Epictetus /

Edited by Albert Watanabe


Epictetus acknowledged three major influential teachers: Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, and Zeno of Citium (Diss. 3.21). Although he did not actually take classes with these philosophers, he learned from their writings (or writings about them) and their teaching styles. In the chapter of the Diss. just cited Epictetus maintains that, before they think about teaching, students must thoroughly digest philosophical principles and display them not just in their words but also in their actions. He even goes so far as to say that wisdom may not be enough for teaching; a divine calling may also be necessary. It was the Stoic god who advised Socrates to employ the elenchic style of refutation in teaching, Diogenes to undertake the “kingly and rebuking” role in his teaching, and Zeno the doctrinal role of dogmatic instruction. Let us look at each of these philosopher-teachers in turn.

The Stoics looked upon themselves as inheritors of the Socratic tradition. One sees this first in the elenchic form of argument so closely associated with Socrates, which proceeds by question and answer, often reducing the interlocutor to a state of aporia(“perplexity,” a state of realizing that she does not truly know). For Epictetus this line of argumentation appears most clearly in the fuller Diss., while in the Ench. the Socratic dialogue element is much reduced. A second way in which the Stoics see themselves as inheritors of the Socratic tradition is in maintaining that no one intentionally does wrong.  They follow Socrates in asserting that virtue is a form of knowledge and vice a form of ignorance, a mistaken view, which, if corrected in argument, will lead the person to virtue.  Finally, the Stoics also agree with Socrates in the drastic way in which they reduce the terms good and evil to internal moral states. As an example, see the last quotation in ch. 53, a modified version of  Plato’s Apology 30 C-D, in which Socrates states: “Anytus and Meletus (his accusers) are able to kill me, but not harm me.” Socrates and the Stoics did not regard external, physical harm as evil (see the exposition of Stoic ethics below).

Diognes of Sinope (c. 412/403 – c. 324/321 BCE) was the founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. Cynicism was more a way of life without an elaborate doctrinal system as found in the other philosophical schools. It took its starting point from the idea that one should live in accordance with nature. Here living according to nature was taken to mean a simple virtuous way of life that was not restrained by social and political conventions. Thus, a story comes down to us in which Diogenes walks around with a lantern during the day saying that he is looking for a good man.  In other stories, the Cynics do everything out in public, e.g., sleeping and having sex. These forms of “shameless” behavior ostensibly won the Cynics their name, associated with dogs (κύων). The Stoics were less radical than the Cynics. Thus, in Ench. 47, Epictetus discourages extreme forms of asceticism, for which the Cynics are famous, such as embracing statues in the winter months.  But, for Epictetus, Diogenes exemplified the Cynic ideal insofar as he was someone who had put his philosophical principles into practice. In Diss. 3.22. Epictetus discourages just any one from following the Cynic way of life; he believes that only those who have received a divine call can practice this way of life in which one must live in the open showing that he/she is completely virtuous and has nothing to hide.  In this respect, Epictetus regarded Diogenes as “kingly and rebuking,” insofar as the one who has “ruled” or conquered his passions was the only one fit to rule and rebuke others.

Zeno of Citium (335–263 BCE) founded the Stoic school in Athens and supplied the doctrinal basis on which later Stoic philosophers, including Epictetus, built. Cleanthes (331–232 BCE) and Chrysippus (280–207 BCE) succeeded him in the leadership of the Stoic school. Chrysippus is often regarded as the second founder of the school, insofar as he established the logical and doctrinal arguments for later Stoicism. Epictetus refers to these three Stoics most often. Unfortunately, the writings of these early Stoics do not survive complete. But “fragments” of their writings are handed down to us through the references and quotations of later writers. For example, Cleanthes’ poem to Zeus and Fate is preserved in ch. 53 of the Ench. Many of the fragments of the Stoic philosophers can be found in A.A. Long and D. Sedley’s authoritative two-volume book Hellenistic Philosophers (1987), which is hereafter cited by the abbreviation L-S, with references to volume and section number.

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Suggested Citation: 

Albert Watanabe, Epictetus: Encheiridion. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-947822-13-9