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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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2nd Section. Sin



[133] Second Section

But then how does Epictetus and the Stoa generally know how to explain sin and its origin? Epictetus acknowledges without reservation the universal propagation and supremacy of sin. The majority of human beings tend towards the part of their essence related to animals; only a few live the higher, divine part, the mind (I, 3, 3. II, 9, 5). If God wanted to punish all human beings, then he would have to annihilate almost the whole human race (III, 4, 7). Like [134] Seneca Epictetus complains about the universal corruption of morals: “Where is faithfulness to be found in our time? Show me someone who strives only for what is truly good, but is not concerned about other things” (IV, 13, 24). Yet these complaints are found by far more frequently in Seneca than in Epictetus, in whom the optimistic interpretation of the world throughout predominates, whereas the former, often more than the Stoa allows, gives himself over to pessimistic considerations.1

Of course were we to take the words spoken in the zeal of parainesis literally and draw the consequence from it strictly logically, then even according to Epictetus humankind would be totally wicked and corrupt. Just as the Stoics drew a deep trench between the wise and unwise and ascribed everything good to the former, everything bad to the latter, so too does Epictetus stress often enough the absolute contrast between the morally educated (πεπαιδευμένοι) and the uneducated (ἰδιῶται). The sharp either-or, either flesh...

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