One of the most important questions we ask ourselves is about the way we should live our lives. What is really important and how should we act?
Luckily, there is guidance available and some of the most profound thoughts on this were formed already two thousand years ago.
These words of wisdom were uttered by a man named Epictetus, who went on to influence the lives of some of the most powerful men of his era, all the way up to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Yet this man was born a slave and supposedly had one of his legs maimed by a former cruel master, so that he always walked with a limp. This did not detter him from living a good life and achieving happiness.
Epictetus was not a theoretical philosopher living in his own world, but instead tried to make his philosophy down-to-earth and practical. This advice can be taken and applied in the real world as a guide for your day-to-day life.
His powerful words served as inspiration for many people undergoing hard times. Picture this: a man sitting in a prison with no knowledge whether he will ever get out.
The man could feel no hope, but instead his thoughts are turned inwards and draw inspiration from Epictetus.
There is a great similarity to the tale of Boethius and his reflections on life that I already wrote about. However the year is 1967 and the man is James Stockdale, an American pilot captured by the Vietnamese and put in a prisoner of war camp.
Stockdale credited the works of Epictetus for showing him the way on how to survive this ordeal. If these words could guide a man in such desperate times, just imagine what they could do for you.
We know the philosophy of Epictetus primarily through the works of his pupil, Arrian. Arrian noted down the teachings of Epictetus in two surviving works: “The Discourses” and “Enchiridion”, which is the Greek word for handbook.
It is the “Enchiridion” which is the most easily accessible work, as it is short and contains many practical lessons for your own life. It doesn’t take long to read, but can really change the way you view life in a very fundamental way.
All people search for happiness, but they usually go about it in the wrong way. They don’t realize that happiness can only come from within, from things that you have control over.
What are the things that you have control over? Your thoughts and your actions.
The main idea of the Stoics was that you should live a simple life, where you don’t concern yourself with things that you cannot control, and instead focus on the things that you can.
The world is what it is, random things will happen, and they might block your progress. Learn to accept it.
Living a simple life, where you act in a disciplined way, and where you act in accordance with your moral principles (virtue), will lead you to happiness.
“For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus
Below are some of the main lessons from the “Enchiridion”:
Lesson 1: There are some things you can control, and some which you cannot. Change the things you have power over and don’t worry about the rest.
One of the most significant ideas of the Ancient Stoics is that there are some things that we have control over and some things that we do not have control over. If you realize this, you are on your way to living a happier life.
“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.“
What are the things that are in our power and which aren’t?
“In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammelled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others.“
The most important things you can control are your thoughts and your actions. What you cannot control are how you look like (at least things like your features, height, race, although you can partially control things like your weight and how much muscles you have), as well as what other people think about you.
You might not have any control over whether a tornado destroys your house, but you can control what you think about it and how you react to it.
This means that you should focus only on the things that are in your power to change, and forget about all the rest. The things that you have no control over should not bother you.
Change the things you can and don’t worry about the rest.
“Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.“
If you keep this principle in mind, you can focus on what is really important and stop wasting time on worrying and trying to find scapegoats.
So how do you determine which things you have control over and which ones you don’t?
“Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this—the chief test of all—’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.“
The test to determine that is by asking yourself one simple question: Is it in your power to change it? Over some things you have complete control, over some things no control, and over some things just partial control.
For example, you might be worrying about your looks. Which parts of your looks can you affect?
You have zero control over your height, but you can change whether you are a weak scrawny dude, or have muscles. What you should do is stop fretting about your height, and instead devise a plan to get some muscles.
However you still need to keep in mind the role that chance plays in your life. There are some things that might or might not happen and you know about them, and then there are also things that Nassim Taleb calls “black swans”, things that you don’t know about and can’t predict.
Whenever drawing up a vision for your future, keep in mind the possibility of chance striking back. Try to draw up a list of things that you think could stay in your way, and thereby try to minimize the chances of them happening.
With black swan events, there is no chance of you knowing about them and so it is hard to plan for them. The only thing you can do is to remember that they can happen and do happen.
“When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal.
Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.“
So the only that you can do when something bad happens is to keep the higher principles in mind. If something breaks up your plans, don’t get angry, but instead put things in perspective.
Lesson 2: What disturbs your mind is not the event, but your judgement over that event.
