Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher, born around ad 50 at Hierapolis into slavery. While still in servitude, his wealthy master allowed him to be educated by the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. Around ad 68, Epictetus gained his freedom and went on to teach Stoicism himself, first in Rome, and then, when Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, in Nicopolis, Greece.
One of Epictetus’ students was Flavius Arrian, who would gain renown for his historical work on the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Arrian recorded his teacher’s discourses in four books. He also put together a much shorter text called the Enchiridion—“the handbook”—to serve as a distillation of his teacher’s ideas, a set of practical principles to keep in mind at all times. The little book remained popular, becoming a bestseller when it was translated into the languages of Europe. Montaigne had one in his library, Frederick the Great had it with him on his campaigns, the great Scottish philosophers—Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson—all studied it.1
Below is a list of principles from the Enchiridion that I found most valuable. These are not meant to be a comprehensive summary—the book is very short and is itself a kind of summary—these are just the ideas that stood out to me. Most of the below quotations are from Robert Dobbin’s Penguin Classics translation. I’ve also also used Thomas W. Higginson’s translation (available at Gutenberg) as I find some passages flow a little better there, although the modern translation is definitely easier to read.
None of my concern
There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.
… if you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. You won’t have a single rival, no one to hurt you, because you will be proof against harm of any kind.
… 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.”
This is, perhaps, the key principle in the book. Whenever something happens to you, whenever you run into some problem, some setback, take a moment to consider whether there is anything you can do about the situation, or whether it is wholly beyond your control. If you can do something, then focus your energies on that. If not, then worrying about it won’t change anything. Say to yourself: “it’s none of my concern,” banish it from your mind, and focus on the things you can actually change.
Desire or shun only that which you control
The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want, while aversion purports to shield you from what you don’t. If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy. So direct aversion only towards things that are under your control and alien to your nature, and you will not fall victim to any of the things you dislike. But if your resentment is directed at illness, death or poverty, you are headed for disappointment.
And in another place, the same idea applied to wishing for things that depend on other people:
We are at the mercy of whoever wields authority over the things we either desire or detest. If you would be free, then, do not wish to have, or avoid, things that other people control, because then you must serve as their slave.
And another, on picking your battles:
You will never have to experience defeat if you avoid contests whose outcome is outside your control.
These are all a variation of the previous principle. Desiring or shunning things beyond our control—whether it is up to nature or other people—sets us up for disappointment. Focus instead on what actually depends on your actions. A related idea is expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy scriptures of Hinduism: “The spirit of man when in nature feels the ever-changing conditions of nature. When he binds himself to things ever-changing, a good or evil fate whirls him round through life-in-death.” The more we bind our happiness to things that are at the mercy of fortune—money, possessions, status, power—the more we’ll be whirled around by fate as it is inevitable that those things will come and go. We need not abstain from them, but we should recognize their transient nature.
Events don’t disturb us, our judgments of them do
It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgment that death is frightening—now, that is something to be afraid of.
Our worries and anxieties are the creations of our mind, they’re not the objects of our thought themselves. Therefore, the way we react to a situation is merely a response to our judgements, assumptions and fears. This means that we can control our reactions by reframing the way we view a situation. Is there some good in a difficult situation, some opportunity? If you focus on that instead of the thing that causes you worry, your reaction will be transformed. If you’re going to muse over something in your head, turning it over and over, why spend time on the negative when you can focus on the positive?
Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.
Although a critic of Stoicism, Nietzsche echoes this sentiment in Ecce Homo: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati2: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.” In fact, challenges and obstructions are actually the things that will make you grow, for we cannot make progress without having something to overcome. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
You cannot lose something you do not own
Under no circumstances ever say “I have lost something,” only “I returned it.” Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned. “My land was confiscated.” No, it too was returned.
“But the person who took it was a thief.”
Why concern yourself with the means by which the original giver effects its return? As long as he entrusts it to you, look after it as something yours to enjoy only for a time—the way a traveller regards a hotel.
This view has a striking resemblance to that presented in the Bible in the Book of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) We cannot own a thing forever, so why not think of our possessions as things that we look after? This line of thinking also implies a moral quality: if we are looking after a thing, should we also not improve it, augment it?3
A small price to pay for tranquility
Begin therefore with little things. Is a little oil spilled or a little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for peace and tranquillity; and nothing is to be had for nothing.”
The above example is an exercise proposed by Epictetus to help us master the way we react to misfortune. He suggests we start with small things, little mishaps, accidents and setbacks. Let’s say you spilled your coffee, or something insignificant of that nature. Instead of feeling frustrated and annoyed, see it as an opportunity to control your emotions. If we want to get stronger, we must train. That is the price we pay. And it’s the same thing here. If we wish to master our reactions, we will have to pay the price of overcoming misfortune. So instead of being irritated, be happy to experience such small accidents, for they are a small price to pay on your way to tranquility.
