Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 4, The philosopher-slave and the emperor-philosopher
How many men — like Chrysippus, like Socrates, like Epictetus — has Eternity swallowed up! (Meditations, VII.19.2)
Eternity may have swallowed these men up, as Marcus Aurelius says here, but they sure left a mark on his own famous book, the Meditations, which we are currently studying by way of Pierre Hadot’s classic treatment of it, The Inner Citadel (previous installment here). As Hadot points out in chapter 4 of his book, we see direct or paraphrased quotes in the Meditations by Heraclitus, Empedocles, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, and Epicurus, among others. But arguably the strongest influence on Marcus, the person that shaped his whole philosophy of life, was Epictetus.
Epictetus is hardly known these days, except for the very recent resurgence of Stoicism. But he was one of the most appreciated philosophers of antiquity up until the 19th century, and in his own time he was the great philosopher. He influenced early and later Christian thought, from Origen to Thomas Aquinas. As is well known, he began his life as a slave in Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale, Turkey), was acquired by Nero’s secretary, Epaphroditus, and brought to Rome. There he was allowed to attend the lectures of the most famous Stoic philosopher of the time, MusoniusRufus, and when he was freed began to teach philosophy in the capital of the empire. In 93–94 CE he was kicked out of Italy by the emperor Domitian, who did no suffer Stoics to speak truth to power, and re-established his school in Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece, where his fame grew to the point that he received personal visits from the emperor Hadrian.
Epictetus did not write anything down, so far as we know, and what we have from him are four volumes of Discourses (four more are, unfortunately, lost) and the Enchiridion, or Manual. Both of these are due to one of Epictetus’ most prominent students, Arrian of Nicomedia, who went on to become a philosopher and historian in his own right (as well as Governor of the province of Cappadocia, for a time). Hadot goes into some detail to explain why scholars think that Arrian’s Epictetus is likely very close to the real Epictetus, most probably far more, say, than Plato’s…