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The Significance of Epictetus

Epictetus himself, in imitation of Socrates, never wrote a word. The reason we have his thoughts is that his student, Arrian, took copious notes during his lectures and during sessions after class. These "class notes" are admittedly unstructured and far ranging. Yet they retain a focus on ethics and, more pointedly, on understanding human action.

Epictetus understood the philosophy of Stoicism almost as a code of conduct. The final compilation of his work, "Enchiridion" actually means "Manual". Indeed, the instructions in his "Discourses" spell out in plain terms, with copious examples how a person should live his or her life. Epictetus proceeds from the premise that we are all children of God, and as such were endowed with attributes of the mind that enable us to make choices. Should we choose to accept the responsibility of our position in the universe, we are on the road to living a moral existence.

Noting that we are part body and part mind (or spirit), Epictetus tells us that the body often leads us astray and that we must practice self-discipline. A philosophy that emphasized the spirit over the body ultimately appealed to early Christians. Interestingly enough, even though it is unlikely Epictetus never met the Apostle Paul, there are considerable parallels in their teachings. He is mentioned by Origen as having done more good than Plato. Blaise Pascal called "Discourses" one of his two favorite books. Augustine even mentions Epictetus favorably in Chapter 5 of his "City of God".

What these scholars saw in Epictetus was an emphasis on the practical side of Stoicism. This is also what made Epictetus so popular throughout the centuries. He influenced the famous Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Almost any complete education up until recent times included some familiarity with his work. Most collections of great literature include the "Discourses".

Even in Modern times Epictetus has wielded considerable influence. Tom Wolfe, in his Novel, "A Man in Full" speculates on how a man wholly embracing Epictetus might act in a world full of politics, prisons, high-stakes finance and social liberalism. Wolfe shows him as triumphing over adversity, and even when failing at some things being ultimately happy with his own existence.

This is what Epictetus is really all about, learning to live, learning to cope with adversity, learning to be a responsible human being. And unlike many philosophers, he is not enigmatic about how to go about it. He spells it out plainly and pithily. No wonder his writings survived the dark ages to ring down the centuries even to our own time.

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