Who Was Epictetus?

Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived in ancient Rome until he was banished, alongside many other philosophers, around AD 93.

Born a slave, we know little about his early life. Even his name comes from the Greek word epíktētos meaning acquired or gained, so the name his parents gave him has been lost. Epictetus was also crippled, some accounts saying that his crippled leg was the work of one of his masters, another account suggested he was crippled from birth.

Born into slavery around AD 50 Epictetus quickly found an interest in philosophy and he was permitted by his master to study Stoicism under the Stoic Musonius Rufus.

After the death of Emperor Nero in AD 68 Epictetus earned his freedom and began to teach his Stoic philosophy in Rome.

Although, as far as we know, he wrote none of his teachings down, a student named Arrian wrote detailed notes during Epictetus’ lectures, many of which survive today.

There are dozens of lessons to take from the surviving work of Epictetus, here are a few of my favourite:


“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

Many of us believe that wealth is the collection of things, mostly money. In reality wealth is defined by the individual. Some will consider themselves wealthy if they have a lot of close friends, family and loved ones. Others will see wealth as happiness, or inner peace.

In any case, Epictetus suggests here that wealth is not about collecting as much as possible in the traditional sense of wealth, but to reduce desire. When we want less, we’re happier with less, we’re grateful for what we do have, and this peace of mind can be seen as wealth.

Is a wealthy person one who is never happy and always chasing the next house, car or expensive clothes, or is the wealthy person the one who has little and is happy with what they do have?

Rule 2:

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

One of the most fundamental lessons in Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy is the idea that there is very little under our control. He proposed that we only really have control over our judgements, thoughts, actions and pursuits, everything else is uncontrollable to greater or lesser degrees.

This dichotomy has an impact on our happiness because of what happens we we can and can’t tell the difference between the two.

When we focus on what is within our control and accept what we cannot, our happiness becomes our responsibility. We don’t blame anyone and we don’t blame the world around us because we know that we control our actions, we control our reactions, beliefs and values, all of which can be used to create a good life.

In contrast, when we focus on what is not in our control, we spend our time and energy on things that our efforts can’t change. In this way we become frustrated, bitter, anxious, angry and we can more easliy blame the world or other people for our misfortune.

In this way the dichotomy of control has a profound impact on individual happiness.

Rule 3:

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”

The Stoics believed that many of the things in life that people find troubling are not troubling. Hardship doesn’t happen because of the events around us, but our perception of events.

We can see this in practice in the real world. If you take 100 people and put them is a high stress situation, they will not all experience the same struggle. This means that suffering depends more in the individual experiencing it than it does on the source of the suffering.

If this is true than we can learn to view events differently in order to lessen the suffering we experience.

Rule 4:

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Going back to Epictetus’ views on control – we can’t control what happens to us, we can only control how we respond to it.

Resistance often causes more suffering, and if we’re resisting something that has already happened we are suffering unnecessarily – no matter how much we suffer we can’t turn back time and stop life.

What we can do is decide how we respond.

Rule 5:

“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”

There is a saying that we become the people we spend time around. Part of this is the unconscious adoption of the views, values and beliefs that other people rub off on us. Most of the time we’re not even aware it’s happening.

Epictetus could see this as part of human nature, and explains the risks associated with adopting views and beliefs without thinking about whether or not they are constructive or not.

Keep an eye on what others would have you believe. Our thought and values are within our control and are therefore our responsibility.

Rule 6:

“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, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”

Here Epictetus reminds us that we control our response, our opinions and our beliefs about any given situation.

While we don’t control the actions of others, we are responsible for how we react to them. If someone is rude or insults us, that action in itself is not enough to make us frustrated or angry, we have to rise to it. If we choose not to, we maintain our peace of mind.

One way to do this is to think about the person being rude in a different way – if they are being deliberately insulting or trying to provoke you, it’s more a reflection on them than it is of you. There’s no need to give that person permission to destabilise our tranquillity.

Rule 7:

“God has entrusted me with myself. No man is free who is not master of himself. A man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things. The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.”

The Stoics believed that a good life comes from within. After we have learnt to accept the things in life outside the reach of our control (the weather, other people, the economy, traffic, our health, time etc) we are left with the things within our control, our inner world.

In this way our happiness has less to do with the world around us and more to do with what’s within us. When we master our beiefs, actions, reactions, values, biases and judgements, we master how we process the world around us. This, in turn, gives us control over our entire experience of life.

Rule 8:

“Seek not the good in external things, seek it in yourselves.”

Similar to rule 7 – we should depend as little as possible on the reliance of external thing giving us a better life and look inward to the way we process the world around us.

The good that comes from externals, the enjoyment that comes from a holiday or a new car, is fleeting and comes and goes depending on what happens around us. If our entire sense of happiness is reliant on externals then it too is fleeting and fragile.

If, however, our happiness is based upon our inner world and our beliefs and values, then we can make it resilient because we separate our happiness from external influence.

Rule 9:

“Don’t seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting something in the future, or to have hopes that an event will go a certain way. However the Stoics believed that we shouldn’t attach our wellbeing to externals, including future eventualities.

We have no control over how life will pan out, this means that if we place our hopes and happiness on the expectation that something will go our way, we are putting our happiness in the hands of chance and this is not a resilient way to live.

The greater our expectations the greater our suffering when they’re not met.

Rule 10:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.”

This is a more in depth passage relating to the message in rule 2.

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