Three Lessons From Epictetus That Will Change Your Daily Life
Timeless aphorisms from one of the greatest stoic teachers of all time.
Born thousands of years ago, Stoic Philosopher, Epictetus, grew up as a slave to the Roman Emperors freedman. It was during this time he began practicing Philosophy, as it was one of the few past-times he was allowed to pursue.
After being held captive for over three decades, Epicetitus was freed following the death of the Roman Emperor: Nero.
But this freedom of choice was shortlived.
Shortly after, in 93 A.D., newly elected Roman Emperor, Domitius, was heavily motivated to impress others. In an attempt to show off, he often performed cruel acts, and became obsessed with material possessions.
Stoic views, which preached virtue over possessions, were regarded as incompatible with this materially driven world-view. And as part of Domitius’ reign of terror, he banished all Philosophers from Rome.
Having fled the city, Epictetus started his own school of thought, teaching lessons which later became the basis for his book: the Enchiridion.
Today, he is hailed one of the most important Stoic Philosophers in all of history, and this text is regarded as one of the most influential ancient documents we have access to.
As a teacher, he was so respected, that Epictetus was hailed by Origen, an early Christian Philosopher, as —
“Even more popular than Plato had been.”
Having taught great thinkers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Herodes Atticus, Epictetus formed the basis for many of the principles and lessons we live by today.
As a synthesis of all of his life’s teachings, the text focuses on the core stoic principles.
Here, Epictetus teaches us to dismiss and avoid desires guided by external events out of our control. This is often regarded as radical because, if properly adopted, it would require a large shift in how most of us navigate the world.
The book primarily addresses those who want to become Philosophers, which according to his view, means those who practice a certain way of life. According to Epictetus, Philosophers exclusively value things from within, whereas non-Philosophers regularly chase external desires.
Regardless of its purpose, the Enchiridion can act as a useful handbook to help us navigate our day to day lives.
Lesson 1: Value “Character” Above All Else
Living and holding a virtuous character isn’t something that should be taken lightly. In fact, the Stoics valued character above everything else.
According to Epictetus’ teachings, virtuous choices should come from within. By this, he means we should make our decisions regardless of what other people think.
In short, in confidently acting virtuously, you should remain indifferent to being spoken to negatively and never let other people’s criticism or actions influence your actions.
Rather than trying to impress others, stand by what you believe is right. After all, according to Epictetus —
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
Because if you’ve done some internal reflection, you know in your heart what you believe to be right… even if others say different.
Knowing exactly how to act virtuously or know what the “right actions” are can be a difficult practice. But throughout his life, Epictetus highlighted a few things that could be considered “virtuous.”
To Retain a Strong Character, You Should:
- Not get too caught up in entertainment or idle discussion about popular topics, as this could leave us focused on trivial topics rather than the important stuff.
- Practice intellectual humility: shut off your ego and stop talking about yourself. Instead, learn from others by listening to them.
- Recognize that blame achieves nothing, but taking responsibility enables you to learn from past mistakes. Stop blaming, start learning.
Lesson 2: Focus on Yourself, Let Everything Else Be
- We can’t control how others act, think, or perceive us.
- We can’t control what the weather is going to be like tomorrow.
- We can’t control whether our favorite sports team is going to win.
But what we can control is our own character and perceptions. If we wanted to, we could change how we navigate the world, and how we perceive things that happen to us.
We can’t control things outside of that. So it seems ludicrous to rest things, be that self-worth or happiness, on anything other than our own character and perceptions.
If we can’t do anything about something, why worry about it.
According to Epictetus, the moment we focus on our own actions, rather than something that depends on the actions of others, or circumstances beyond our control, we will be free.
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
You Are Not a Slave
When you rest your life and happiness on something or someone external to you, you are restricting your ability to live in accordance with your values — because you are telling yourself that to achieve happiness, you have to act in a certain way.
- When you rest your happiness on the success of your job, you’re forcing yourself to act in a certain way to appease your boss.
- When you rest your happiness on the weather, you’re telling yourself you can’t be happy whenever it’s raining.
Epictetus tells us to take a step back and simplify what we are concerned with — he tells us not to get emotionally affected by what happens in the world, because we have no power over it.
In measuring your life exclusively by the things you can do, rather than the things others can — you’re setting yourself free to live, rather than living to please others in the hope they will act as you want.
It’s Not You, It’s Them
Of course, it’s impossible to avoid everything in this world that might be unpleasant or cause us unhappiness. According to Epictetus, when we do encounter such things, it’s best that we pay little attention to them in order to avoid disturbance.
After all, they reflect little about us as people, and more about the external world. In the words of Epictetus —
“Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”
Lesson 3: Outcomes are Shaped by Reactions
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
It's evident, from the previous lessons in the Enchiridion, that there’s a lot of things we can’t control. What we can control, however, are our reactions — and such responses will influence our attitudes, directions, results, and our lives.
How you respond is your choice — and such a choice will impact your quality of life. It will determine whether you fixate on the negative your whole life, or learn from them and take each even in your stride.
How you do one thing is how you do everything, and a lot of people choose to fixate on the negative and their failures, which influences their ability to succeed:
- They blame negative external events on themselves.
- Such blame leads them to question their ability and worth.
- And such blame prevents them from taking future risks — because they think that, like before, they’re setting themselves up to fail.
But if you respond by acknowledging that the failure was outside of your control and reflects nothing about you, you’re more likely to learn from such events — and retain a willingness to take risks at success.
On the whole, this way of living offers a higher chance of achieving success, and a deeper appreciation for our positive characteristics — rather than misattributing and blaming ourselves for negative external events.
“The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”
From humble beginnings as a slave, to being hailed as one of the greatest stoic teachers of all time, Epictetus offers numerous home-spun truths that could change your daily life.
In particular, he teaches us to:
- Value “character” and virtue above all else. In doing so, we ought to make choices from within, rather than listening to others.
- Focus on ourselves, and let everything outside of our control be. Rather than being a slave to others and our circumstances, find peace in knowing that external negative events reflect nothing about you.
- Acknowledge that, although you can’t always control what happens to you, you can control how you respond — and such reactions will influence the person you become, the successes you experience, and how content you are.
Live for yourself, rather than your circumstance. After all —
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”