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Biography of Epictetus

Born a slave about 50 A.D. in Heirapolis, Epictetus would become one of the most influential philosophers of the classical period. Epaphroditus (a freedman of the Emperor Nero), was his master. Epaphroditus sent Epictetus to study philosophy under the then famous, C. Musonius Rufus. Rufus was a Stoic Philosopher of great renown and passed his knowledge of its systems on to Epictetus.

Epictetus soaked it all in, but he was primarily interested in the ethical implications of Stoicism. Sometime after Nero died, in 68, Epictetus was given his freedom. He was reputed to be lame. There is an apocryphal story that Epictetus lived so much in the world of ideas that when his master twisted his leg while angry with him for some infraction, Epictetus merely looked on with detachment and stated the obvious: that if Epaphroditus continues to twist he would break his leg. When his leg finally broke, Epictetus said, "See, I told you it would break."

It is unlikely that this incident actually occurred. Epaphroditus was obviously a very moral man, providing his slave both an education and ultimately, freedom. Yet it does point up some of the thrust of the philosophy of Epictetus which emphasizes the separation between the body and the Spirit.

Epictetus liked to model his behavior on that of Socrates. He lived a very ascetic life though not quite as austere as the earlier cynics. He was not shy about speaking out. He managed to anger the Emperor Domitian. In fact Domitian exiled all philosophers from Rome partly due to their tendency to be honest even with the great Caesar. Epictetus spent his exile in Nicopolis, Epirus where he lived in a house with only a rush mat, a pallet to sleep upon and an earthenware lamp (his iron lamp had been stolen).

It was in Nicopolis that he founded his influential school, which was attended by many of the children Roman elite. Though his fame spread, he continued to live simply. Late in life he decided to marry. He did so in order to save the child of a friend who intended to exercise his right as a father to "expose" the child (leave it out in the market square to die). With his wife he took on the responsibility of raising the child.

The actual date of the death of Epictetus is in some dispute, but it is thought to be between 120 and 130 A.D. It is somehow appropriate that the manner of his death has not been recorded. His work lives on after him in the form of his "Discourses" and "Enchiridion" (or "Manual").

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