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Epictetus, Caesar, and the Animals: A Fable

Kate Meng Brassel

University of Pennsylvania

This paper argues that Epictetus’ “On Freedom” (IV, 1) departs from conventional Stoic writings, subversively confronting Roman politics with an Aesopic stance against authority. Standardly, Stoicism has been seen as largely apolitical with its signature focus on the self regardless of political circumstance. Although potential moral equality for all might be democratizing in theory, as a matter of practice the elite Stoic was no boundary-smasher. For example, while at one time Seneca—advisor to Nero—asserted the moral equality of masters and slaves (Ep. 47, 1), he also counselled an elite peer to devote himself to virtue and leave the nitty gritty to hopeless “mules,” i.e. underclasses (Brev. Vit. 18).

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum—perhaps at one time even across a room—was Epictetus, a former slave to Nero’s secretary. Throughout, Epictetus’ diatribes noticeably use terms for “slave” (andrapodon, doulos) to address interlocutors, who are identifiable within the Roman imperial elite. With his guiding emphasis on the free exercise of volition, it might seem natural to read the invocation as merely a lively interpretation of the famous maxim “every fool is a slave” (Cic. P.S. V). But Epictetus’ own political position between slave and elite demands that further attention be paid, especially in the virtuosic “On Freedom,” the longest of his diatribes. In recent scholarship, Epictetus’ rhetoric of slave and free has been downplayed as largely accommodatable to the Roman Stoics’ putative indifference to political gains and losses (Wildberger, Willms). The density of allusions to Caesar and other wielders of Roman imperium are, on that view, simply ways for the philosopher to make his point through social satire and fail to participate in serious political problems.

But in “On Freedom,” Epictetus wields another discourse that runs in subversive parallel to his proclaimed disavowals of politics: animal simile. While Stoics typically use animals to illuminate poor, impulsive behavior, here Epictetus uses animals (lion, birds, fish) elaborately to illuminate a spectrum of political choices, ranging from the slavish to the radical and democratic (IV, 1.24-30). The exceptional use of animal stories raises the spectre of an alternative wisdom discourse—fable—associated with Aesop, himself traditionally a slave. Plato had exerted himself hard to dissociate from the Aesopic. But Epictetus here subtly reestablishes the identity of philosophy and traditional wisdom, of logos and legein. Fables are reinvested with the responsibility of providing a radical framework to otherwise apparent clichés (such as the worthiness of ejecting the tyrant—from the soul, as it were, 86-88). Like the fabulists, Epictetus uses animals to avoid making explicit statements about human power, while, in fact, making those statements—and devastatingly.

In addition to engaging with recent scholarship on Epictetus, this paper uses models developed by Kurke, Nightingale, and others for interpreting philosophical discourse. The diatribes are not merely nice variations on Stoic themes, but sharp anti-Roman articulations from a unique figure at the crossroads of freedom and slavery, moral and political.

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Philosophy in a Roman Context

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