11 Life Lessons on Freedom and the Art of Living from a Former Slave

Born a slave in the first century A.D., Epictetus knew from a young age that the way to true freedom was not in being released from his physical shackles, but in using what was in his control to the best of his ability. With permission from his master, he was educated in philosophy and upon being freed devoted his life to teaching others what he had learned. Among his teachings were the notion that we should only focus on what we can control and set the standard for others through our conduct. Two thousand years later these teachings have endured and guide people in good times and bad. Below are 11 lessons that, if applied, will make you better, more resilient, and more free. Enjoy.

Use everything that happens to you

“Difficulties show a person’s character. So when a challenge confronts you, remember that God is matching you with a younger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. Why? Becoming an Olympian takes sweat! I think no one has a better challenge than yours, if only you would use it like an athlete would that young sparring partner.” -Epictetus, Discourses 1.24.1-2

The Stoics knew that everything that happens to us, good or bad, is an opportunity. An opportunity to practice kindness, an opportunity to practice patience, an opportunity to practice resilience. Every obstacle and setback can improve us if we focus on using it rather than letting it overtake us. The possibilities for improvement are endless because the number of situations we encounter in everyday life are endless; but if we use them to our advantage the end result is the same. We end up stronger, wiser, and more patient. 

Treat your mind the way you do your body

If a person gave away your body to some passerby you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled. Have you no shame in that.” -Epictetus, Enchiridon 28

Other people don’t use your body for you, so why would you let them do your thinking for you? All too often we allow ourselves to get upset and reviled over thoughts that we didn’t even think of ourselves. No more. A Stoic is a person that keeps their mind focused on what is good and true. They create a moral code-of-conduct for themselves and they stick to it. This way, they aren’t easily swayed by just whatever anybody says, but only by what their reason tells them is just.

Choose what you expose yourself to or someone else will do it for you

“If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.”-Epictetus, The Art of Living

Epictetus’s words ring more true today than ever. In the era of social media and a 24/7 news cycle designed to keep us continuously consuming it seems like we’re constantly putting thoughts in our heads that aren’t ours. The more time we spend outraged at a story that has nothing to do with us, addicted to rage-infused media, the less time we have to pursue things that are actually important. If we don’t choose to put down our phones and spend time with our spouses, to solve actual issues plaguing our lives; then our phones will choose to expose us to whatever the world wants us to feel and think, and that’s not always in our best interest.

Find heroes to emulate

“We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.” -Epictetus, The Art of Living

We all want to improve but sometimes we just don’t know where to start. If you want to know how to improve look to those you admire, those who have qualities you want to possess. Read the biographies of great men and women and take inspiration from them. If you want to be a fashion designer, study the life of Coco Chanel. If you want to be a politician, pick up Profiles in Courage. The point is that imitating the best of the best has the effect of bringing out the best in you.

Be honest with yourself

“Self-mastery depends on self-honesty.” -Epictetus, The Art of Living

The former Navy SEAL and ultra-endurance athlete David Goggins once had to lose 100 pounds in under 3 months in order to qualify for SEAL training. Rather than sugarcoat his situation in order to soothe his ego he decided to be totally and brutally honest with himself. He wasn’t just a tad-bit overweight he was fat. It hurt but this pain was what ultimately drove him to make the necessary changes to become somebody he was proud of. We don’t all have to lose 100 pounds in 3 months but we all have areas in which we would benefit from being more honest with ourselves. The dishes need to get done but we say we’re tired after a long day of work. But maybe we aren’t tired, maybe the truth is that we’re lazy. The truth hurts, but it’s what we need to hear.

Start living as your ideal self now

First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do. For in nearly every pursuit we see this to be the case. Those in athletic pursuit first choose the sport they want and then do that work.” -Epictetus, Discourses, 3.23.1-2a

Stop daydreaming about who you could be. Instead, carefully define the person you want to be and start living as that person right now. What stops us from taking action to change our lives is often not a lack of desire to change but a failure to define what changes we want to make. Do you want to be more patient? Be more patient. Stop getting angry when things don’t go your way, listen when someone else is speaking, even if you don’t care for what they have to say. Decide who you want to be and start living as that person, right NOW. 

