How Much of Marcus Aurelius is Epictetus?

How much did Epictetus influence Marcus Aurelius?

Epictetus Poster

Epictetus was the most influential Stoic philosopher of the Roman Imperial period and we can see that he had considerable influence over Marcus Aurelius but the relationship between them probably requires some explanation.  Stoicism could take different forms.  The rhetorician Athenaeus, who lived around the same time as Marcus, claimed that the Stoic school had divided into three branches.  These followed the three last scholarchs, or heads of the school: Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater of Tarsus, and Panaetius of Rhodes.  Epictetus never mentions the Middle Stoics, who followed Panaetius in assimilating more aspects of Platonism and Aristotelianism.  He seems instead to hark back to an older form of Stoicism, more aligned with Cynicism.  The only one of these three scholarchs he mentions is Antipater, so it’s possible he saw himself as following the “Antipatrist” branch of Stoicism.  Marcus aligned himself mainly with Epictetus, and perhaps assumed he was part of the same branch of Stoicism.

It is fair to say that the essential substance of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations comes from Epictetus. (Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 195)

Marcus was only about fourteen years old when Epictetus died.  He’d probably never left Rome so it’s unlikely the two ever met.  Epictetus had previously lived and taught philosophy in Rome but left around 93 AD when the Emperor Domitian banished philosophers, nearly three decades before Marcus Aurelius was born.  He set up a Stoic school in Nicopolis in Greece, where he remained for the rest of his life.  However, Marcus surrounded himself with philosophers and it’s quite likely that some of the older men he knew had studied with Epictetus in person.

The Emperor Hadrian was a hellenophile and associated with many philosophers.  Though far from a Stoic himself, he was reputedly a personal friends of Epictetus.  Marcus was close to Hadrian, who chose him to succeed Antoninus, his immediate heir.  So it’s quite possible Marcus first heard of Epictetus from Hadrian and others members of his court.  However, Marcus’ natural mother was another hellenophile and there’s a hint she was friends with Junius Rusticus, whom we’ll return to below.  So it’s vaguely possible she also had some familiarity with Epictetus or his students.  Marcus mentions that Rusticus wrote an admirable letter consoling his mother.  Rusticus was closer in age to Domitia Lucilla than to Marcus.  It’s therefore possible that he was already a family friend prior to becoming Marcus’ tutor in philosophy, and was possibly a follower of Epictetus.

The Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus were not actually written by him but are edited notes made at his school by a student called Arrian of Nicomedia.  However, Arrian was himself an exceptional man.  He was reputedly, like Epictetus, a personal friend of Hadrian.  Hadrian appointed him to the Senate and then made him suffect consul around 132 AD.  He was later made governor of Cappadocia, for six years, where he became an accomplished military commander.  Late in life, around 145 AD, he retired to Athens to serve as archon there, now under the emperor Antoninus.  He was a prolific writer, highly esteemed as an intellectual, as well as a statesman and soldier.  His relationship to Epictetus was therefore compared to that of Xenophon to Socrates.

Arrian probably died not long after Marcus was acclaimed emperor in 161 AD, but it’s quite possible Marcus could have met him if Arrian ever visited Rome.  He must certainly have known of him as Arrian held important roles during the reign of Antoninus, in the administration of which Marcus was effectively second-in-command to the emperor.  Arrian almost certainly knew Antoninus personally and probably also knew many other men in Marcus’ acquaintance.

Marcus’ main Stoic tutor was Junius Rusticus.  In The Meditations, he said that Rusticus gave him a copy of notes (hypomnemata) of Epictetus’ lectures.  This could be taken to refer to personal notes taken down by Rusticus.  However, Marcus quotes from Arrian’s edition of The Discourses several times so it’s generally assumed those were the “notes” of Epictetus’ lectures to which he referred.  Of course, it’s also possible that Marcus possessed both The Discourses noted down by Arrian and also notes taken by Epictetus’ other students.  Rusticus could easily have attended Epictetus’ school himself if he had travelled to Greece, and provided Marcus with notes on his lectures.  He certainly seems to have encouraged Marcus to study Epictetus’ branch of Stoicism.  It’s also quite possible that Rusticus may at some point have met Arrian, who transcribed and edited The Discourses.

To make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

What’s the significance of saying that it came from his own library?  Perhaps copies of this text were rare at the time and Rusticus lent (or gave) him his only copy, something precious, rather than having him wait for a duplicate to be made by scribes.

It seems almost certain these notes were what we now call The Discourses, the notes of Epictetus’ discussions written and edited by Arrian.  Indeed, Marcus quotes several passages, which are found in The Discourses.  However, whereas four volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses survive today, there were originally eight – half of them are now lost.  In addition to the quotations from the surviving Discourses, however, Marcus attributes another passage to Epictetus in The Meditations.  It seems likely that this comes from one of the lost Discourses.

