Philosophy, Top Stories

The Wisdom of a Slave: A Defence of Stoicism

We all have desires. We feel frustrated when we don’t get what we want and pleased when we do. Is this the secret to a happy life during times of turmoil and frustration? Maximizing our pleasure by satisfying our desires? A former slave thought not. There is more to a good life than just the passive acceptance of pleasure.

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We don’t know his name, at least not the name given to him by his parents. Instead, we know him only as Epictetus, the name given to him by his owner, a word that is usually translated into English as acquired or owned. We also don’t know why he walked with a limp. According to Simplicius of Cilicia, a pagan philosopher, Epictetus (AD c.50–c.135) was born lame. According to the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria, his leg was deliberately twisted by his owner until it broke. What we do know is that Epictetus was among the most influential stoic philosophers of all time.

Born in the Greek outpost of Hierapolis in modern-day Turkey, Epictetus seems to have spent most of his early life in Rome as a slave to Epaphroditus, himself a former slave who earned his freedom and accumulated considerable wealth as a freedman. With the permission of Epaphroditus, Epictetus studied philosophy under Gaius Musonius Rufus, a leading member of what some historians have called the “stoic opposition” to Nero’s imperial administration.

Even so, Epaphroditus was offered—and chose to accept—an appointment as Nero’s secretary. It was in this role that he likely learned of a plot to kill the emperor. Such plots were not uncommon: Except for Augustus, none of the first eight Roman emperors are known to have died of natural causes. According to the historian Tacitus, Epaphroditus reported the plot to the emperor, the conspirators were arrested, and Epaphroditus became even richer and more powerful than he had been before.

In AD 68, four years after the fire that destroyed much of Rome, Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate. When the emperor realized escape was impossible, Epaphroditus helped him commit suicide. According to a (sometimes disputed) report by the historian Suetonius, it was this act of service that may have led to Epaphroditus’s own execution, many years later, on orders from the Emperor Domitian.

Whatever the circumstances of Epaphroditus’s downfall, Epictetus gained his freedom and began teaching philosophy. When Domitian banished all philosophers from the city in the year 93—the stoic philosophers, in particular, appear to have found Domitian’s reign of incompetence and terror just as deplorable as Nero’s—Epictetus moved his school to Nicopolis, on the west coast of modern-day Greece. He taught there until his death at the age of about 80. His school became so famous that even Hadrian, one of Domitian’s imperial successors, is reported to have visited Nicopolis to hear Epictetus speak.

As far as we know, none of Epictetus’s writings have survived. But some of his lectures were recorded by a student, Arrian of Nicomedia, and later handed down under the title Discourses of Epictetus. Among the wealth of advice Epictetus gave his students was the recommendation that they should avoid gossip, especially about common subjects such as gladiators, horse races, athletes, eating, and drinking. He also told his students that if someone speaks poorly about you, you shouldn’t try to defend yourself. Instead, reply that clearly the speaker “didn’t know the rest of my faults, for he would not have mentioned only these.” As for physical pleasure with women, “abstain as far as you can before marriage, but if you do indulge in it, do it in the way which is conformable to custom.”

Underlying all this advice was a carefully crafted theory about what makes a good life. At its core was the idea that most things—for example, our parents, our place of birth, the role in life offered to us, the actions and opinions of others, and even our reputations—are outside our control. But other things—our actions, our opinions, our appetites and aversions—are internal things we can control. Suffering, says Epictetus, comes from trying to control things beyond our power. Happiness comes from discovering the things that are within our power, and from bringing our desires about such things under the guidance of reason.

As Epictetus told his students, at a banquet it is those who are able to control their appetites who don’t mind waiting for the food to arrive. In a play, it is those who accept the parts assigned to them who turn out to be the best actors, not those who long for more important roles. In life, just as at a banquet or in the theatre, it is those who are able to master their fears who turn out to be the most effective and powerful leaders, just as it is those who are able to control their desires who turn out to be the most satisfied with life.

This view, called stoicism, turned out to be attractive, not only to former slaves such as Epictetus but also to a future emperor.

In the movie Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as the last and best of Rome’s five “good emperors.” This depiction may be true. According to the historian Herodian, “Alone among the emperors, he gave proof of his learning, not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”

Make no mistake: Marcus Aurelius still acted like an emperor. He expanded and solidified Rome’s borders, often through brutal military campaigns. But as far as historians can tell, he also took a special interest in selecting well-qualified city councillors to officiate in his many realms. He introduced special provisions to assist in the guardianship of orphans, and he played an active role in regularizing procedures for the emancipation of slaves.

We also still have his Meditations, a book likely written near the end of his life while he was on a series of military campaigns in what is now Germany. Originally entitled To Myself, the book is part diary and part advice manual. It contains a dozen meditations on topics such as duty, leadership, and conflict resolution, as well as on sources of personal inspiration. Famously, the emperor wrote that a good leader will care for “nothing more than the good and welfare of his subjects.” The book is said to have been a favorite of both Frederick the Great and Bill Clinton.

