Discourses by Epictetus is a work that only survived thanks to a student named Arrian, who’s credited with transcribing the lessons he learned in Epictetus’ classroom at the beginning of the second century AD. Arrian wrote in a letter prior to the Discourses’ publishing, “whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could, as a record for later use of his thought and frank expression.” A record he later used to achieve renown throughout Rome as a political advisor, military commander, and prolific author – work which includes the biography of Alexander the Great.
So who was his teacher? Considered among the big three in Stoic philosophy, along with Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus proves the application of stoicism useful to whatever fortunes one may be born. Aurelius was one of the most powerful men of his time and Seneca was one of the wealthiest of his. Epictetus was at the other end of the spectrum.
His given name is not known. Epictētos is Greek meaning “acquired.” Epictetus was born into slavery. Epictetus’ mention of his owner, Epaphroditus, is somewhat neutral, not singing his praises nor speaking with any particular bitterness. He does make mention that Epaphroditus allowed him to attend lectures by Musonius Rufus, described by some historians as the “foremost Stoic of his day.” Epaphroditus granted Epictetus his freedom at some indeterminate date and he then devoted his life to philosophy. In AD 95, Roman Emperor, Domitian, unpleased with the reception of stoicism among his tyrannical opponents, expelled Epictetus and other philosophers from Rome. Putting one of his own foremost teachings into practice, Epictetus turned adversity into opportunity, relocating to Greece where he was happy to not have any competition to open his school of stoicism in Nicopolis.
There, his school attracted some of the most powerful and influential of the time, with his lectures even finding the lap of Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus’ influence became the central work propelling the Roman Emperor’s own stoic journey. In the first book of Meditations, titled “Debts and Lessons,” Marcus thanks one of his philosophy teachers, Rusticus, “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures – and loaning me his own copy.”
His impact does not stop there. Theodore Roosevelt, one of History’s most respected leaders, carried a copy of Epictetus with him along several explorations through South America including the violent “River of Doubt” expedition. Admiral James Stockdale attributes Epictetus as the key to his survival in captivity and wrote extensively about Epictetus’ influence, “I was a changed man and, I have to say, a better man for my introduction to philosophy and especially to Epictetus.” Michel de Montaigne, famous for popularizing the essay as a literary genre, had a quote from Epictetus inscribed in the ceiling of his home. And Albert Ellis, one of the most prominent figures in modern psychology, cites Epictetus as an essential inspiration leading to his development of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), still a preeminent approach to counselling.
Epictetus was concerned with ethics and moral authority. He emphasized practice, not theorizing. Discourses is rooted in common experience and common sense, which helps explain, though teachings from nearly two millennia ago, they continue to inform and shape the lives of present-day readers.
Epictetus spent the remainder of his life in Nicopolis. When he retired from teaching, he spent his final years settling into family life, but by that time, old age required he adopt rather than father children. Wanting a family but waiting until retired is a testament to his inherent dedication to his teaching. He had a clear regard for stoic philosophy being of utmost importance in living a meaningful and ethical life.
This is a book made up of a collection of his lectures, which is important to consider because similar to Seneca and Aurelius, Epictetus was not motivated by publishing or chest puffing. This four-book work of his teaching showcase an unceremonious enthusiasm, animated by stories and dialogue. He dedicated his life to teaching with the only aspiration being that his students apply what they learn and live better lives because of it. The same would certainly hold true for those who engage with his tutelage today.
Below are a few of the recurring themes throughout Discourses. Epictetus taught the importance of distinguishing between what we can and what we cannot control; accepting nature’s course and it’s challenges; living a virtuous life among other virtuous people; choosing freedom by detaching from desires; and being a master to yourself by being a slave only to your mind.
The Power of Judgement
Epictetus teaches us that each individual is responsible for their own good or their own evil; their own fortune or their own misfortune; their own happiness or their own own anguish. There is no such thing as being the ‘victim.’ Suffering is self-inflicted and can be cured through a discipling of the mind. It is not things that upset us, but our judgements about those things. “When we are frustrated, angry or unhappy,” Epictetus explains, “never hold anyone except ourselves – that is, our judgments – accountable.”
