Enchiridion (Epictetus): Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

As remarkable of a text the Enchiridion is, being one of the canonical texts of Stoic philosophy, and one of the most important ancient documents that we are fortunate to have access to, the story of its creator is equally as impressive. Epictetus rose to become one of the most important Stoic philosophers, but the path to arrive at this accomplishment was fraught with difficulty.

He grew up as a slave to a wealthy man, who allowed him to study philosophy yet certain accounts argue that it was his master who crippled Epictetus at a young age. Luckily, when he was 33 years old, Epictetus was freed, and taught philosophy in Rome until again, a powerful person would intervene, this time the Roman emperor Domitius, who banished all philosophers from Rome, including Epictetus. It was then that Epictetus would start his school and teach classes which would become the basis of the Enchiridion.

As a respected teacher, Epictetus drew praise from some of the most respected scholars. Origen, an early Christian philosopher, said that Epictetus was even more popular than Plato had been, and one of the teachers of Marcus Aurelius, Herodes Atticus, thought Epictetus was ‘the greatest of Stoics’. Marcus himself would be loaned a copy of Epictetus and thank his mentor Junius Rusticus in Meditations for doing so.

Despite his impressive pedigree, Epictetus lived a simple and humble life. He taught that philosophy is first and foremost a way of life, and only secondly, discussions of why we should live that way. His teachings stress above all that we should accept unconditionally anything that is outside of our sphere of control. What might come as a surprise is that Epictetus did not leave any writing of his own, rather, it was his student Arrian, who wrote down his words for him, just like how Plato wrote down the dialogues of Socrates. This is a common theme with the Stoics, who were doers and focused on living and embodying the philosophy. Marcus Aurelius himself never wrote anything, and we are lucky to have his private diary, which is now known as Meditations, to survive and make its way to us, just as we are lucky to have access to Epictetus’s lectures.

Summary

In short, Enchiridion is a concentrated collection of Epictetus’s wisest teachings and contains all the fundamentals of his philosophy. It is a guiding text and required reading for students of Stoic philosophy.

The book focuses on the foundational Stoic principles, particularly that of not being concerned with what is out of your control. Epictetus teaches that we should have no desires or aversions guided by external events, ever—for many, adopting the teachings of Enchiridion, as with Stoicism in general, means a radical shift in how we view and interact with the world. We would only find true value in acting virtuously and accepting everything that happens to us, and even accepting everything that happens in the entire world.

This book addresses primarily those who seek to become philosophers, which to Epictetus, means those who practice a certain way of life, not people who talk about philosophical theories. When Epictetus speaks of the difference between philosophers, who value only what comes from within, and the vulgar, who chase after and are affected by external things, remember that almost all of us are “the vulgar” by his definition. We base our happiness on the world around us. This is the default psychological state for humans. But we can become philosophers if we so choose, and what we learn in Enchiridion will help us along that path.

Below are some of the most important lessons from the book.

  1. Focus on your own actions

We control only our own actions and perceptions. If we focus on our own actions, rather than anything that depends on the actions of others or any other circumstance out of our direct control, we will be free.

We are slaves when we want something that only someone else, or some circumstance, can give us, because then we are dependent on an external for happiness and must act in a certain way to be happy. Epictetus teaches us to simplify what we are concerned with and not be emotionally affected by what happens in this massive world, where we have power over nothing besides what we ourselves do. If something bad happens, it should not upset you unless you did it.

Epictetus advises that we,

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, ‘You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.’”

Completely avoiding what is commonly considered unpleasant in life is impossible. It is better that we be able to bear such things without disturbance.

When something is out of our control, Epictetus says,

“Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”

  1. Character is key

Living virtuously is one of the only things that should not be viewed with indifference. For the Stoics, character—and virtue—is everything.

Epictetus believed that we should do what is right and never be concerned if someone else does not approve of a virtuous action. You should remain indifferent to being spoken of negatively and never let another person control you with their criticism by forcing you to react.

Epictetus preached self-control—resisting temptation is often more satisfying than indulging in it.

We shouldn’t get too into entertainments or idle discussion about popular topics so as not to be caught up in trivial things. (Entertainment and mass politics is often like Plato’s cave allegory; most people are watching the moving shadows on the wall. Don’t be like that.)

He advises that we not talk about ourselves too much, because others might not enjoy it as much as we do. Epictetus also advises against participating in rude and vulgar conversation and making it clear to others that you disapprove of such talk. (For example, gossip and discussions which sexually objectify women).

  1. Go with the flow

A man who goes into a quickly-flowing river and attempts to swim upstream will get tired quickly and make little forward progress. Life is just like such a river and wishing and working against what happens to us is futile. Rather than wanting what we want and sticking stubbornly to it, Epictetus says,

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen.”

Live by this principle, and you would never be disturbed by anything.

Our instinct may be to resist such a seemingly passive lifestyle. But Epictetus is not advising that we just let anything happen. Rather, Enchiridion is about acting according to virtue a few basic interests, and not being disturbed if any of our plans go awry or we encounter misfortune. Pursuing goals that we find meaningful and being ready to let them go at a moment’s notice if we must are not mutually exclusive.

As Epictetus says,

“Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.”

There are few things in life that we truly need. As for the rest, we should be prepared to lose them, and it is best for us to be happy even if we aren’t getting what we want. Epictetus says we should remember that everything we are given by life will be taken from us at some point and we should not grieve when we lose things. Nothing in this life is ours to keep.

Three Exercises/Lessons

The main takeaway from Enchiridion is that events outside of our control should not disturb us in the slightest. The first step is to stop seeing them as misfortunes. To do so, use the Epictetus method, and consider whether the misfortune is your own action, or involves the results of the actions of others or of nature. If it is not your own action, you do not control it. In every such case, you must firmly tell yourself that it does not matter. For this to change your thinking process you must do it every time, so have reminders handy. Repetition is key.

A key lesson in Enchiridion, and a crucial part of reaching Stoic-style enlightenment, is limiting your desires and aversions. Wanting things to go a certain way will often lead to disappointment, which leads to being upset with the cause of that disappointment, which is nature. If you are disappointed with an outcome, you are not accepting the course of nature. To implement this in your life, don’t expect and pin your hopes on any specific outcome. When reflecting on future possibilities, remember that you will be fine no matter what happens, as long as you do not allow your character to be corrupted.

Finally, Epictetus teaches that we can’t have both a worldly life based on external satisfactions and a philosophical life where happiness comes from within. We must dedicate ourselves entirely to denying the appearances of things which seem good or bad but are out of our control.

As Epictetus puts it,

“You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.”

To practice this, you must prioritize philosophy over things that you want badly but might emotionally disturb you.

Sacrifice pursuits that might consume you in favor of working on your own character and doing virtuous things.

***

10 Best Quotes from Epictetus’s Enchiridion

“Whoever would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.”

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

“The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.”

“These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.”

“The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself.”

“Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own.”

“It is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, better to die than to live in affluence and be disturbed; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.”

“When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty… say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.””

“If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life.”

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

Best Free and Paid Translation

Elizabeth Carter’s translation on classics.mit.edu is eminently readable and uses modern English. In fact, classics.mit.edu is a reliable source for translations of Stoic and other ancient texts if ever you need to brush up some more on your ancient philosophy.

In terms of a paid translation, if you want to own a physical copy of the book (you should!), check out George Long’s version published by Dover Thrift Editions. George Long’s translations are reliable and still seen as authoritative over 100 years after they were done.

If you want to make the absolute best choice suited to you, you can use this website to pick your favorite of the six possible translations of Enchiridion, which was created by the user tasuki from the Stoicism community on reddit.