Historical Context for Handbook by Epictetus
Epictetus was a stoic philosopher. The Stoa’s school was originally founded by Zeno of Citium (334 BCE. – 262 BCE; and not Zeno of Elea, the philosopher responsible for some stunning paradoxes) in Athens around 300 BCE. The stoic philosophers were dedicated to (what they considered as the) three branches of philosophy—the study of nature (or physics), logic, and ethics. Heavily influenced by the figure of Socrates, the old Stoics saw themselves as his followers, as did their rival school, the Academic skeptics. While Epictetus’ teachings are in accordance with the Stoics who preceded him, such as Chrysippus, his primary concern is with elaborating Stoic ethics, with acquiring wisdom in order to live a good life, rather than the study of nature or logic. He speaks of nature as that with which the wise Stoic lives in accordance, for nature is part of the divine whole. Indeed, the Stoics believed that the universe was one divine being—God or Zeus—of which every thing in the universe is a part. Thus, human beings as parts of the divine whole must learn to understand the universe (God or sometimes ‘nature’) in order to see their place within it properly: it is only then that one is in a position to live a life free from fear, false beliefs, and anxiety.
Like the Epicureans, the Stoics alike believed that it was only with a proper understanding of the nature of the universe that one could live a good life. The stoic conception of the good life continued to find popularity in the Roman Empire through Epictetus and later through the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who was a great admirer of Epictetus.
Written by Yoshi Nakazawa, Program in Philosophy & Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Adapted from Graver, Margaret (2008), “Epictetus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epictetus/