You see a tweet counter to your beliefs, you overhear a coworker crack a joke at your dispense, or Netflix freezes in the middle of the episode, and it ruins your day. But it shouldn’t. Outrage, offense, anger, or any other negative emotion do nothing but spawn unnecessary pain. They need not to. Epictetus says, “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, you realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” If we just take a moment before reacting, a reframe of perception can save us from objective and inconsequential matters. By altering our attitude towards setback and shifting our mindset towards optimism or indifference, the stoic makes themself immune to frustration, anger, and unhappiness.
Viktor Frankl echoed these sentiments centuries later when he said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
With this outlook, life becomes simpler. The externally created occurrence itself is second to our internally resolved perception of it. The event is beyond our control, but our judgement of response is a decision in our power. There is no one to blame, you are not a victim, and that ‘negative’ thing is largely fabricated in our minds. Or as Epictetus puts it,
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”
One of the rare times Epictetus mentions his years in slavery is to address this point. He never perceived his situation to be one of enslavement. He didn’t live in misery, feel sorry for himself, or perpetuate hatred at his master. Yes, his physical body was in another’s control, but his thoughts, opinions, and attitude could not be seized.
Epictetus was not naive to insist this an ability instantly or easily obtainable. It was not sufficient for his students to sit in his class and put pen to paper. Like anything worth doing, discipling the mind takes work and requires practice. Epictetus relates learning the skill of judgement with how all great things are obtained,
“Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily?”
How much time does the olympic swimmer commit to the pool before we see them on the podium? How many hours does the author sit at the computer before we see their book on the best-seller list? Or how long must we water the plant until we can enjoy the fruit? Great outcomes demand great commitment to process. Stripping external events of power to be reclaimed by our internal minds is a fruitful outcome. To attain the ability, practice.
The Faculty of Choice
Epictetus says that our “most efficacious gift,” what distinguishes humans from other animals, the essence of human nature, is the faculty of choice – an ability to act rationally, not impulsively, after careful scrutinizing and assessment. Stoicism, most fundamentally, says that we have no control over what happens to us, we only control how we respond. Epictetus echoes that core tenet and adds that the pivotal goal of education is to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot, then cultivating the ability to only concern ourselves with that which we can control.
He would call that which is out of our control as ‘externals’ and that which is in our control as ‘internals.’ The only thing that matters, the only thing we should concern ourselves with, are the things in our control, or the internals. He believes most problems in a human’s life stem from the inability to distinguish the two and allowing externals to take precedence. By making externals the most valuable things in our lives is to put our freedom, happiness, and tranquility at someone else’s discretion. Most circumstances in our lives – things like our genetics, where we were born, when we will die, and even our bodies – depends largely on factors beyond our control, so there is no sense mulling over those things. He compares it to the weaver, who does not make the wool, but makes the best use of the wool he is given.
So how do we do it? He often uses the word ‘impressions’ synonymous with thoughts, feelings, and preconceptions. Those impressions create good, bad, and indifference. We determine the characterization of those impressions. In practice, say your house burnt down. You can say ‘poor me’ and enter a state of grief or anger, but Epictetus would advise to not add to your troubles and instead, start rebuilding. That choice of rebuilding is responding to an apparent bad impression and turning it to indifference. We rational humans have the ability to first assess, then perceive, before choosing how to respond. Irrational beings do not have the capacity to use impressions in a reflective manner, but rational behavior is guided by the faculty of choice.
The inevitability of challenges
Now understanding the supreme power of humans, Epictetus teaches the importance of putting it to use. He often asks his students some version of, ‘What good is your education if you are not to put it in practice?’ The application of choice is practical throughout Discourses particularly regarding manners presenting difficulties. The choice is between attacking them head on or retreating in a sulk.
Epictetus says that the difficulties and misfortunes presented in or daily lives are not done to us or intended to inflict pain upon us. These troubles and challenges are presented to promote strength, to provide an opportunity to overcome, and to prove one’s greatness. In dealing with hardship, we emerge better having gone through it. Instead of sulking in matters trivial, we’re better off accepting and conquering whatever might attempt to stand in our way. Like a boxer training for a prize-fight, Epictetus wishes his students view trouble as a sparring partner, our put another way,
“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.”