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events: For instance, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates would have thought it so. No, the only dreadful thing about it is men’s judgement that it is dreadful. And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgements.“
What is bad is not the actual event, but your interpretation of the event.
“Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.“
Same thing with people insulting you. Don’t pay attention to people trying to provoke you.
Lesson 3: Take matters into your own hands, and don’t blame others for your misfortunes.
“To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.“
Don’t accuse others of your misfortune. Acknowledge that you are the one who is responsible for his life and no one else. Accept things as they are, and instead work on improving things that you can improve.
What also often happens is that people try to live through other people. They watch TV and identify with their “heroes” or sports teams, and often feel joy when these do well.
That’s the wrong way to live. Don’t try to take credit for the victories of other people. Instead work on your own stuff.
“Be not elated at an excellence which is not your own.“
This type of thing happens when fans try to celebrate the victory of “their” team. People think they are better than others when “their” sports team wins. Were you on the team? Do you personally know anyone on the team? Does the fact that the team won make bread cheaper? If you the answer to all three questions is NO, then of what consequence is the win to you?
Lesson 4: Reframe your mind. Think of challenges as learning opportunities.
“Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.“
Oftentimes you cannot control events. If a bad thing happens to you, try to reframe the way you think about it. What can you learn from this event?
“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.“
There are ways to train your mind to deal with different events. The more you train your faculties, the more resilient you will be.
“When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”“
Don’t let superstition get to you. Always look on the bright side. After all, even if at the beginning something appears unfavorable, you can still get valuable lessons out of it.
Always keep in mind the following quote:
“And if you encounter anything troublesome or pleasant or glorious or inglorious, remember that the hour of struggle is come, the Olympic contest is here and you may put off no longer, and that one day and one action determines whether the progress you have achieved is lost or maintained.“
Life is like an Olympic contest, you may train and train, but at one point you will have to spring into action. Treat your life as a Hero’s Journey. Your actions will determine your fate.
Lesson 5: Learn and improve, and don’t care about what others think of you when you are going through that process.
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.“
When starting to learn, you will often look and feel foolish. You might throw the punch like a girl, punch with the wrong technique, or mispronounce words. Don’t mind that.
Many people are afraid of making mistakes and appearing foolish in front of others. So instead they don’t even try. Keep in mind that if you don’t try, you will never succeed.
When you are learning things, don’t pay any attention to appearing stupid to other people. You probably will at the beginning, but that’s only temporary. As you practice, you will start getting better and better.
You cannot control what other people think of you. Try as hard as you can, and there will always be people who don’t like you and want to bring you down. You should learn to live with this and not let it bother you.
Some people will even laugh at your goals themselves. Don’t let other people’s opinions of your goals get to you.
“If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say: “He is returned to us a philosopher all at once,” and ” Whence this supercilious look?” Now, for your part, don’t have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.“
Most people are lazy and they will make fun of you for trying to better yourself. That’s just the nature of people. The biggest critics are usually the ones who don’t do anything themselves.
“When you do a thing because you have determined that it ought to be done, never avoid being seen doing it, even if the opinion of the multitude is going to condemn you. For if your action is wrong, then avoid doing it altogether, but if it is right, why do you fear those who will rebuke you wrongly?“
Lesson 6: Don’t wish for things you have no control over.
“If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot control, you wish for things to be yours that are not yours. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice,” but something else.
But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. If you want to be free, then don’t wish for anything that depends on others, otherwise you become their slave.“
There are a lot of things that are not up to you. If you wish for them, and you don’t get them, then you will be unhappy.
Therefore only wish for things that you can get. If you want to be to be a master of your own self, never wish for things that depend on other people, and don’t depend on you.
Only wish for things that depend on you. That will ensure that you don’t get disappointed.
“You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.“
Don’t wish for that high position, or that Porsche, or big mansion on the beach. You might get it or you might not. Even if you work hard, there are many things that could stop you from getting it.
Instead, just wish for things that you can get, and you will be happy. You never know, you might get even more, but don’t tie your happiness and well-being to this.
Lesson 7: Dettach yourself from things.
“The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things.“
We often attach more importance to things that we own than to those that we don’t. You should dettach yourself from this type of thinking.
Lesson 8: Don’t tell others what to do. Instead, lead by example. You are determined by your actions.
