Epictetus was born around. 55 AD, possibly at Hierapolis, Phrygia. The name his parents gave him is unknown; the word epíktetos (επίκτητος) in Greek simply means “acquired.” He spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero.
Early in life, Epictetus developed a passion for philosophy. With the permission of his owner he studied Stoic philosophy. When he obtained his freedom, (in the year 68 CE) he began to teach philosophy in Rome. About 93 AD Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, and Epictetus fled to Nicopolis, where he founded a school.
Epictetus’s philosophy holds that the basis of any philosophy is self-knowledge; that is, how we commonly fool ourselves ought to be the first subject of our study. Logic provides valid reasoning and certainty in judgment, but it is subordinate to practical needs. The first and most necessary part of philosophy concerns the application of doctrine, for example, that people should not lie; the second concerns reasons, e.g. why people should not lie; while the third, lastly, examines and establishes the reasons. This is the logical part, which finds reasons, shows what is a reason, and that a given reason is a right one. This last part is necessary, but only on account of the second, which again is rendered necessary by the first.
Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by distinguishing between those things in our power and those things not in our power. Only our actions are in our power, and ‘actions’ here includes our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the other hand, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul.
We have no power over external things. The good that ought to be the aim of our efforts is to be found only within ourselves. The distinction between what is good and what is not good is made by the capacity for choice. This allows us to act, and gives us the kind of freedom that only rational animals have. The right use of the impressions (phantasia) that bombard the mind is in our power.
Not actually about Epictetus himself, but about his near-contemporary and fellow Stoic, Seneca: