Who was Epictetus?

Epictetus, born in 55 AD, rose from the humble beginnings as a slave in ancient Greece to become one of Stoicism’s greatest teachers.

Despite adversity early on in life (including a life of service that left him crippled), he never let his circumstances define who he was.

Epictetus’ story is an excellent example of resilience and the potential for Stoic philosophy to guide us towards accepting the things in life we cannot control and taking full responsibility for what we can (a concept we’ll look at more closely in a moment).

Many believe that the mistreatment Epictetus endured was the cause of his crippled leg, which would leave him with a limp for the remainder of his life. Yet, it was in these experiences of pain and adversity that Epictetus found the seeds of his passion for Stoicism.

Rather than succumbing to bitterness or despair, Epictetus used his personal experiences to inform and enrich his understanding of Stoic philosophy.

He believed that philosophy was not merely an intellectual pursuit but a practical tool for improving the lives of those who embraced its teachings.

Through his own life, he exemplified the Stoic ideal of resilience and strength of character as a means of overcoming suffering and adversity.

Once he gained his freedom, Epictetus embarked on a new chapter in his life as a philosopher and educator. He opened his own school, where he shared his wisdom with others and demonstrated the power of Stoic principles in action.

Throughout his career as a philosopher, Epictetus emphasized the importance of cultivating a strong character and using rational thought to navigate life’s challenges.

Though Epictetus never penned any books or published works, his teachings were immortalized by one of his students, Arrian.

This devoted pupil diligently recorded Epictetus’ lectures and compiled them into a collection of notes, which would eventually be organized into the famous text, The Discourses of Epictetus. This seminal work continues to be a cornerstone of ancient philosophy and a testament to the enduring impact of Stoicism.

“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.

Within your control are your own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel you. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

Not within your control is literally everything else. You must remember these things are externals, and none of your concern.”


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The Stoic Philosophy of Epictetus:

Life as a slave was full of suffering and uncertainty, with a constant threat of violence, execution, or mistreatment.

Despite this, Epictetus believed that a person could still live a good life regardless of their situation; it is all down to how we manage our thoughts and how we view the world. His own method of remaining resilient involved constant reminders of what was within his control and what was not.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”

– Epictetus

With the guidance and teachings of Zeno of Citium, Epictetus developed a system of thought that allowed him to remain calm and mentally resilient despite the threats in his life. He did this by focusing on what was within his control and accepting what was not.

“test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”

– Epictetus

Although his work is sometimes difficult to read (depending on the translation), Epictetus instructs us to judge whether something is inside or outside our control. If we find it to be outside, then be ready to say ‘Then it’s none of my concern’.

When we make this distinction and decide to focus our energy on the things in life within our control, we become more effective at finding solutions in our lives, and we lessen the impact of things outside our control that we can do nothing about.

The work of Epictetus has since had a profound impact on people throughout history. The Stoic’s lessons found their way to one of Rome’s greatest emperors, Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor of Rome.

Aurelius was deeply influenced by the teachings of Epictetus, and his own untitled journal, which has since been called ‘Meditations’, is extremely powerful in itself and peppered with the echoes of Epictetus.

Many consider Meditations to be one of the world’s greatest works of philosophy, despite being the private journal of an Emperor coming to the end of his life.

Modern prisoners of war have found comfort in the ancient lessons of Stoic philosophy, remaining resilient in the understanding that whatever is done to them in captivity is outside their control and that they still have control over their minds, which no one can take from them. Used by emperors and prisoners of war alike, this concept is key to maintaining our wellbeing.

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The Stoic Dichotomy of Control:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will”

– Epictetus

Epictetus left us with his Stoic dichotomy of control, a simple concept that lays the foundation of his work on preventing suffering caused by the world around us. His handbook of Stoic practice begins with the words:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

Control is a difficult subject to see clearly in the modern world, we often assume that we have far more control than we really do.

In reality, we control very little. This is an uncomfortable thought; however, much of what we think we control is an illusion.

We all tend to believe that we have more control over our surroundings than we actually do. It is a very common human belief. It’s also understandable, because we find comfort in control. If we have control over something, it means we can change it, and if we can change it, it both makes us feel empowered and reduces the perceived risk of our surroundings.

However, in reality, we have very little control over these things, and I’ll outline below why overestimating the level of our control can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.

It is the responsibility of every individual to decide what is within their control and what is not. The closer we get to the reality of our power, the less we suffer when life inevitably shows us.

When these two distinctions are made, we then have two choices: we can choose to spend our time helplessly worrying about the things we have no control over, or we can focus our energy on the areas of our life we can do something about.

There is a clear reason for spending time on this, for many of the world’s frustrations are born from focusing too much on what is outside our control and too little on what is within our control.

Area 1: What is inside our control:

     – Our thoughts

     – Beliefs

     – Actions

Area 2: What is not inside our control:

     – The weather

     – The economy

     – Other people and their actions, opinions and beliefs

     – Time

     – Our bodies, we can improve our health but our bodies will eventually fail us

     – Possessions

     – Our reputation or what people think of us

The Stoic at Sea:

If we take the example of a fisherman: while out at sea the fisherman has some level of control over his surroundings. However much of his trip with be outside of his control.

  • He can’t control where the fish will be, only how and when to cast the nets.

  • He can’t control the weather, only how to use the sails to navigate calm or stormy waters.

  • He can’t decide the direction of the wind, he can only do his best to use it to his advantage.

