A Brief Outline of Epictetus’ Teachings

A Brief Outline of Epictetus’ Teachings According to W.A. Oldfather (1925)

(Passages cited are quotes from Introduction to the Loeb Classical Library Epictetus, vol. 1.)

  • Every man bears the exclusive responsibility himself for his own good or evil.
  • Therefore, good and evil can be only those things which depend entirely upon our moral purpose, what we generally call, but from the Stoic’s point of view a little inaccurately, our free will.
  • [Good and evil] cannot consist in any of those things which others can do either to us or for us.
  • Man’s highest good lies in the reason, which distinguishes him from other animals.
  • This reason shows itself in assent or dissent, in desire or aversion, and in choice or refusal…
  • …which in turn are based upon an external impression, φαντασία [phantasia]…a ‘constant’ beyond our power to alter.
  • But we remain free in our attitude towards them.
  • The use which we make of the external impressions is our one chief concern, and upon the right kind of use depends exclusively our happiness.
  • Here our concern is to assent to the true impression, reject the false, and suspend judgement regarding the uncertain.
  • This is an act of the moral purpose, or free will.
  • We should never forget this responsibility and never assent to an external impression without this preliminary testing.
  • Corresponding to assent or dissent in the realm of the intellectual are desire or aversion in the realm of good and evil, which is the most important thing for man, since from failing to attain one’s desire, and from encountering what one would avoid, come all the passions and sorrows of mankind.
  • In every desire or aversion there is implicit a value-judgement concerning the good or evil of the particular thing involved, and these in turn rest upon general judgements regarding things of value.
  • The correct judgement is, that nothing outside the realm of our moral purpose is either good or evil.
  • Nothing therefore of that kind can rightly be the object of desire or aversion, hence we should restrict the will to the field in which alone it is free, and cannot, therefore, come to grief.
  • Herein we need not merely the correct theoretical conviction, but also continual practice in application.
  • It is this which Epictetus attempts to impart to his pupils, for it is the foundation of his whole system of education.