Very little is known of the life of Epictetus. It is said that he was a native of Hierapolis in Phrygia, a town between the Maeander and a branch of the Maeander named the Lycus. Hierapolis is mentioned in the epistle of Paul to the people of Colossae (Coloss. iv., 13); from which it has been concluded that there was a Christian church in Hierapolis in the time of the apostle. The date of the birth of Epictetus is unknown. The only recorded fact of his early life is that he was a slave in Rome, and his master was Epaphroditus, a profligate freedman of the Emperor Nero. There is a story that the master broke his slave's leg by torturing him; but it is better to trust to the evidence of Simplicius, the commentator on the Encheiridion, or Manual, who says that Epictetus was weak in body and lame from an early age. It is not said how he became a slave; but it has been asserted in modern times that the parents sold the child. I have not, however, found any authority for this statement.
It may be supposed that the young slave showed intelligence, for his master sent or permitted him to attend the lectures of C. Musonius Rufus, an eminent Stoic philosopher. It may seem strange that such a master should have wished to have his slave made into a philosopher; but Garnier, the author of a "Mémoire sur les Ouvrages d'Epictète," explains this matter very well in a communication to Schweighaeuser. Garnier says: "Epictetus, born at Hierapolis of Phrygia of poor parents, was indebted apparently for the advantages of a good education to the whim, which was common at the end of the Republic and under the first emperors, among the great of Rome to reckon among their numerous slaves grammarians, poets, rhetoricians, and philosophers, in the same way as rich financiers in these later ages have been led to form at a great cost rich and numerous libraries. This supposition is the only one which can explain to us how a wretched child, born as poor as Irus, had received a good education, and how a rigid Stoic was the slave of Epaphroditus, one of the officers of the imperial guard. For we cannot suspect that it was through predilection for the Stoic doctrine, and for his own use, that the confidant and the minister of the debaucheries of Nero would have desired to possess such a slave."
Some writers assume that Epictetus was manumitted by his master, but I can find no evidence for this statement. Epaphroditus accompanied Nero when he fled from Rome before his enemies, and he aided the miserable tyrant in killing himself. Domitian (Sueton., Domit. 14), afterwards put Epaphroditus to death for this service to Nero. We may conclude that Epictetus in some way obtained his freedom, and that he began to teach at Rome; but after the expulsion of the philosophers from Rome by Domitian, A.D. 89, he retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, a city built by Augustus to commemorate the victory at Actium. Epictetus opened a school or lecture room at Nicopolis, where he taught till he was an old man. The time of his death is unknown. Epictetus was never married, as we learn from Lucian (Demonax, c. 55, torn, ii., ed. Hemsterh., p. 393). When Epictetus was finding fault with Demonax, and advising him to take a wife and beget children, for this also, as Epictetus said, was a philosopher's duty, to leave in place of himself another in the universe, Demonax refuted the doctrine by answering: Give me then, Epictetus, one of your own daughters. Simplicius says (Comment., c. 46, p. 432, ed. Schweigh.) that Epictetus lived alone a long time. At last he took a woman into his house as a nurse for a child, which one of Epictetus' friends was going to expose on account of his poverty, but Epictetus took the child and brought it up.
Epictetus wrote nothing; and all that we have under his name was written
Photius (Biblioth., 58) mentions among Arrian's works "Conversations with Epictetus," [Greek: Homiliai Epichtaeton], in twelve books. Upton thinks that this work is only another name for the Discourses, and that Photius has made the mistake of taking the Conversations to be a different work from the Discourses. Yet Photius has enumerated eight books of the Discourses and twelve books of the Conversations. Schweighaeuser observes that Photius had not seen these works of Arrian on Epictetus, for so he concludes from the brief notice of these works by Photius. The fact is that Photius does not say that he had read these books, as he generally does when he is speaking of the books which he enumerates in his Bibliotheca. The conclusion is that we are not certain that there was a work of Arrian entitled "The Conversations of Epictetus."
Upton remarks in a note on iii., 23 (p. 184, Trans.), that "there are many passages in these dissertations which are ambiguous or rather confused on account of the small questions, and because the matter is not expanded by oratorical copiousness, not to mention other causes." The discourses of Epictetus, it is supposed, were spoken extempore, and so one thing after another would come into the thoughts of the speaker (Wolf). Schweighaeuser also observes in a note (ii., 336 of his edition) that the connection of the discourse is sometimes obscure through the omission of some words which are necessary to indicate the connection of the thoughts. The reader then will find that he cannot always understand Epictetus, if he does not read him very carefully, and some passages more than once. He must also think and reflect, or he will miss the meaning. I do not say that the book is worth all this trouble. Every man must judge for himself. But I should not have translated the book, if I had not thought it worth study; and I think that all books of this kind require careful reading, if they are worth reading at all.
OF THE THINGS WHICH ARE IN OUR POWER AND NOT IN OUR POWER.—Of all the faculties (except that which I shall soon mention), you will find not one which is capable of contemplating itself, and, consequently, not capable either of approving or disapproving. How far does the grammatic art possess the contemplating power? As far as forming a judgment about what is written and spoken. And how far music? As far as judging about melody. Does either of them then contemplate itself? By no means. But when you must write something to your friend, grammar will tell you what words you should write; but whether you should write or not, grammar will not tell you. And so it is with music as to musical sounds; but whether you should sing at the present time and play on the lute, or do neither, music will not tell you. What faculty then will tell you? That which contemplates both itself and all other things. And what is this faculty? The rational faculty; for this is the only faculty that we have received which examines itself, what it is, and what power it has, and what is the value of this gift, and examines all other faculties: for what else is there which tells us that golden things are beautiful, for they do not say so themselves? Evidently it is the faculty which is capable of judging of appearances. What else judges of music, grammar, and the other faculties, proves their uses, and points out the occasions for using them? Nothing else.
What then should a man have in readiness in such circumstances? What else than this? What is mine, and what is not mine; and what is permitted to me, and what is not permitted to me. I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment? Tell me the secret which you possess. I will not, for this is in my power. But I will put you in chains. Man, what are you talking about? Me, in chains? You may fetter my leg, but my will not even Zeus himself can overpower. I will throw you into prison. My poor body, you mean. I will cut your head off. When then have I told you that my head alone cannot be cut off? These are the things which philosophers should meditate on, which they should write daily, in which they should exercise themselves.