What’s the big idea? Former slave Epictetus argues that since we cannot control the external world, true freedom comes from the reasoned control of one’s own desires and passions.
This is the core of stoic thought that Epictetus taught in Western Greece about 100 AD. Stoicism became the dominant moral philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman world and Epictetus became its dominant and most respected teacher.
Though Epictetus wrote nothing that has survived, writer Arrian attended his lectures and took those notes that preserved Epictetus’ teachings. Besides Arrian, Epictetus had another notable listener, the young Publius Aelius Hadrianus, who would go on to become Roman Emperor Hadrian, reigning from 117 AD to 138.
Stoic philosophy echoed down the centuries, starting with St. Paul, whose “Acts” is shot through with Stoic thought. St. Ambrose and Tertullian show Stoic influence in their writings.
In the modern world, stoicism remains important. Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, essayist Montaigne and even George Washington were inspired by the Stoics. Perhaps the most prominent modern writer influenced by the stoics is American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. His Man the Reformer and Self Reliance are almost modern stoic handbooks.
Let’s go back a couple of thousand years to Nicopolis and listen to Epictetus explain Stoicism. We can cheat a bit and look over Arrian’s shoulder and read his lecture notes.