so likewise no one is free who is not free from those things.” IV, 1, 2 etc.: no φαῦλος lives as he wishes.

8.ὄρεξις ἀναπότευκτος and ἔκκλισις ἀπερίπτωτος—these are the standing expressions (I, 1, 31. I, 19, 2. II, 8, 29. III, 12, 5). The goal of the human being is ὀρεγόμενον μὴ ἀποτυγχάνειν, ἐκκλίνοντα μὴ περιπίπτειν (II, 1, 34. IV, 4, 16) or ἐν ὀρέξει ἀναπότευκτον, ἐν ἐκκλίσει ἀπερίπτωτον εἶναι (I, 4, 11. II, 14, 8. II, 23, 42. IV, 1, 5) cf. IV, 6, 26 ὀρέγεσθαι ἀναποτεύκτως, ἐκκλίνειν ἀπεριπτώτως.—ὄρεξις ἀποτευκτική or ἀτελής and ἔκκλισις περιπτωτική (III, 6, 6. III, 22, 61 and 104. III, 26, 14 ἔκκλισις also has the epithet ἀποτευκτική. IV, 4, 35. IV, 5, 27. IV, 10, 4).

9.Ench. 14: “if you want your children to stay alive etc., then you are a fool, because you desire what is not in your power. But if you want ὀρεγόμενος μὴ ἀποτυγχάνειν, that you can do; therefore, practice what you can do.” III, 9, 22 give up the ὄρεξις (namely the ἀπροαίρετα)̇ μὴ πολλῶν ἐπιθύμει καὶ οἴσεις—cf. the saying of Jesus: but one thing is needful—II, 17, 23 donate your ὄρεξις to God, and you will not go wrong (you will be happy).

10.ἐφ’ ἡμῖν—in our power—is the δύναμις λογική (I, 1, 7—παρακολούθησις τῇ χρήσει τῶν φαντασιῶν I, 6, 14—δύναμις παρακολοθητικὴ καὶ ὁδῷ χρηστική, I, 16, 18—ὀρθὴ χρῆσις φαντασιῶν, II, 19, 32 and often), the προαίρεσις and all προαιρετικὰ ἔργα (I, 21, 10. Ench. 1). The προαίρεσις is ἀκώλυτος φύσει (I, 17, 21), not even God has reserved himself any power over it (I, 6, 40), not even Zeus can conquer it (I, 1, 23. III, 3, 10), how much less, then, could it be affected by a human being (I, 11, 37. III, 22, 105 λῃστὴς προαιρέσεως οὐ γίνεται); only it can change and cancel itself.

11.I, 12, 19 etc. The freedom is not ἀπόνοια or μανία. Just as in every art or science we submit ourselves to its rules and laws, that is we must learn the same ones, so too in the art of living must the will be learned first. Hence only the educated are truly free (II, 1, 25. III, 26, 35).

12.I, 4, 1 ὁ προκόπτων—τὴν ὄρεξιν ἦρκεν ἐξ αὑτοῦ εἰς ἅπαν καὶ ὑπερτίθεται, τῆ ἐκκλίσει δὲ πρὸς μόνα χρῆται τὰ προαιρετικά. Ench. 2, 2.

13.I, 25, 1 τὸ ἀγαθὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν προαιρέσει καὶ τὸ κακόν II, 1, 4. II, 2, 14 (cf. II, 16, 7). IV, 13, 13.

14.I, 6, 26 ἀλλὰ γίνεταί τινα ἀηδῆ καὶ χαλεπὰ ἐν τῷ βίῳ. Certainly! But not even in Olympia? etc. IV, 4, 30 οὐδεὶς ἀγὼν δίχα θορύβου γίνεται. III, 24, 34 (comparison of life with a fatiguing campaign). In fr. 94—cf. I, 9, 12 and I, 16, 1 etc.—he describes in a drastic way the trouble and nuisance which the care of the body and ←61 | 62→the satisfaction of its needs requires, but surely not in order to draw pessimistic consequences from it, like for example Ant. 8, 24, but only by means of this contrast in order to set the expediency of the organization of the world all the more into a clear light and to admire the nature, which the love of the body has implanted in us, in order to ease that λειτουργία and ὑπηρεσία for us.—IV, 1, 109 τὰ ἐναντία.

