The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus

An English Translation, Revised Edition

by William O. Stephens (Author)
Monographs XLVI, 336 Pages
Series: Revisioning Philosophy , Volume 2

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • C. Ritter’s Biography of A. Bonhöffer
  • An Overview of Scholarship on Epictetus 2000−2020
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Select Abbreviations
  • Bonhöffer’s Foreword
  • Bonhöffer’s Table of Contents
  • PART I. Basis and End of Virtue
  • 1st Section. The Foundation of Moral Obligation
  • 2nd Section. The Highest Good or the End (Telos)
  • PART II. The Content of Virtue
  • 1st Section. Desire According to Nature or the Rational Outlook on Life
  • 2nd Section. Action According to Nature or the Correct Fulfillment of Duty
  • 3rd Section. Judgment According to Nature (Intellectual Development of the Mind)
  • PART III. The Acquisition of Virtue
  • rd Section. Judgment According to Nature (Intellectual Development of the Mind)
  • 2nd Section. Sin
  • 3rd Section. Moral Progress and Perfection
  • Concluding Consideration
  • Appendix
  • Excursus I. The Stoic Telos Formulae
  • Excursus II. The Stoic Doctrine of Suicide
  • Excursus III. The καθῆκον and κατόρθωμα
  • Excursus IV. The Views of the Stoics on Acquisition
  • Excursus V. Stoic Pantheism
  • Greek Subject Index
  • Index of Names
  • List of Authors Cited

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.

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