In Meditations, we learn that it was one of Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, Junius Rusticus, who gave him his copy of Epictetus’s memoirs, and it was this book that taught him that “nobody can rob another of his free will.” (It was also in this book that he read that we are each “a living soul, dragging a corpse around with us,” but it is the free-will part that matters for our current story.)

According to both Marcus and Epictetus, reason lets us discover what we can and can’t control, and it is by accepting events we can’t control, rather than wasting time and energy trying to change the impossible, that we are able to live a life worth living. It is by discovering what can and can’t be changed that we come to realize that it is only by exercising our own good judgment that we are able to avoid self-pity, self-indulgence, and other destructive urges. Only then can we focus on the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

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Over time, philosophers have suggested different theories about the connection between happiness and a good life. One is hedonism, the idea that since happiness comes from the satisfaction of desire, our goal in life should be to satisfy as many desires as possible. Another is asceticism, the view that happiness comes, not from the satisfaction of desire—which, given our unending list of desires, turns out to be impossible—but from the mortification of desire, something that religious fasting, self-flagellation, and vows of chastity have all had as their goal. A third is skepticism, the idea that any attempt to satisfy, control, or modify our many conflicting desires is nothing but a vain hope, and that, because of this, we are doomed to a life of frustration. Stoicism, by contrast, is less fatalistic and more empowering. It teaches that our desires can be modified through reason. On this view, it is only through reason that we can learn what is within our power and what isn’t. It is only through reason that we can learn which choices lead to happiness and which do not.

Hedonism (emphasizing the satisfaction of desire), asceticism (emphasizing the mortification of desire), skepticism (emphasizing the futility of desire), and stoicism (emphasizing the rational modification of desire), all have had their supporters and critics.

Hedonism is most defensible when the satisfaction of desire is understood to result from achievements born of work. We desire to be healthy, so we dig wells and plant crops. But since few of us enjoy the hard work that such activities require, the risk is that we soon will want the benefits of clean water and healthful food without the work. But a society of free riders turns out to be of benefit to no one.

Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus (from whom we get the word epicurean), tried to resolve this defect in hedonism by emphasizing that good judgment—or wisdom—is needed to distinguish sustainable, long-term satisfaction (what Epicurus called natural pleasures) from the fleeting pleasures of the moment, vain pleasures such as those that come from achieving fame or wealth for their own sake, and pleasures derived from actions that harm others. These latter, unnatural pleasures must not be pursued, Epicurus believed. The pursuit of pleasure, unharnessed to good judgment, cannot result in a good life.

Recognizing the inevitability of unnatural pleasures, asceticism emphasizes self-discipline as a means of mortifying desire. But it does so only by minimizing the many natural pleasures in life. Fasting helps us avoid the temptation of gluttony, but it also eliminates the pleasure of a good meal. Celibacy is attainable for some, but it results, not just in the loss of physical pleasure, but in the loss of many familial pleasures as well, surely an unwelcome result for most of us.

Skepticism—the idea that conflicting, irreconcilable desires are an unavoidable part of the human condition—is too bleak for most of us. For some, learning to control conflicting desires is a vain hope. For others, the agonizing inner conflicts that occupy our minds at various points in our lives are something we eventually are able to resolve and master, either through the guidance and education given to us by others, or by learning to make the kinds of choices necessary for living mature, responsible lives. Extreme skepticism also can lead to nihilism, the belief that not just happiness, but all goods and values, are illusory—an idea that, if widely embraced, inevitably leads to catastrophic results.

Stoicism avoids such unwelcome consequences. Even so, it sometimes has been derided by modern thinkers. The Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, for example, once quipped that according to the stoics, “We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy.”

Like any theory of human happiness that focuses on controlling one’s mental states, stoicism can also sometimes lead to the idea that life should be experienced in only an inward way—since, ultimately, the outside world is one we can never fully control. Yet the original stoics didn’t discourage their followers from interacting with the world. Unlike the Epicureans—who retreated to their Garden and counselled adherents to avoid politics lest they be disappointed and disillusioned by the experience—Epictetus encouraged his students to become involved in affairs of state, believing that politics was something that had the potential to help us all lead better, happier lives.

Just as John Milton made famous the observation that “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” Epictetus reminded his students that “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, not to the will,” and “neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”

The real boundary that Epictetus urged us to observe is not the one that cuts off the life of the mind from the outside world. Rather, it is one that separates realistic ambitions from impossible fixations. Discovering this boundary ultimately comes from exercising our good judgment, a quality that we can develop as a matter of free will.

The stoic insistence on the idea that no one can rob us of our free will is something that resonates with many of us. It also gives us power over some of life’s most difficult challenges. During the Vietnam War, Vice Admiral James Stockdale was an American fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam. For seven and a half years, he was the senior U.S. Naval prisoner of war in Hanoi. While a prisoner, he was tortured fifteen times, held in solitary confinement for four years and locked in leg irons for two.

During his captivity, he later recalled, the words of Epictetus were often on his mind. “What is the fruit of all these doctrines?” a student once asked Epictetus. His answer, Stockdale remembered, was three simple words: “Tranquility, fearlessness and freedom.”


Andrew Irvine is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. He is a member of the board of directors of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.