Just the name Stoicism by itself is enough call up in our minds the greatest school of moral philosophy of antiquity. It comes from the Greek stoa, which means "portico" and refers to the place where the disciples of Zeno of Citium (322–264 BCE) gathered. Far from any sort of speculative thought, this doctrine is built entirely around man, his destiny, and his happiness. This guiding idea pervades the entire history of this philosophical school, from the ancient Stoicism, represented by Zeno and Chrysippus, to that of the imperial Roman period, with which three names are associated: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
History has preserved only a few elements of the life of Epictetus. He was born around 50 CE at Hierapolis in Phrygia and was for a long time the slave of Epaphroditus, himself a freed slave of Nero's. This person, whose name, even, is unknown to us—for Epictetus, which means "slave," is only an epithet—nevertheless found in his captivity the leisure time to study the lessons of a reputed philosopher, Musonius Rufus, who initiated him into the principles of the Stoic doctrine.
Having regained his freedom, Epictetus devoted himself entirely to philosophy. Driven by a desire to direct men's minds to the good, he taught Stoicism in Rome in spite of an imperial power that had little use for those pursuing the profession of philosophy. Rome by this time had long since supplanted Athens, and the empire was already undergoing a process of slow decomposition, marked by conspiracies and assassinations. Toward 94 CE, a decree by Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, qualifying them as enemies of the state. Driven from Italy, Epictetus took refuge in Nicopolis in Epirus. His teaching, which had been spurned up to this point, now met with great success. Epictetus made use by turns in his teaching of discourse, homily, interrogation, and commentary, displaying great subtlety in his mastery of the art of speech. He transmitted his knowledge orally, communicating to his students not only principles of philosophy but especially practical advice for living.
After his death, between 125 and 130, Flavius Arrian, who had followed Epictetus's courses, wrote up his notes in Greek, the cultivated language of the period, and published them in eight books, of which four are known to us under the title Discourses. Arrian also created a small work drawn from the discourses that contains the principal ideas of his master. This work is entitled Enchiridion in Greek, a term accurately translated as "Handbook," which is composed of fifty-three chapters. The Handbook, however, is not a synopsis of the Stoic doctrine, for it deals neither with the physics nor the logic. The purpose of the Handbook is a limited one; it is devoted to a single branch of Stoicism, its moral philosophy.
The Stoic precept, maxims for life worthy of meditation, which is based on the distinction between "that which depends upon us" and "that which does not depend upon us." The contemplation of this distinction is the first philosophical act to which Epictetus, as a guide of conscience, invites us. Understanding this will allow us to discern true values and to make proper use of our faculty of judgment.
Pascal said of Epictetus that, "among the philosophers of the world he was the one who knew best the duties of man." This was Pascal's homage to a great mind fully persuaded of the grandeur of humanity.