If you wish to improve, be willing to look like a fool

“To do anything well you must have the humility to bumble around a bit, to follow your nose, to get lost, to goof. Have the courage to try an undertaking and possibly do it poorly. Unremarkable lives are marked by the fear of not looking capable when trying something new.” 

-Epictetus, The Art of Living

It’s a fact of life that in any endeavor we undertake we won’t always know what to do at first. We will stumble, miss our marks, and fail. A lot. If other people are watching, we will also likely be ridiculed and made fun of. The audience was silent during Kevin Hart’s, arguably one of the most famous comedians today, first open-mic. You and every person you know stumbled when taking their first steps as a baby. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we, like Hart, continued to get up, dust ourselves off, and improve.

Starting is often the hardest part

“The first steps toward wisdom are the most strenuous, because our weak and stubborn souls dread exertion (without absolute guarantee of reward) and the familiar.” 

-Epictetus, The Art of Living

In any program of self-improvement, the beginning will almost always be the most difficult part. If you haven’t exercised in years then the idea of starting a running program sounds dreadful. But if, in spite of the dread, you put on your shoes and go for that run, something strange happens. At the end of the run, you feel a sense of accomplishment. A feeling that, in spite of what your emotions told you, you did what was best for you. And something even better happens; the more you do this, the easier it gets and eventually, it becomes unthinkable to even act against your own self-interest.

Keep your business to yourself

“In public avoid talking often and excessively about your accomplishments and dangers, for however much you enjoy recounting your dangers, it’s not so pleasant for others to hear about your affairs.” Epictetus, Enchiridon 33.14

Humans are social animals. We are all susceptible to wanting the approval of others and, because of this, often feel the need to overshare details about our lives that most people really don’t care about. Worse, if you feel the need to do this then it is very likely that you will be swayed by the opinions of others. Others who won’t always have your best interest at heart and will then project their own life experiences, experiences that don’t necessarily match up with yours, onto your affairs. If you are making progress on a dream, don’t spend your energy telling people who aren’t truly important to you about it. Focus, instead, on making more progress on that dream.

Understand your limits

“Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.” -Epictetus, The Art of Living

What likely aided Epictetus during his time as a slave was his learning to accept the limits that nature set upon him. He was born a slave and so was, under Roman law, another man’s property. It was also rumored that this same master broke his leg, leaving him crippled for the remainder of his life. Throughout all this, he did not complain. Instead, he worked to do the best he could within his limits and lived a life of excellence on his own terms. By knowing your limits (and pushing them!) you are no longer a slave to what other people say you can or can’t do and you no longer have to compare yourself to anyone else. This isn’t to say that you use your limits as an excuse but only that you use them to teach you what to disregard. Your limits no longer control you, they teach you what is in your control, and what isn’t.

Have faith

“Faithfulness is the antidote to bitterness and confusion. It confers the conviction that we are ready for anything the divine will intends for us.” Epictetus, The Art of Living

The Stoic definition of faith is both similar to and different from the traditional religious definition. Their faith was not faith in a sort of divine intervention that comes to the rescue when we need it most. But a faith that comes from knowing that you’re doing the best that you possibly can, from learning to accept events that are outside of your control and to stop passing judgment upon them. The Stoics believed that the more we practice justice and goodness the more justice and goodness reveals itself to us in all that we do. So, have faith. Faith that if we are content with just doing the right thing, the rest will take care of itself.

Want to learn more about Epictetus? Check out our article: Who Is Epictetus? From Slave To World’s Most Sought After Philosopher

Each morning we send a short (~500 word) email inspired by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and more. Each email will help you cultivate strength, insight, and wisdom to live your best life. It’s FREE to sign-up here.

Get Your Free DAILY STOIC Starter Pack

Includes an introduction to Stoicism, best books to start with, Stoic exercises and much more!

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.