Don’t surrender your time and mind to every passer-by
If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?
The great Stoic philosopher Seneca touched on a related thought, pointing out the absurdity of being stingy with possessions, but liberal with time: “You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life!”4 Not only are we ready to give away our time—our most valuable, unreplenishable resource—for every trifling request, but we get upset by petty criticisms, suffering mental anguish that makes us lose focus and ruins our day.
Don’t be complicit in your own provocation
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.
As mentioned above, it’s not the event, but our judgment of it that disturbs us. We must believe we are being harmed. In reality, the person might not even want to harm you—they may simply be incompetent or unaware of how their actions are perceived by you. And even if they do want to provoke you, why let them?
Consider the work involved, not the reward
When going into a field or setting a goal, consider the work rather than the reward. If you can do the work, and enjoy it, then do it, but if you’re only interested in the reward, you won’t last:
You want to win the Olympics? So do I—who doesn’t? It’s a glorious achievement; but reflect on what’s entailed both now and later on before committing to it. You have to submit to discipline, maintain a strict diet, abstain from rich foods, exercise under compulsion at set times in weather hot and cold, refrain from drinking water or wine whenever you want—in short, you have to hand yourself over to your trainer as if he were your doctor. And then there are digging contests to endure, and times when you dislocate your wrist, turn your ankle, swallow quantities of sand, be whipped—and end up losing all the same.
Consider all this, and if you still want to, then give athletics a go. If you don’t pause to think, though, you’ll end up doing what children do, playing at wrestler one minute, then gladiator, then actor, then musician.
Every situation has two handles
Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite—that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.
What’s meant by “handles” is a way to handle something. Take a simple example of a mug of hot coffee. You can lift it up by the handle, and all will be well, but if you grab it by the body while it’s still hot, you’ll burn yourself. The way we react to a difficult situation is like the way we choose to lift the hot mug. Before letting your emotions pick your reaction for you, step back and think: is there another way to approach this? Do I have to rage about it, or can I not bear this with dignity? As Epictetus writes in another place, for every challenge, there is a corresponding virtue: self-restraint, endurance, patience, and so on. Why not respond with that?
The time is now
How long will you wait before you demand the best of yourself, and trust reason to determine what is best? … When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance to progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.
There’s this memorable episode in the First Punic War—a war fought between Rome and Carthage around 250 bc—when Hannibal Barca, the commander of the Carthaginian troops, offered his Gallic prisoners freedom by means of single combat among each other. The victors won their freedom, along with other rewards like horses, rich cloaks and armor. Those not chosen for combat remained captive. The Carthaginians felt sorry for those captives as they didn’t even get the chance to fight for their freedom. Hannibal then impressed this lesson upon his troops: “For as you all considered both the victor and the dead fortunate and pitied the survivors, so now should you think about yourselves and go all of you to battle resolved to conquer if you can, and, if this be impossible, to die.” Although the Romans ultimately prevailed, Hannibal went on to conquer Italy in one of history’s most brilliant campaigns.5 Failure does not lie in mistakes or setbacks, it lies in inaction. The time to act is now.
Principles should be applied
The most important function of philosophy is to guide our actions, but what most philosophers spend time doing is analyzing the reasons and the logic behind their conclusions. In other words, we derive principles such as “do not lie,” but, instead of applying them, we spend time on analyzing their proofs: “The result is that we lie—but have no difficulty proving why we shouldn’t.”
And on applying what we read:
Whenever someone prides himself on being able to understand and comment on Chrysippus’ books, think to yourself: “If Chrysippus had written more clearly, this person would have nothing to be proud of.” … When I find that Chrysippus really can interpret nature, it still remains for me to act on his suggestions—which is the only thing one can be proud of.
Only you can harm yourself
“Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.”
This incredible remark is a quote from Socrates, who was referring to two of his accusers as he was being condemned to death. Many things in life are beyond our control. Life itself can be taken from us at any moment by such things as an accident or an incurable illness. What we get to choose is our attitude. What makes us stronger is the knowledge to make wiser decisions and the discipline to go through with them. What harms us is anything that makes us betray our values. By condemning Socrates, the court at Athens brought disgrace upon themselves, and Socrates, staying true to what he believed, was not harmed, even in death. If anything, he was immortalized.
Latin: “love of fate.” ↩
From the C. D. N. Costa translation published under the title On the Shortness of Life by Penguin Books (Great Ideas series). ↩
Richard Miles. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Penguin Books, 2011. ↩