15.II, 5, 24 πῶς λέγεται τῶν ἐκτός τινα κατὰ φύσιν καὶ παρὰ φύσιν; ὥσπερ ἂν εἰ ἀπόλυτοι ἦμεν. cf. Cic. ac. I, 36 Zeno alia—namely of the adiaphorasecundum naturam dicebat, alia naturae esse contraria. The fact that Epictetus acknowledged this distinction is also apparent from Ench. 2. If here it is said: fear only τὰ παρὰ φύσιν τῶν ἐφ’ ἡμῶν, then therein lies the idea that there is contrary to nature and according to nature even among the οὐκ ἐφ’ ἡμῶν, that is among the aproaireta or adiaphora.

16.Epictetus admits, for example, that the ulcer is a κακόν for the body, so in this respect it is consequently abnormal and contrary to nature (I, 11, 7. Ench. 9), but it isn’t for the human being who, according to his essence, is mind. Even for the body, sickness is, by the way, contrary to nature only in that limited sense, that it is not προηγούμενον κατὰ φύσιν, but παρυφιστάμενον τῇ φύσει, cf. Simplicius’ exemplary explication of Ench. 26.

17.II, 10, 5. II, 6, 9.—The comparison of the two passages proves, said in passing, that when he speaks of a doctrine of the “philosophers,” Epictetus as a rule, no doubt without exception, has in mind the Stoics, that is, chiefly the older ones.

18.En. 43. I, 2, 2 only the ἄλογον is unbearable—blows are not ἀφόρητοι τῇ φύσει, as the Lacedaemonians prove who let themselves be whipped since they regard it as εὔλογον.—The term λαβή also occurs at II, 13, 23 μέχρις ἂν ἔχῃς ταύτην τὴν λαβὴν τοῦ σώματος, that is as long as one can get at you by your body, your will can be determined by way of bodily interests, you are not free, and IV, 1, 152 Diogenes was free because he had thrown off all handles of slavery.

19.I, 1, 8 etc. ἐπὶ γῆς γὰρ ὄντας καὶ σώματι συνδεδεμένους τοιούτῳ καὶ κοινωνοῖς τοιούτοις πῶς οἷόν τ’ ἦν εἰς ταῦτα ὑπὸ τῶν ἐκτὸς μὴ ἐμποδίζεσθαι; II, 5, 28 ἀδύνατον ἐν τοιούτῳ σώματι ἐν τούτῳ τῷ περιέχοντι τούτοις τοῖς συζῶσι μὴ συμπίπτειν ἄλλοις ἄλλα τοιαῦτα. Similarly III, 24, 29. IV, 1, 100 τὸ σῶμα τὸ πήλινον πῶς ἐδύνατο ἀκώλυτον ποιῆσαι; ὑπέταξεν οὖν τῇ τῶν ῞Ολων περιόδῳ τὴν κτῆσιν, τὰ σκεύη, τὴν οἰκίαν, τὰ τέκνα, τὴν γυναῖκα. IV, 11, 4 ἀμήχανον τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτῶν (of human beings) παντάπασιν εἶναι καθαρὰν ἐκ τοιαύτης ὕλης κεκραμένην.—I, 18, 6: do you have a headache? Well, if you had had horns, then you would sometimes have this pain.

20.En. 26, I, 1, 18: “but that I alone should suffer death!” How? Do you wish that all would be killed in order that you have a comfort? II, 5, 27 νῦν οὖν ἐμέ κρίνεσθαι; νῦν οὖν ἄλλον πυρέσσειν; ἄλλον πλεῖν; ἄλλον ἀποθνήσκειν; ἄλλον κατακεκρίσθαι; that is the one is as natural as the other. I, 12, 24 σκέλος οὖν μοι γενέσθαι πεπηρωμέν ον;—ἀνδράποδον εἶτα δι’ ἓν σκελύδριον τῷ κόσμῳ ἐγκαλεῖς—οὐ χαίρων παραχωρήσεις τῷ δεδωκότι.

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21.The Stoic belief in providence rules out any doubt about the expediency of existing. Therefore, the human being is also part of the perfection of the whole; God needs just such a world and such beings walking on the earth, I, 29, 29. Human beings together with the Gods form a πόλις, II, 5, 26, the highest σύστημα, I, 9, 4.

