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imageSalonika Women’s Group - Epictetus Enchiridion

The following is an article based on the presentation by the Salonika Women’s Group at the 9th annual Women’s Symposium conducted at Satyanandashram Paiania 24-26 June 2016.

This year nine women from the Salonika group studied the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Swami Sivamurti has often encouraged the Greek women’s groups to study and elaborate on their own traditions, both the ancient Greek and the Christian. In the introduction and in the reading of the texts which follow, the similarities that exist between ancient Greek thought and yogic teachings will become evident. Philosophy is not just a series of abstract notions, concerning an elite group of people, but a way of life, a way to live happily, ‘eudaimon vios’ as it was called by the ancients.

In 1985 when Paramahamsa Satyananda was at the Greek ashram in Paiania he told us that throughout world history there had been only two philosophies: the Indian and the Greek; and the rest of the schools which later flourished in the West were the continuity of ancient Greek philosophy. Paramahamsa Satyananda himself and all the teachers of our tradition have taught how important it is for a person to have a philosophy in life, which will support and guide them. Today, in the world we live, such a philosophy is necessary perhaps more than ever before.

The Salonika women’s group have been studying ancient Greek thought. Ancient Greek thought has been alive for 12 centuries, from 6th century B.C. to 6th century A.D. During this period Socrates, who drank the conium in 399 B.C., is considered a milestone. The philosophers before him are called pre-Socratic and date back to the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Later Plato, a student of Socrates, established his own school, the Academy. Aristotle was a student in Plato’s Academy for 19 years and then he established his own school at the Lyceum, the Peripatetic school (‘peripatos’ means walking around). Almost at the same time, in 310 B.C., two philosophical schools were established in Athens: the Garden (Kepos) by Epicurus and the Stoa by Zenon of Citium. Another school was established by Pyrrho of Elis, who belonged to the Skepticists in the same period the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphics, and the Pythagoreans greatly impacted Greek thought. All these schools flourished up until 529 A.D., when Emperor Justinian issued a royal decree to close all philosophical schools for good.

The philosopher studied by the Salonika women’s group this year is Epictetus and his work “The Enchiridion”. We were inspired by Swami Sivamurti’s many references to Epictetus who lived from 55 to 105 A.D. and belongs to the Stoics. His life is like a fairy tale; he was born in Hierapolis, Phrygia, 22 years after the death of Christ. He was born a slave with serious health conditions: He was either lame from childhood or his leg was deliberately broken by his master. At the time of Epictetus the Roman Empire was immense. His hometown Hierapolis was very close to Ephesus and to ancient Colossae, where at that at time the Christian apostle Paul was propagating Christianity, addressing his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Hierapolis, the home town of Epictetus, is today’s Pamukkale in Turkey and was the sacred city of Cybele. Epictetus was bought by Epaphroditos, who became his owner and took him to Rome. Epaphroditos was the secretary of the emperors Nero and later Diomitian. It was a very turbulent time and these two emperors became known for their cruelty and insanity; Nero set Rome on fire and killed his family, and Diomitian was famous for his persecution of the Christians.

In Rome, Epictetus followed the philosophy of Gaius Musonius Rufus, a well-known Stoic philosopher. Gaius Musonius Rufus also deliberated upon whether women can become philosophers, answering that they certainly can because they possess both the will and the familiarity with virtue. Epictitus becomes a freeman after his master emancipates him, which was not uncommon in those days. In 94 A.D. Diomitian issued an emperor’s decree banishing all philosophers from the city and closed the schools, Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Epirus, where he established his own philosophical school. In the meantime, he was well-known and had many students; he led a very frugal life and made a living out of teaching. He stayed at Nicopolis until the end of his life, dedicated to his teaching, and died peacefully in 135 A.D. Before his death he adopted an orphan to save the child’s life and after many years of solitude he lived with a woman so that they could raise the child together.

Socrates and Epictetus constitute two unique examples in the history of ancient philosophy, where the life and work of a person are one and the same. There is a unity between life and teaching. Socrates was a role model for Epictetus, who frequently refers to him. After Socrates, philosophy could never be the same. Socrates brought philosophy out into the street and market place; he became the ‘oestrus’ of the Athenians, the horsefly awakening them, the one saying “the unexamined life is not worth living”. If man does not examine life, if he does not know himself, if he does not know the meaning of his life, then life is not worth living.

All the schools aspired for a life of pleasure, a full, integrated life, a divine life; each interpreting the term ‘eudaimonia’ and the means of its acquisition differently. Each school proposed a different way of life, a lifestyle that characterized that particular school. For Epictetus the life of pleasure was a life which flowed unhindered; smooth flow being a synonym of ‘eudaimonia’. He taught that man should live in nature, according to the logos. This means that he must know both his own nature and the divine nature, because the ‘logo’s is simultaneously natural and divine. A life of pleasure is acquired by ‘knowing thyself’, by constantly training the mind, by discrimination and detachment or non-attachment. Epictetus who was born a slave is acknowledged by two luminous Roman Emperors: Hadrian, who went to Nikopolis to attend his teachings, and Marcus Aurelius, who was also a Stoic, known for his work Eis Heauton. Marcus Aurelius recalls Epictetus as his teacher and considers him superior to Plato.

Epictetus, like Socrates, was dedicated to oral teachings and wrote nothing on paper. We are very fortunate that his work was saved by his student Gaius Flavius Arrianus, known to us from his works Anabasis of Alexander, the story of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Indica, a work on a variety of topics pertaining to India, and Bithyniaca, the story of Bithynia, his homeland. Gaius came from a rich family, followed a military career and composed eight extant works, among which are the Discourses of Epictetus, which are the four out of the eight remaining books originally. With his work Encheiridion, Epictetus becomes known to the whole world. In the 8th century it is translated into Arabic. In the 14th century it is translated into Latin in the court of the Medici. In the 18th century it is translated into Chinese by the Jesuit monk Richi. Epictetus is studied by all philosophers from the 17th century until today. Decartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Nitche all studied Epictetus and were influenced by his work, as well as the Fathers of the Christian church and many Byzantine Emperors, who were especially influenced by his moral philosophy.

Even today philosophy can save lives. An example being James Bond Stopdale who was a colonel and candidate for vice-president of the USA. When his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam by the Vietcong he said he was saved by his study of the Encheiridion by Epictetus and that this helped him hold on to his life and his sanity during his imprisonment. When he was freed he wrote a book about his traumatic experience and the impact of the Encheiridion on his life.

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