66 - You Can Chain My Leg: Epictetus

The greatest of the Roman Stoics is Epictetus, arguably the first thinker to discuss the nature of human will, and author of some of the most powerful and demanding ethical writings in history.

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Further Reading: 

A good translation of Epictetus is C. Gill and R. Hard (eds), The Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus (London: 1995).

• A. Dihle, The Theory of the Will in Classical Antiquity (Berkeley: 1982).

• C. Kahn, “Discovering the Will: from Aristotle to Augustine,” in J.M. Dillon and A.A. Long (eds), The Question of Eclecticism (Berkeley: 1988), 234-59.

• A.A. Long, Epictetus: a Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford: 2002).

• T. Scaltsas and A.S. Mason (eds), The Philosophy of Epictetus (Oxford: 2007).

• W.O. Stephens, “Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14 (1996), 193–210.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Epictetus

Jill's picture


Dear Peter

Just discovered your very interesting series and wondered since I am doing a PhD in Late Antique Paganism when you expected to start touching on Plotinus and his followers.


Peter Adamson's picture


Hi Jill,

Plotinus will be starting in episode 88 and I plan to devote 4 episodes to him including an interview. But if you like him you will probably also like the episodes on "middle Platonism" which will be numbers 78-81.

Between now and then there will be a couple more on Roman Stoics, then ancient skepticism, medicine and philosophy, and a general introduction to philosophy in the Roman empire. 

Thanks for listening!


Jill's picture

Hi Peter I will look forward

Hi Peter

I will look forward to Plotinus et al of his ilk and also the Middle Platonists!



Marissa's picture

Free will for Epictetis

As the local Unreconstructed Incompatibilist, I have to ask if Epictetus agreed with the classic Stoic position about all decisions being predetermined and unchangeable?  If so, was he not aware of a hint of irony, in making our ability to chose the highest good?  I pricked up my ears when you described the character who realised that the whole of his life up to then did NOT determine his next move - but then that was Satre, not Epictetus.

I also have a question about this idea of most-everything - like health and wealth and beauty - having "no value" in themselves.  I gather, for the Stoics, what this actually means is: "The wise man trains himself to hold these things as valueless, so that he will not be disturbed if he loses them".  Is that right?  Bc, if so, I don't see why the wise man should not, instead, train himself to appreciate the value of such things, while also holding himself ready to live without them.  I mean, it's good to have a nourishing meal today, even if (especially if?) you're likely to go hungry tomorrow.  

I wondered if the "all things are valueless" axiom maybe had some resemblance to the Buddhist idea of all things being illusions?  Not that I'm thinking the Stoics were aware of the Buddhists (I'm not even sure of the relative chronology).  But I wondered if the central insistence on things being valueless, has to do with some understanding of the physical universe as not-as-real as the psychic universe (if you understand what I mean).


Peter Adamson's picture

Freedom again, and value

Hi Marissa,

The question about Epictetus is a difficult and much-discussed one. Basically he doesn't get into any discussion about whether our will (prohairesis) is causally determined by god, but the usual assumption is that he would have followed previous Stoics and their compatibilist line, given that he does talk about god's providentially bringing about all things.

Your point about the Stoics and value is a good one, but maybe the Stoics have already made the move you want them to. I think what you're suggesting is that we could value something without saying that our happiness depends on it -- thus I appreciate them while being ready to lose them, as you say. But that's just what the Stoics mean by a "preferred indifferent," I would say. The "preferred" part indicates that there is some sort of value here. (This is what was being discussed on the blog regarding G. Karamanolis' paper, here.) The question is whether they can tell a coherent story about what that lesser kind of value is; one thing I'm sure they would say is that this value depends on circumstances, e.g. health is preferred all else being equal, but sometimes all else is not equal and I might give up my health to do something virtuous. By contrast virtue is valuable "in itself" in the sense that its value is indefeasible.



urban's picture

Chronology of Buddhism with Stoicism

Coming in very late here. Marissa suggested a Buddhist link in denying that she intended one, but it's not absurd. Indian Buddhist king Ashoka the Great (304-232 BCE) is said to have sent missionaries to the West, well into the Greek speaking world in the generation before Zeno. I'm not up on the scholarship, but chronology alone doesn't exclude the possibility that exposure to Buddhist ideas was prevalent in the philosophical world of the early Stoics.