In accepting the things outside of his control, and focusing his energy on what is within his control, the fisherman does two things:

  1. He becomes more effective because no time is wasted on things he can do nothing about.

  2. He suffers less because in accepting the things outside of his control he does not experience the common feelings of frustration, bitterness, anger, or helplessness that plague those who try to change the things outside the reach of their power.

Epictetus and Stoic Resilience:

After all, if we spend our lives trying to change the things that cannot be changed we are bound to feel frustrated, powerless, anxious, depressed, unmotivated and altogether unhappy.

We all know someone who is consistently a victim of their surroundings, there is always something for them to complain about, it could be the weather or the traffic or money or relationships but there is always something, their happiness is always at the mercy of the next bad experience.

They focus on the things outside of their control and do little to develop or change what is inside their control.

In contrast, if we accept that which is not in our control as it is, and focus our efforts on what is inside our control, we are no longer frustrated by the world because we are affecting change where it is within our power to do so, we become effective.

When we are stuck in traffic, we accept that traffic is part of the nature of driving and we do something to pass the time like listening to an audio book.

When it rains on a special day, we accept that nature is unpredictable and it cannot be changed, so we make the most of the day regardless.

Not only are we then more effective but we also begin to see visible changes for the better as our efforts are focused on what we can influence, including developing more favourable beliefs and thoughts about ourselves and the world.

We start to focus on our actions, on things like exercise, diet, gratitude, changing jobs, spending time on hobbies, moving to live in a better area, and spending more time with friends and family. At the same time we move away from blame, victim mentalities, complaining about the world, frustration and the unfairness of life.

Life is indifferent to you, in many cases, a reason people feel victimised or singled out is because of their perceptions of the world around them, rather than the world itself. Of course, there are real social issues that need to be addresses for large scale discrimination, but I’m referring to individual level issues in this post.

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Epictetus & Stoicism over victim-hood:

Epictetus, a prominent Stoic philosopher, teaches us the value of choosing Stoicism over victimhood. By adopting a Stoic mindset, we can avoid falling into the “why me” trap, which often stems from the belief that we are the center of the universe.

This belief leads to the false assumption that external events, like bad weather, economic downturns, or relationship struggles, are specifically targeting us. Instead, Epictetus encourages us to accept change and adapt to it, as the world is an ever-changing place, and resisting these changes only exacerbates our discomfort.

The Stoic framework divides life into two areas: Area 1, which includes the things we can control, such as our beliefs and thoughts, and Area 2, which contains the factors outside of our control. Although we can exert some influence over aspects of Area 2, such as our reputation or physical health, we ultimately cannot control everything.

To live a happier, more effective life, we should focus on accepting the things outside of our control and concentrating on what is within our control.

The primary goal of this Stoic approach is to build resilience by limiting the effect of external factors on our well-being. If we accept the contents of Area 2 as they are and adapt to them as they come, our happiness will no longer be at the mercy of the world around us.

Instead, our happiness will be a product of Area 1 – our beliefs and thoughts, which we have the power to shape and develop.

Taking responsibility for Area 1 and focusing our time and energy on it can lead to dramatic improvements in our lives. This focus on our internal world allows us to cultivate resilience, ensuring that we can withstand the challenges and uncertainties that life inevitably presents.

Embracing Stoic philosophy means rejecting victimhood in favor of adaptability and resilience. By focusing on what we can control and accepting what we cannot, we free ourselves from the self-imposed limitations of victimhood and empower ourselves to live a more fulfilling, effective life.

Applying The Lessons from Epictetus:

Epictetus, the influential Stoic philosopher, offers us valuable lessons that can be applied to our daily lives. Drawing from his teachings, we can cultivate a resilient mindset and navigate the challenges of life with grace and wisdom. Here are some key lessons from Epictetus that we can incorporate into our own lives:

  1. Distinguish between what is in our control and what is not: One of the central tenets of Epictetus’ teachings is to understand the difference between what is within our control and what is not. By focusing on the aspects of life we can influence, such as our thoughts, beliefs, and actions, we can avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety caused by trying to control things beyond our reach.

  2. Cultivate inner resilience: Epictetus encourages us to develop inner strength by accepting external events as they come and adapting to them. Instead of allowing external circumstances to dictate our emotional state, we can choose to be resilient and maintain a sense of inner peace.

  3. Practice gratitude: Epictetus emphasizes the importance of gratitude in living a contented life. By cultivating gratitude for what we have and recognizing the transient nature of material possessions, we can avoid becoming overly attached to things and focus on the aspects of life that truly matter.

  4. Embrace adversity as an opportunity for growth: Epictetus teaches us that adversity is a natural part of life and can be seen as an opportunity for growth rather than a source of suffering. By adopting this perspective, we can use challenging situations to strengthen our character and learn valuable lessons.

  5. Take responsibility for our reactions: Epictetus famously said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” This reminds us that while we cannot control external events, we have the power to choose how we respond to them. By taking responsibility for our reactions, we can develop greater emotional resilience and navigate life’s challenges more effectively.

  6. Avoid playing the victim: Epictetus encourages us to reject the victim mentality and embrace our agency. By recognizing that we have the power to choose our response to any situation, we can avoid the trap of feeling helpless and disempowered.

  7. Live in accordance with our values: Epictetus urges us to align our actions with our values and principles, rather than being swayed by external pressures or the opinions of others. By living authentically, we can achieve a sense of purpose and inner harmony.

  8. Practice daily reflection: Epictetus advises us to engage in regular self-reflection, examining our thoughts and actions to ensure they align with our values and goals. This practice can help us maintain our focus on personal growth and self-improvement.

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One Comment

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