The Wisdom of a Slave: A Defence of Stoicism

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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. * * * 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 …
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…
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