Your thoughts on that, Peter?

Peter Adamson's picture

Buddhism and Stoicism

Better late than never! To be honest my knowledge of Buddhism is minimal enough that I would be cautious about expressing a strong view on this. But for what it's worth:

(a) The scholarship I have read on connections between Indian and ancient Greek philosophy has never persuaded me that there is good evidence for historical influence (I'm more familiar with attempts to show it for Neoplatonism, which is of course later so in theory even more possible). Rather what you tend to get is impressionistic observations of intellectual parallels which don't really hold up once you get into the details. A lot of people would quite like there to be influence of Indian thought on Greek philosophy -- it would be exciting after all -- so the fact that no one as far as I know has turned up really good evidence strikes me as significant.

(b) Early Stoicism makes an awful lot of sense as a response to its immediate Greek context, especially as a reaction against atomism and engagement with Plato's Timaeus. So I'm not sure there is much for additional influence from Buddhism to explain. Furthermore I think the really striking parallels are probably more to Roman Stoicism which comes later, but again Roman Stoicism seems to grow organically out of the Hellenistic tradition, as I explained in these episodes.

Thus, while admitting my lack of expertise regarding the Indian tradition I would be cautiously skeptical, but I would be totally open to being convinced otherwise. I actually hope someday to circle back in these podcasts to Indian and maybe Chinese philosophy, so maybe I can revisit the question with more information in my brain, if and when I manage to do that. So far I have been discouraged from doing this by the desire to press on to my main area which is medieval Islamic philosophy, plus my almost total ignorance which makes it seem rather daunting!



Chike's picture

When you might do Eastern philosophy

Given the relevance of this reply to my question on the general comments board, I'm happy to have read it. So is the idea that you might finish off the tripartite medieval section and then go back at that point to the ancient world for Indian and Chinese philosophy?

Michael Gebauer's picture


Hi Peter,
your're the best to ask about this on behalf of our students (if I may):
Coming from a seminar where we discussed with them Tom Nagel's essay ‘The Absurd’ from his Mortal Questions, as well as the final chapter of his View from Nowhere on ‘The Meaning of Life’ etc., I wondered what classical and/or medieval sources there might have been for all this "Sinn des Lebens" business. What would come to mind, as far as you're concerned? (& which postcasts might we perhaps re-listen to? probably Hellenistic ones?)

This murky + curious topic is of course seldom taken up in contemporary analytical philosophy, though Moritz Schlick comes to my mind as one who has written about it, and there are remarks by Wittgenstein. And of course there are all those existentialists, foremost Camus (who inspired Nagel).

So what would come to your mind, from among the philosophers you have discussed so far or from later periods?

All the best for your new start into the Western medieval tradition,


Peter Adamson's picture

Sinn des Lebens

Hi Michael,

Well, you've put your comment on the right page since Epictetus is among the most important ancient thinkers for this question. In general I'd say that the usual story that ancient philosophy was more focused on "how to live" than current philosophy, is that rare thing: a cliche that is pretty much true. So if you revisit the episodes and sources on Hellenistic ethics that would definitely speak to the issue. Also, I would highlight the Christian ascetic movement as a major contribution here, and one that is still indirectly very influential today.

What we don't find until relatively recently, I would say, is the worry that life might in fact have no meaning at all - that we are just here by chance or whatever. (Even the Epicureans, who did think everything was the result of chance, didn't get anxious about this, or indeed about anything else.) For that you probably need the rise of modern physics.



Michael Gebauer's picture


Thanks, Peter

that sounds re-assuring, and we'll surely have many a second & third (etc.) look (& listening) in the areas you mentioned. -- After all, it'll take a while until you get to our notorious latter-day existentialists. -- So let's recommend Epictetus first to our students, as well as your earlier podcasts, of course. Maybe you'll come up with some unexpected others in the future.