“On no occasion call yourself a philosopher, nor talk at large of your principles among the multitude, but act on your principles. For instance, at a banquet do not say how one ought to eat, but eat as you ought. Remember that Socrates had so completely got rid of the thought of display that when men came and wanted an introduction to philosophers he took them to be introduced; so patient of neglect was he.
And if a discussion arise among the multitude on some principle, keep silent for the most part; for you are in great danger of blurting out some undigested thought. And when some one says to you, ‘You know nothing’, and you do not let it provoke you, then know that you are really on the right road.
For sheep do not bring grass to their shepherds and show them how much they have eaten, but they digest their fodder and then produce it in the form of wool and milk. Do the same yourself; instead of displaying your principles to the multitude, show them the results of the principles you have digested.“
You should not tell other people what to do. Actions speak louder than words. Lead by example.
Lesson 9: Create a character for yourself and act on it.
“Lay down for yourself from the first a definite stamp and style of conduct, which you will maintain when you are alone and also in the society of men.“
Decide what type of a man you are and act according to it.
You need to have some moral principles and then hold onto them. They are the things that should be guiding you in all circumstances.
“Whatever principles you put before you, hold fast to them as laws which it will be impious to transgress. But pay no heed to what any one says of you; for this is something beyond your own control.“
Lesson 10: Don’t think of yourself as better than others.
“These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours.” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.“
Don’t think of yourself better than others. You need to keep humble.
A good way to do that is to have yourself be the measure of all things. Don’t let others decide what you want and what you should do.
Be the one who decides. Don’t let extrinsic things like money or power drive you. Instead look for intrinsic motivation as the guiding light.
“The ignorant man’s position and character is this: he never looks to himself for benefit or harm, but to the world outside him. The philosopher’s position and character is that he always looks to himself for benefit and harm.“
Stupid people look for outside validation, are driven by outside fads and engage in stupid pursuits. Don’t be like that. Look on the inside and be driven by your own inner values.
“The signs of one who is making progress are: he blames none, praises none, complains of none, accuses none, never speaks of himself as if he were somebody, or as if he knew anything.“
You will know that you are in control of your own fate when you stop blaming others for your misfortunes, stop complaining, and stay humble.
Lesson 11: Don’t fall for instant gratification.
In today’s society many people are tempted by many things and lack the willpower to overcome these temptations. Instead they fall for instant gratification. At the end, this has bad consequences.
This is what you should do to prevent falling for instant gratification:
“When you imagine some pleasure, beware that it does not carry you away, like other imaginations. Wait a while, and give yourself pause. Next remember two things: how long you will enjoy the pleasure, and also how long you will afterwards repent and revile yourself.
And set on the other side the joy and self-satisfaction you will feel if you refrain. And if the moment seems come to realize it, take heed that you be not overcome by the winning sweetness and attraction of it; set in the other scale the thought how much better is the consciousness of having vanquished it.“
Lesson 12: Always plan ahead. Consider your actions and their consequences.
“In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.”“
A lot of times people jump into things without reflecting on what will happen next and without thinking of the consequences.
Then when something happens they quit. They end up being full of tough talk and excuses: “I would have been the man, only if…”
“But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory.“
In anything that you are doing, you will need to make sacrifices. If you want to rise to the top of your field, you will need to do many things which are not always pleasant.
“When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war. Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar.“
You need to plan accordingly and know that the road will be hard. If you don’t enter your endeavors with this mindset, then you will quit at the first opportunity.
Then you will enter another endeavor and quit that one at the first sign of trouble as well.
“For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too.“
People get inspired easily. They see Michael Jordan dunking a basketball and think “I want to be like Mike.” Can you really?
“Consider first, man, what the matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher?
That you can eat and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity.“
You need to consider first what are your dispositions towards this. Do you have the physical attributes to be like Mike? After all, Mike said that his brother was actually the better basketball player of the two.
The only problem? He was short. Mike wasn’t.
After that consider whether you will be able to bear all the hardship that comes with striving towards that goal. Will you be able to be disciplined enough to overcome all these challenges?
“If not, don’t come here; don’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.“
If you are not willing to work hard, then don’t expect to achieve results. If you don’t want to be some random riff-raff, then you must apply yourself, learn, and make sacrifices. Only in that way, can you conquer.
Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy and how a man about to die found happiness