Epictetus on Happiness

If a man could only subscribe heart and soul… to this doctrine, that we are all primarily begotten of God, and that God is the father of men as well as gods, I think that he will entertain no mean thought about himself.—Epictetus, Discourses (I.3)

According to Aristotle, happiness is made up of “noble birth, numerous friends, good friends, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age; further, bodily excellences, such as health, beauty, strength, stature, fitness for athletic contests, a good reputation, honor, good luck, virtue.” In other words, the happy man must be self-sufficient, possessing “all internal and external goods.” This view is not without a certain realism. After all, we are physical creatures, not mere spirits “imprisoned in a body” as the Platonists would have it. One can see the dangers of extreme idealism. Yet, however sensible Aristotle’s view of the “good life” may be, there is something missing.

The great teacher of Plato, the hero of Greco-Roman philosophy, was Socrates. He was not particularly handsome, or particularly wealthy. Socrates spent his life married to a shrewish woman. Yet he rose above such things. Epictetus, the late Stoic thinker who embraces Socrates’ almost mystical view of philosophy, stands in contrast to Aristotle’s moderation. His oft-repeated belief is that man “has no quality more sovereign than moral choice, but keeps everything else subordinate to it, and his moral choice itself free from slavery and subjection.”

Epictetus represented a new level of thought. It did not supplant Aristotle (I’m a great fan of his Ethics) but, if we try to harmonize the two, it is clear that Stoicism added another layer that was transcendent. The resignation of Epictetus—a belief that goodness and happiness could be achieved even amid poverty—was no doubt colored by the fact that he was himself a cripple and a former slave. For Aristotle, of course, the idea of a happy slave would have seemed a contradiction in terms. Like most men of his epoch, the Athenian thinker accepted slavery as part of the natural order. By contrast, Stoicism introduced the notion of the “brotherhood of man.” It is not that it sought to eradicate differences, but it did see beyond them, realizing that superficial traits like wealth, good looks, fame, power or health did not always equal virtue or contentment.

Epictetus was highly regarded by later Christian thinkers for his natural piety. The divine power was more than an abstract concept to be calmly estimated and measured. Warning against immoral actions or thoughts, he says, “you are a being of primary importance: you are a fragment of God…. It is within yourself that you bear Him…” (II.8). For Epictetus, God is a living reality; hence, the passion and zeal that is his incentive for true philosophy.

Note: Penguin has just released a new volume of Epictetus which should make him accessible to even more readers. For the complete writings, see the unabridged Loeb edition.

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