Epictetus: The Golden Sayings
Epictetus was born nearly 2,000 years ago in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale in Turkey) as a slave in a wealthy household. Epaphroditus, his owner, gave him the permission to pursue liberal studies and it is how Epictetus discovered philosophy through the Stoic Musonius Rufus who became his teacher and mentor. Later, Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after emperor Nero’s death and started teaching philosophy in Rome for nearly 25 years. This lasted until emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers in Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught there until his death.
After his death, Lucian tells us that someone bought Epictetus’s earthenware lamp for 3,000 drachmas (surprisingly enough, that same lamp also mentioned later by James Joyce).
Epictetus’ strong and wide-ranging influence can be seen in multiple instances. Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, thanks his teacher Junius Rusticus for introducing him to Epictetus. There is a slight probability that Rusticus actually attended Epictetus’ lectures and passed his own notes to Marcus. Yet the most likely thing is that Marcus read the widely circulated notes by Epictetus’s student Arria.
James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over 7 years credits Epictetus for providing him with a framework on how to endure the tortures he was subjected to. As Stockdale would be confined in leg irons, he certainly remembered that Epictetus had a disabled leg, which was probably broken by his master although there is no certainty around this.
Epictetus appears prominently in author Tom Wolfe’s well-known novel A Man in Full. Albert Ellis, the psychologist who founded Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was also influenced by Epictetus.
What is fascinating is that this influence came by pure luck. Epictetus never actually wrote anything down. It is through his student Arrian that we have a written account of his lessons. And if everyone from Emperors to war heros have been grateful as they found guidance, solace and strength in Epictetus’ lessons, then there must be something for us. But only if we choose to.
Notable Works & Suggested Readings
A great starting point for Epictetus would be his Enchiridion, which translates as a ‘small manual or a handbook’ and it is exactly that. It is the perfect introduction to Epictetus as it is packed with short Stoic maxims and principles. Unlike both Seneca and Marcus, Epictetus is somewhat more difficult to read and we recommend beginning with those two if you haven’t yet read them. The next step would be Epictetus’ Discourses, which are much longer and deserve a bigger commitment.
For other readings, as mentioned above we recommend reading the short autobiography Courage Under Fire by James Stockdale as well as A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
3 Exercises & Lessons From Epictetus
1. Remember What’s In Your Control
The Enchiridion begins with one of the most important maxims in Stoic philosophy. The importance of distinguishing things that are under our control and things that are not. (Think of it as the Stoic Serenity Prayer.) It is a reminder not to get angry and upset by things which we cannot influence such as other people and external events and to only focus on ourselves, our own behavior. This makes things a bit easier, doesn’t it? A humbling reminder of how much happens that we can’t influence and learning to let go and accept things as they are. Yet at the same time, a powerful reminder that our actions and choices are fully in our own control.
2. Set the Standard
The best leaders rarely talk how things ought to be done, their actions speak for themselves. Think of someone you admired and how many of the lessons came indirectly from the choices that they’ve made and the example they have set. Similarly, we need to be focused on how we are actually living and what choices we are making. That’s where our time and energy will be best spent.
3. Prescribe Yourself a Character
Epictetus understood how much we act out of habit and how we tend to think that our ways of doing things are set in stone. He admonished his students to set some principles and standards they need to follow and not deviate as much as possible. This is certainly not easy by any stretch but with small steps, each day reminding us what direction we’d like to go to, we can get closer to the character we wish to have.
In Stoicism, three of its most well-known practitioners ranged widely in terms of where they stood in society. Think of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire holding one of the most powerful positions in the world. Think of Seneca, who was an adviser to an emperor, renowned playwright and one of the richest people in the Roman Empire. And then there is Epictetus, on the complete opposite, who was born as a slave. That’s what makes Stoicism so powerful: it can provide timeless principles to help us in both good and bad fortune, no matter our station our life.