22.Ench. 8 θέλε γίνεσθαι τὰ γινόμενα ὡς γίνεται. I, 12, 17: οὕτως ἐχόντων τῶν περὶ ἡμᾶς ὡς ἔχει καὶ πέφυκεν αὐτοὶ τὴν γνώμην τὴν ἑαυτῶν συνηρμοσμένην τοῖς γινομένοις ἔχωμεν. I, 29, 39 ἄλλαξόν μοι τὴν ὑπόθεσιν. II, 17, 21 τὰ πράγματα μετατιθέναι καὶ μεθαρμόζειν. II, 14, 7 βούλησιν συναρμόσαι τοῖς γινομένοις. II, 23, 42 τῇ τοῦ Διὸς διοικήσει. III, 10, 6 παρασκευάσασθαι πρὸς τὸ πρᾴως φέρειν τὰ συμβαίνοντα. IV, 1, 89 and repeatedly θεῷ προσκατατάττειν τὴν ὁρμήν, θεῷ συνθέλειν, συνορέγεσθαι, ὁμογνωμονεῖν, σύμψηφον γενέσθαι (fr. 169). fr. 136. Everything obeys the cosmos, therefore our κρίσις should not oppose it.—III, 10, 18 οὐ δεῖ προηγεῖσθαι τῶν πραγμάτων ἀλλ’ ἐπακολουθεῖν.

23.I, 6, 28. II, 26, 14. IV, 1, 109. Ench. 10. III, 8, 6. I, 12, 31 evils are only τὰ κατάλληλα τῇ δυνάμει ἣν ἔχομεν. cf. I. Corinth. 10, 13 θεὸς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε.—In view of such passages it cannot be asserted (Zeller, III, 1, 751) that in Epictetus resignation has turned into inactive suffering.

24.IV, 4, 30. III, 10, 8. ibid. 11 τί κωλύει πυρέσσοντα κατὰ φύσιν ἔχειν τὸ ἡγεμονικόν; ἐνθάδ’ ὁ ἔλεγχος τοῦ πράγματος, ἡ δοκιμασία τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος.

25.I, 29, 49: is this the witness you want to bear and to disgrace your calling, which God has given to you, by bestowing this honor on you and regarding you as worthy to bear witness for him!

26.I, 6, 36: The πόνοι were suitable for showing and exercising Heracles. III, 24, 113 see above III, 20, 9 etc. The insulter merely exercises my patience. III, 22, 57 The Cynic is ὑπὸ τοῦ Διὸς ἀθλούμενος καὶ γυμναζόμενος.

27.I, 6, 37 φέρε νῦν ὦ Ζεῦ ἣν θέλεις περίστασιν. I, 30, 7: “So was that the whole thing?” a real student of philosophy should say who has been through a περίστασις, “I have prepared myself for something much greater.” II, 16, 42 Looking up, dare to say to God: “use me henceforth for what you wish, I am at one with you, I am yours! Lead me where you wish, put any garment on me which you wish; should I hold an office or not, remain in the country or be exiled, be poor or rich? I will, in all things, defend you before people” (cf. Rom. 8 and Phil. 4, 13).

28.Cf. in the New Testament Rom. 5, 3 καυχώμεθα ἐν ταῖς θλίψεσιν. 1. Peter 4, 13. James 1, 2 πᾶσαν χαρὰν ἡγήσασθε ὅταν πειρασμοῖς περιπέσητε ποικίλοις.—But whereas the gospel and James call the poor people blessed, Seneca says (ep. 5, 6): infirmi animi est non pati posse divitias. Cf. by the way Letter to the Philippians 4, 12.—Seneca justifies poverty in a purely human way when he argues that the poor are actually more fortunate than the rich because, with their fewer and simpler interests, they also know fewer worries and considerations, and for that reason laugh more often and more heartily than the rich (ad Helv. 12, 1. ep. 80, 6).

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29.How Epictetus judges the aphobia and readiness to die of the Christians is gathered from IV, 7, 6: εἶτα ὑπὸ μανίας μὲν δύναταί τις οὕτω διατεθῆναι πρὸς ταῦτα καὶ ὑπὸ ἔθους οἱ Γαλιλαῖοι̇ ὑπὸ λόγου δὲ καὶ ἀποδείξεως no one should be able to be so fearless!

