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The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus

An English Translation, Revised Edition


William O. Stephens

This text remains the only English translation of Bonhöffer’s classic, definitive examination of Epictetus’s ethics. Thorough, knowledgeable, perceptive, and accessible, the unity of this book and its thematic presentation make it an invaluable resource for both scholars and general readers eager to apply Stoic thinking in their daily lives. The translation is crisp, clear, consistent, and very readable. Careful attention to the details and nuances of the German as well as the Greek of Epictetus make this an excellent achievement. This new edition includes a useful biography of Bonhöffer, a new overview of the last twenty years of scholarship on Epictetus, and an extensive bibliography. It is essential reading for students taking courses on ancient Hellenistic or Roman philosophy, their instructors, and any non-academics who want to learn Stoicism.

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1st Section. Desire According to Nature or the Rational Outlook on Life

Desire According to Nature or the Rational Outlook on Life


[18] First Section

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...

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