To cower or run from adversity is to rob one’s self of discovering what they are capable of. Further, to complain or back away is to say you are not capable. Epictetus teaches that we all are endowed with the tools and resources necessary, but at times, we might not realize them or worse, we choose not to put them into action. If we want to achieve greatness, we must accept that challenge is a requirement along that path. Epictetus uses the example of Hercules,
“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”
Without challenges, a comfortable life of luxury looks a lot like sleeping the day away. Every obstacle represents an opportunity.
Character and Relationships
It was important to Epictetus that his teachings not just be words on a page for his students. To live virtuously, to be indifferent to what you can’t control, to be averse of desiring material things were not just for their notes, but to be practiced in life. He warned against ‘crowds’ and ‘mobs’ who can use conviction to revert progress. An equivalent of the popular sentiment, ‘you are the average of the five people you most associate,’ can be found taught by Epictetus over two thousand years ago,
“It is inevitable if you enter into relationships with people on a regular basis that you will grow to be like them…Remember that if you consort with someone covered in dirt you can hardly avoid getting a little grimy yourself.”
Epictetus believed his school to be not so different than a hospital, where the patient leaves in better health than when they arrived. To attend his lectures meant the attendee strived to live a better life – one free of anger, dissatisfaction, anxiety, unhappiness, and so on. The process is ongoing but each day offers opportunity to inch closer. The danger, he believes, is coercion by the deafening screams of the crowds. Even old friends, those kept prior to pursuing this education, present a potential to regress advancement and return to old habits of lesser virtue. He advises discretion and a selectiveness in who you associate with, otherwise,
“Whatever you write down in class will melt away like wax in the sun.”
Stoics would all agree on the importance of character and virtue. They would also agree upon the difficulty to constantly maintain living virtuously. You can help yourself by surrounding yourself with those who share the aspiration to live a virtuous life, rather than those covered in dirt.
1) First distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t control. Second concern yourself only with what is in your control.
2) Rethink challenges as not something inflicted upon you or an unfair setback, but as an opportunity to prove your capabilities.
3) Education is useless if you do not apply it to your daily life.
4) Living a life of virtue and dignity is not an easy process so do whatever you have to protect your progress.
5) Freedom is determined by your mind, not by the body, bank account or possessions.
“I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?”
“No bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight.”
“But if we are endowed by nature with the potential for greatness, why do only some of us achieve it? Well, do all horses become stallions? Are all dogs greyhounds? Even if I lack the talent, I will not abandon the effort on that account.”
“We get angry because we put too high a premium on things that they can steal…As long as you honour material things, direct your anger at yourself rather than the thief or adulterer.”
“We should discipline ourselves in small things, and from there progress to things of greater value.”
“When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.”
“What does it mean to be getting an education? It means learning to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases as nature prescribes, and distinguishing what is in our power from what is not. The operations of the will are in our power.”
“The chief thing to remember is that the door is open. Don’t be a greater coward than children, who are ready to announce, ‘I won’t play any more.’ Say, ‘I won’t play any more’ when you grow weary of the game, and be done with it. But if you stay, don’t carp.”
“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
“Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control. For if evil is a matter of the will, then caution is needed there; and if everything beyond the will and not in our control is immaterial to us, then those things can be approached with confidence.”
“The masses are wrong to say that only freeborn men are entitled to an education; believe the philosophers instead, who say that only educated people are entitled to be called free.”
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control.”
“Don’t pretend you have a particular skill if you don’t yet; yield to whoever has the requisite experience; and for your own part take satisfaction in an awareness that your persistence is helping you become expert in the subject yourself.”
“Because we’re the only animals who not only die but are conscious of it even while it happens, we are beset by anxiety.”
“A person is not going to undertake to learn anything that they think they already know.”
“You can’t hope to make progress in areas where you have made no application.”
“Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint…So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different.”
“Place an extinguished piece of coal next to a live one, and either it will cause the other one to die out, or the live will make the other reignite. Since a lot is at stake, you should be careful about fraternizing with non-philosophers in these contexts.”
“You need to suspend desire completely, and train aversion only on things within your power. You should dissociate yourself from everything outside yourself.”
If you’re looking to keep Epictetus’ wisdom in mind each day, check out our custom Epictetus print below. It features his timeless quote “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself.”
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