Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Epictetus (ca.55–ca.125)
Author:
Harris, W. Edward
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Epictetus was one of the Stoic philosophers in the world of the Roman Empire. His name in the Greek means "acquired." He was a slave from his earliest years in Rome, his master a secretary to the emperor, Nero. He attended the lectures of the Musonius Rufus and became a follower of the Stoic doctrine.

Epictetus was lame, and, following the death of his master, he was manumitted and became a teacher. No writings are extant although a student, Arrian, published his lectures as Discourses and Encheiridion. The simplest statement of the Stoic doctrine is that the good life consists of knowing the will of God for our lives and learning to distinguish between those things which are and are not within our power. True education consists in recognizing that the only thing that belongs to a man is his will or purpose. "Men are disturbed not by things," says Epictetus, "but by the views which they take of things" (317).

As a political theorist Epictetus saw humanity as a part of a great system that comprehends both God and humanity. The polis we live in is but a pale copy of the true city of God. Human beings can learn to make the city and their own lives more like the will of God. They cannot, however, secure their own welfare unless they contribute to the common welfare. The role of the philosopher for Epictetus was to see the world whole and to grow into the mind of God and make the will of nature his own.

Whitman knew of Epictetus through Frances Wright's A Few Days in Athens (1822), which was one of the cherished books of his parents' household. Wright deeply influenced his thinking and approach to life and poetry.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. "Walt Whitman and Stoicism." The Stoic Strain in American Literature: Essays in Honour of Marston LaFrance. Ed. Duane J. MacMillan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979. 43–60.

Epictetus. "Things Which Are in Our Power." Source Book in Ancient Philosophy. Ed. Charles Bakewell. New York: Scribner's, 1907. 317–319.

Goodale, David. "Some of Walt Whitman's Borrowings." American Literature 10 (1938): 202–213.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Wright, Frances. A Few Days in Athens. 1822. New York: Arno, 1972.


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