Born as a slave in a wealthy household nearly 2,000 years ago in Hierapolis, Epictetus caught a lucky break when his “owner” Epaphroditus, let him study liberal arts. Through the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, Epictetus discovered philosophy. After obtaining his freedom, he went on to teach philosophy in Rome for over two decades until Domitian banished philosophers in Rome.
Like Socrates, Epictetus never wrote anything down so it’s largely through his student Arrian that we know anything about his thinking.
Epictetus left a lasting impression on many including Emperors, war heroes, and philosophers including Marcus Aurelius. Even today his work features prominently in novels like Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.
I wanted to share with you some wisdom from Sharon Lebell’s contemporary interpretation of Epictetus’ The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.
Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself.
Embrace what you get
Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. … Remember to discriminate between events themselves and your interpretations of them.
We are ultimately controlled by that which bestows what we seek or removes what we don’t want. If it’s freedom you seek, then wish nothing and shun nothing that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave. … Most people tend to delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good or what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions.
If someone were to casually give your body away to any old passerby, you would naturally be furious. Why then do you feel no shame in giving your precious mind over to any person who might wish to influence you.
When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give attention to.
The wise do not confuse information or data, however prodigious or cleverly deployed, with comprehensive knowledge or transcendent wisdom.
Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking — its means and ends — is essentially uncreative and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.
Take care not to casually discuss matters that are of great importance to you with people who are not important to you. … Most people only know how to respond to an idea by pouncing on its shortfalls rather than identifying its potential merits. Practice self-containment so that your enthusiasm won’t be frittered away.