Marcus doesn’t always cite the name of the author he’s quoting, or even indicate when something is a direct quote or paraphrase from another text.  So it’s quite possible that there are other passages in The Meditations which actually quote or paraphrase Epictetus’ lost Discourses.  Indeed, some of the sayings popularly attributed to Marcus, for all we know, could be quotations from other authors, including Epictetus.

Epictetus in The Meditations

Marcus mentions Epictetus by name in the illustrious company of Chrysippus and Socrates, which seems to confirm the exceptionally high regard in which he held him.

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has eternity already engulfed. (7.19)

Elsewhere, Marcus quotes from Discourses (1.28 and 2.22) where Epictetus paraphrases Plato’s Sophist.

‘No soul’, he said, ‘is willingly deprived of the truth’; and the same applies to justice too, and temperance, and benevolence, and everything of the kind. It is most necessary that you should constantly keep this in mind, for you will then be gentler towards everyone. (7.63)

The word “he” probably refers either to Socrates or Epictetus.

In another passage, he attributes a saying to Epictetus not found in The Discourses, which is numbered Fragment 26.

You are a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say. (4.41)

Marcus repeats this phrase again later, suggesting that it was particularly significant to him, although the meaning is somewhat obscure to us now:

Children’s fits of temper, and ‘little souls carrying their corpses around’, so that the journey to the land of the dead appears the more vividly before one’s eyes. (9.24)

Marcus appears to have a well-known saying of Epictetus in mind when he writes:

You can live here on earth as you intend to live once you have departed. If others do not allow that, however, then depart from life even now, but do so in the conviction that you are suffering no evil. “Smoke fills the room, and I leave it”: why think it any great matter? (5.29)

Elsewhere he appears to be quoting the Stoic slogan of Epictetus “bear and forbear” (or “endure and renounce”):

Wait with a good grace, either to be extinguished or to depart to another place; and until that moment arrives what should suffice?  What else than to worship and praise the gods, and do good to your fellows, and “bear” with them and “forbear”; but as to all that lies within the limits of mere flesh and breath, to remember that this is neither your own nor within your own control. (5.33)

In addition to these, Book 11 of The Meditations concludes with a flurry of quotations or paraphrases from The Discourses.  The first is clearly from Discourses 3.24.86-7.

It takes a madman to seek a fig in winter; and such is one who seeks for his child when he is no longer granted to him. (11.33)

Epictetus is named by Marcus in the next one, which is from Discourses 3.24.28.

Epictetus used to say that when you kiss your child you should say silently ‘Tomorrow, perhaps, you will meet your death.’—But those are words of ill omen.—‘Not at all,’ he replied, ‘nothing can be ill-omened that points to a natural process; or else it would be ill-omened to talk of the grain being harvested.’ (11.34)

Then he quotes from Discourses 3.24.91-2.

The green grape, the ripe cluster, the dried raisin; at every point a change, not into non-existence, but into what is yet to be. (11.35)

Then from Discourses 3.22.105, a phrase which Epictetus repeated several times elsewhere.

No one can rob us of our free will, said Epictetus. (11.36)

This is followed by Epictetus Fragment 27, which appears to be from a lost book of the Discourses or perhaps from notes taken down by another student:

He said too that we ‘must find an art of assent, and in the sphere of our impulses, take good care that they are exercised subject to reservation, and that they take account of the common interest, and that they are proportionate to the worth of their object; and we should abstain wholly from immoderate desire, and not try to avoid anything that is not subject to our control’. (11.37)

Epictetus Fragment 2 also apparently from a lost book of the Discourses, but related to Discourses 1.22.17-21.

‘So the dispute’, he said, ‘is over no slight matter, but whether we are to be mad or sane.’ (11.38)

That appears to be linked to the last passage, which is probably also from one of the lost Discourses.

Socrates used to say, ‘What do you want? To have the souls of rational or irrational beings?’ ‘Of rational beings.’ And of what kind of rational beings, those that are sound or depraved?’ ‘Those that are sound.’ ‘Then why are you not seeking for them?’ ‘Because we have them.’ ‘Then why all this fighting and quarrelling?’ (11.39)

As Marcus clearly groups quotations together, it’s possible that some of the other passages surrounding those mentioned above, or elsewhere in The Meditations, could be quotes or paraphrases from The Discourses, or in some cases quotes from other authors cited in The Discourses.

2 replies on “How Much of Marcus Aurelius is Epictetus?”

[…] Through his tragic life circumstance, vigorous training in philosophy, and effective teaching style, Epictetus rose from being a child slave into a prominent philosopher of Rome. Emperor Marcus Aurelius held Epictetus in very high regard and was likely inspired by him. Marcus’ stance on how we attribute to the meaning of what’s good and evil echoes the teachings of Epictetus. (See article for historic details: “How much of Marcus Aurelius is Epictetus” by Donald Robertson.) […]

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