30.III, 22, 69 τοιαύτης δ’ οὔσης καταστάσεως, οἵα νῦν ἐστιν, ὡς ἐν παρατάξει.

31.II, 9, 2 the human being is a ζῷον λογικὸν θνητόν. III, 1, 25 you are a human being, that is θνητὸν ζῷον χρηστικὸν φαντασίαις λογικῶς.

32.II, 1, 17 τὸ σωμάτιον δεῖ χωρισθῆναι τοῦ πνευματίου—ἢ νῦν ἢ ὕστερον τί οὖν ἀγανακτεῖς εἰ νῦν; εἰ γὰρ μὴ νῦν, ὕστερον.—II, 6, 18 τί σοι μέλει ποίᾳ ὁδῷ καταβῇς εἰς ᾅδου; ἴσαι πᾶσαί εἰσιν. III, 26, 4 οὐχὶ καὶ ἡ αὐτή που κάθοδος; τὰ κάτω τὰ αὐτά; III, 22, 33. II, 5, 14.

33.III, 10, 12 ἀλλὰ ὁ κόσμος μέλλει ἀνατρέπεσθαι σοῦ ἀποθανόντος; II, 1, 17 What is death? A μορμολύκειον: turn it around and you see that it does not bite. IV, 7, 25 What do you say? Die? μὴ τραγῴδει τὸ πρᾶγμα etc.

34.I am not permitted to make a detour here to repeat details which have already been explained in Volume I; the difference in the manner of consideration here and there will not escape the reader.

35.II, 8, 28 Can I be ἀθάνατος? No, but ἀποθνήσκειν θείως—that I do have, that I can do.

36.IV, 1, 104 the earthly life is a συνεορτάζειν and συμπομπεύειν τῷ θεῷ. III, 21, 19 Diogenes had the βασιλικὴ καὶ ἐπιπληκτικὴ χώρα within. III, 22, 75 and repeatedly ἡ βασίλεια τοῦ κυνικοῦ, and III, 22, 95 the Cynic is outright called a μετέχων τῆς ἀρχῆς τοῦ Διὸς.

37.III, 12, 6 ὅπου ὁ πολὺς ὄλισθος τῶν φαντασιῶν ἐκεῖ ἀντιτιθέναι τὸ ἀσκητικόν.

38.IV, 7, 15 τὴν ὕλην ἐξ ὧν συνῆλθεν εἰς ἐκεῖνα πάλιν ἀναλυθῆναι. III, 13, 14 εἰς οὐδὲν δεινόν̇ ἀλλ’ ὅθεν ἐγένου, εἰς τὰ φίλα καὶ συγγενῆ, εἰς τὰ στοιχεῖα̇ ὅσον ἦν ἐν σοὶ πυρὸς εἰς πῦρ ἄπεισι etc., there is no Hades, no Acheron, Kokytos and Pyriphlegethon, everything is full of Gods and daimons.—It is not easy to ascertain whether Epictetus also counted the mind of the human being among the ὕλη which dissolves into its elements. The wording of the latter passage certainly speaks for it, because otherwise he would have had to mention in addition to the four στοιχεῖα the mind as well, which then would naturally return to the Gods. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the materialistic pantheism of the Stoa, it ultimately comes down to the same thing, because the soul does have, as is generally known, the nature of fire, more precisely the nature of fire and air, and the Gods too are nothing other than beings of the finest πῦρ and πνεῦμα. The chief question, namely, whether the soul which returned to its kindred elements has consciousness, won’t be answered from these anthropological statements, but only from the ethical conceptions.

39.IV, 5, 28 ἀποστάντες τῶν θνητῶν καὶ δούλων τὰ ἀθάνατα καὶ φύσει ἐλεύθερα ἐκπονεῖν.

40.Sen. ep. 77, 19 “sed ego vivere volo, qui multa honeste facio. invitus relinquo officia vitae, quibus fideliter ed industrie fungor.” Quid? tu nescis unum esse ex vitae officiis et mori? nullum officium relinquis. non enim certus numerus, quem debeas explere, finitur.


XLVI, 336
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (April)
slave freedom school
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XLVI, 336 pp.

Biographical notes

William O. Stephens (Author)

William O. Stephens is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Creighton University. His books include Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (2012), Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom (2007), and The Person: Readings in Human Nature (2006).


Title: The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus