“Spiritual progress requires us to highlight what is essential and to disregard everything else as trivial pursuits unworthy of our attention,” says Epictetus (55-135 AD), the Greek Stoic philosopher whose teachings have echoed through the ages, shaping the thoughts of a host of intellectual giants, from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and the Founding Fathers of the United States.
Indeed, Epictetus’ teachings – compiled by philosophical writer and editor Sharon Lebell in The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness (1995) – offer timeless wisdom for those of us in the 21st century seeking guidance on how to journey well through life.
Urging us to turn our focus away from external circumstances that lie beyond our control and toward the inner refinement of our own character, Epictetus’ ideas are highly accessible and relevant for the ordinary, every day human being trying to live a good, fulfilling life.
“Part of [Epictetus’] genius is his emphasis on moral progress over the seeking of moral perfection. With a keen understanding of how easily we human beings are diverted from living by our highest principles, he exhorts us to view the philosophical life as a progression of steps that gradually approximates our cherished personal ideals.”
In other words, Lebell explains, Epictetus teaches that:
“Moral progress is not the natural province of the highborn, nor is it achieved by accident or luck, but by working on yourself – daily.”
Below are some of Epictetus’ insights on how to do just that:
1. First and foremost, we must learn to distinguish between that which we can and cannot control:
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not…
Within our control are our opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us…We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.
Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.”
2. How we choose to perceive things is incredibly powerful:
“Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.
Therefore even death is no big deal in and of itself. It is our notion of death, our idea that it is terrible, that terrifies us. There are so many different ways to think about death. Scrutinize your notions about death – and everything else. Are they really true? Are they doing you any good?Don’t dread death or pain; dread the fear of death or pain.
We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
3. Pay no mind to what others think of you:
“Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.”
4. Do not seek the approval or admiration of others:
“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it be found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasm. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you! Create your own merit.”
5. Look for the opportunity in every difficulty:
“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use.”
6. Always strive for self-improvement and hold yourself accountable:
“Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.”
“When we remember that our aim is spiritual progress, we return to striving to be our best selves. This is how happiness is won.”
“No matter where you find yourself, comport yourself as if you were a distinguished person. While the behavior of many people is dictated by what is going on around them, hold yourself to a higher standard.”
7. Self-refinement is a noble task, and a lifelong process:
“Goodness isn’t ostentatious piety or showy good manners. It’s a lifelong series of subtle readjustments of our character. We fine-tune our thoughts, words, and deeds in a progressively wholesome direction…When you actively engage in gradually refining yourself, you retreat from your lazy ways of covering yourself or making excuses.”
“To live an extraordinary life means we must elevate our moral stature by culturing our character. The untrained brood about the constituent elements of their lives. They waste precious time in regret or wishing their particulars were different…[t]he morally trained, rather than resenting or dodging their current life situations and duties, give thanks for them and fully immerse themselves in their duties to their family, friends, neighbors, and job. When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities.”
8. Remember, appearances aren’t everything:
“How easily dazzled and deceived we are by eloquence, job title, degrees, high honors, fancy possessions, expensive clothing, or a suave demeanor. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that celebrities, public figures, political leaders, the wealthy, or people with great intellectual or artistic gifts are necessarily happy. To do so is to be bewildered by appearance and will only make you doubt yourself.”
9. What matters most is who we are on the inside:
“Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons, such as our physical appearance, the family we come from, and so on, what really matters is who we are inside and who we are becoming.”
10. Humility is wisdom:
“Don’t be puffed up with pride if you are able to provide for your needs with very little cost. The first task of the person who wishes to live wisely is to free himself or herself from the confines of self-absorption.”
“A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.”
11. Self-discipline and self-awareness are important:
“To ease our soul’s suffering, we engage in disciplined introspection in which we conduct thought-experiments to strengthen our ability to distinguish between wholesome and lazy, hurtful beliefs and habits.”
“Be suspicious of convention. Take charge of your own thinking. Rouse yourself from the daze of unexamined belief.”
12. We are not called to judge others:
“Generally, we’re all doing the best we can. When someone speaks to you curtly, disregards what you say, performs what seems to be a thoughtless gesture or even an outright evil act, think to yourself, ‘If I were that person and had endured the same trials, borne the same heartbreaks, had the same parents, and so on, I probably would have done or said the same thing.’ We are not privy to the stories behind people’s actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend our judgment of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding. This does not mean we condone evil deeds or endorse the idea that different actions carry the same moral weight.”
13. But we are called to forgive people – and ourselves:
“Human betterment is a gradual, two-steps-forward, one-step-back effort. Forgive others for their misdeeds over and over again. This gesture fosters inner ease. Forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.”
14. Our habits – of thinking, being and acting – matter:
“Every habit and faculty is preserved and increased by its corresponding actions: The habit of walking makes us better walkers, regular running makes us better runners. It is the same regarding matters of the soul. Whenever you are angry, you increase your anger; you have increased a habit and added fuel to a fire.”
15. We have agency in our lives – and are to use it:
“Renounce externals once and for all. Practice self-sufficiency. Don’t remain a dependent, malleable patient. Become your own soul’s doctor.”
16. Do not compromise yourself for the sake of others:
“In trying to please other people, we find ourselves misdirected toward what lies outside our sphere of influence. In doing so we lose our hold on our life’s purpose. Content yourself with being a lover of wisdom, a seeker of truth. Return and return again to what is essential and worthy. Do not try to seem wise to others.”
17. Resist the allure of instant gratification:
“Practice the art of testing whether particular things are actually good or not. Learn to wait and assess instead of always reacting from untrained instinct. Spontaneity is not a virtue in and of itself.
If some pleasure is promised to you and it seductively calls to you, step back and give yourself some time before mindlessly jumping at it…Will this pleasure bring but a momentary delight, or real, lasting satisfaction? It makes a difference in the quality of our life and the kind of person we become when we learn how to distinguish between cheap thrills and meaningful, lasting rewards.”
18. Recognize that God is in control – and has our best interest in mind:
“The essence of faithfulness lies first in holding correct opinions and attitudes regarding the Ultimate. Remember that the divine order is intelligent and fundamentally good. Life is not a series of random, meaningless episodes, but an ordered, elegant whole that follows ultimately comprehensible laws.
The divine will exists and directs the universe with justice and goodness. Though it is not always apparent if you merely look at the surface of things, the universe we inhabit is the best possible universe.
Fix your resolve on expecting justice and goodness and order, and they will increasingly reveal themselves to you in all your affairs. Trust that there is a divine intelligence whose intentions direct the universe. Make it your utmost goal to steer your life in accordance with the will of divine order.”
When you strive to conform your intentions and actions with the divine order, you don’t feel persecuted, helpless, confused, or resentful toward the circumstances of your life. You will feel strong, purposeful, and sure.
Faithfulness is not blind belief; it consists of steadfastly practicing the principle of shunning those things which are not within your control, leaving them to be worked out according to the natural system of responsibilities. Cease trying to anticipate or control events. Instead accept them with grace and intelligence.”
“Faithfulness is the antidote to bitterness and confusion. It confers the conviction that we are ready for anything the divine will intends for us. Your aim should be to view the world as an integrated whole, to faithfully incline your whole being toward the highest good, and to adopt the will of nature as your own.”
19. Relinquish the notion that happiness is dependent on certain external conditions being met:
“Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas. Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference of external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within.”
20. Finally….hold fast to this:
“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.
Respect your partnership with providence. Ask yourself often, How may I perform this particular deed such that it would be consistent with and acceptable to the divine will? Heed the answer and get to work.
When your doors are shut and your room is dark, you are not alone. The will of nature is within you as your natural genius is within. Listen to its importunings. Follow its directives.
As concerns the art of living, the material is your own life. No great thing is created suddenly. There must be time. Give your best and always be kind.”
The Art of Living is a slim, easy-to-read book that distills Epictetus’ wisdom and practical tips for living a grounded, fulfilling life. A truly enjoyable read, it at once challenges and inspires, and is a book worth revisiting regularly.
Epictetus, together with Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. Born a slave in 55 AD, he later obtained freedom and moved to Rome where he taught philosophy for nearly 25 years. After being banished by the Roman Emperor around 93 AD, he fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught there until his death in 135 AD.
- Think Carefully: Marcus Aurelius on How to Control the Mind
- Gisele Bündchen on Self-Awareness, Challenging Your Thoughts and Paying Attention to Your Inner Voice
- The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the Four Qualities of the Mind that Lead to Joyful Living
- Claiming Responsibility for Our Lives: Thomas Merton on Discovering Meaning and Purpose Within
- Be Still: The Desert Fathers on the Value of Solitude