Stoicism According to Epictetus

How to Live Happily in a World of Misfortunes?



    The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a philosophical book explaining a stoic way of life that tends to an inner state of peace and happiness called ataraxia. Rather than changing the world around, stoicism suggests that we accept the destiny and change our perception of the world, making it more tolerable. This is realized through a series of advice that divides into 4 categories: achieving freedom despite physical constraints, controlling desires and aversions, maintaining self-discipline, and progressing in the philosopher’s path. At the same time, stoicism engages us actively in the world through some responsibilities. Today, as we live in an era full of crisis, stoicism might be a sanctuary for a happier life in a world of uncertainties.

    Stoicism is a philosophy that survived from the antiquity to the modern societies, where it is still studied as a way to freedom and happiness. One of its most important contributors is Epictetus, who lived in the Roman Empire. At the time, he was one of the most influential thinkers and inspired many people of his generation. Later, his ideas propagated through the generations. Although he didn’t leave any book, his core teachings are summarized in a short handbook call the Enchiridion of Epictetus. This essay proposes an analysis of the book, starting from the historical context around it, then delve deeper in Epictetus’ thoughts and finish with by looking at some noteworthy quotes from the Enchiridion.


    Epictetus was born at around AD 50 in the city of Hierapolis. As a slave, he was sold at Rome to serve Epaphroditus, a freedman working as Nero’s secretary. It was said that tortures from his master rendered Epictetus disabled at the leg. Despite being cruel towards Epictetus, Epaphroditus soon recognized his interest and talent for philosophy, and sent him to study with the Stoic Musonius Rufus, a renowned philosopher at the time. This event forever engaged Epictetus on the path of stoicism.

    After having obtained his freedom after Nero’s death, Epictetus spent his life teaching philosophy in Rome, and later in Nicopolis, where he founded a school accessible for everyone. There, he also gained more and more fame due to his outstanding oratory skill. At some point, he even built friendly correspondences with influential people, such as the emperor Hadrian.

    At around AD 108, Epictetus encountered the man who will prove to be his most famous pupil, Arrian. Having listened to his teachings, Arrian compiled his notes and used them to publish “Discourses” and “Enchiridion” (Epictetus himself didn’t write anything).

    The Enchiridion of Epictetus contains some of the philosopher’s most important teachings. As the name suggests, it is meant to be a guide for everyone to achieve freedom and happiness regardless of their living conditions. Unlike many other philosophers’ works, such as the “Republic” by Plato or the “Nichomachean Ethics” by Aristotle, this one emphasizes on the teaching aspect rather than on the quest for truth aspect.

    Today, people of all background in philosophy still read it as a reference point of their daily actions. The content is not only meant for the elite, but they are written in simple and comprehensible ways such that Epictetus’ advice always accompanies those living difficult situations.


    Stoicism finds its roots in Ancient Greece, where it was founded Zeno of Citium at around 300 BC. It coexisted for some time with other influential schools until the Emperor Marcus Aurelius popularized it in the Roman Empire, where it later became the state religion. Later, Stoicism survived across the years until today.

    Stoicism is fundamentally a philosophy founded on resilience, meaning that it does not seek to change the world to attain happiness, but rather encourages us to work on ourselves to do so. This point of view opposes to one of the mainstream philosophy schools at the time, Plato’s rationalism. Contrarily to stoicism, it suggests that knowledge is the only way humanity can emancipate itself from misery. We should therefore work to build a perfect society free of poverty, of discrimination and of political instabilities. The contrast between these two ways of thinking lies in their perception of the world. First, stoicism proposes a pessimist view where the world might not go well, and that we should adapt ourselves to live as happily as possible in a desolate environment in such a way that external factor has no impact on an individual’s quality of life. Rationalism, however, views the future in an optimistic way by thinking it possible to eradicate human society of all its flaws through education, thus creating a utopian society where everyone lives happily.

    Neither of these philosophies is objectively better than the other: many aspects of contemporary societies are directly drawn from Plato’s ideas, making them closer to the ideal society where justice reigns—although they are not perfect, today’s societies are more prosperous and more just than those in the past. However, from the individual’s perspective, stoicism is worth practising because it offers a sanctuary in even the most difficult situations. One such example is vice admiral James Stockdale, an aviator during the Vietnam War who was captured by the enemy. As he was confronted to a hopeless future, we whispered to himself: “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus!” In the end, this philosophy helped him and his companions survive years of imprisonment and torture.

    Today, stoicism is still relevant because we are confronted to a future with multiple crisis: environmental, economical and political. Before these uncertainties, the least we can do is to still live happily in a world prone to disasters. That is exactly the purpose of stoicism as explained in the Enchiridion of Epictetus.


    Some Terms in Stoicism

    Before looking at Epictetus’ teaching, it might be useful to clarify the terminology used in the book as well as in the literature around stoicism.

    • Ataraxia (from ataraxia): It refers to a mental condition of peace and wellbeing characterized by an absolute absence of anxieties and troubles. One living in ataraxia is not disturbed by the external world. Stoicism tries to bring people to this state by adopting a different view of the world.
    • Passion (from pathos): Passion is an emotional impulse triggered by an event. According to Epictetus, we must eliminate passion because they often induce misery in the long term. In fact, passion blocks the way of reason and prevents us from making correct decisions. Thus, it tends to make us react violently in front of a situation, whether good or bad, instead of processing it calmly and reasonably in accordance with ataraxia.
    • Equanimity (from apatheia): It refers to a mental state where all passions are suppressed such that one is neither pleased by good new nor upset by tragedies. This should not be confused with lack of empathy that drives one to cruelty. For stoics, equanimity is a desirable state proper to the wise.
    •  Virtue (from arete): For stoics, the word virtue has a different meaning than for Plato. Here, the word simply refers to excellency. It can be interpreted as a disposition to live in the philosopher’s way as Epictetus describes. In contrast, Plato’s cardinal virtues include prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. For Epictetus, virtue is the only good while vice is the only bad.
    • Impression (from phantasiai): Stoicism states that the world in itself is perfectly objective: a particular event does not carry with it good nor bad. As an example, one same event, such as the outcome of a tournament, can make some happy and other sad. The only reason we enjoy some things and despise others is because we perceive them as such. In other words, we only see impressions of the external world in our mind. The same goes for illness and death: we suffer from them because we perceive them as unnatural events. This problem will be discussed later. For now, it is important to know that we can change our impression of things, thus emancipating ourselves from sufferance.
    • Proficient (from prokopton): A proficient refers to a person that is still learning on the path of stoicism.


    Epictetus’ Teachings
                This section summarizes the Enchiridion of Epictetus, which is comprised of 51 short chapters. The themes talked in each can be classified in four categories, targeting different aspects of our life.


    Individual Freedom
                For Epictetus, a large part of being wise consists in the knowledge of how to live freely. The freedom involved in this context, however, invokes a mental state rather than a physical one. As Epictetus means it, an individual’s freedom has nothing to do with his environment. As such, a slave (as he used to be) can be free just as a citizen can be captive of his own desires and thoughts. What really matters is one’s ability to distinguish what depends on us and what does not. For instance, we can control our opinions or our desires, but we cannot change what happens to us (fortune, fame, and wealth). To live without constraint, one must imperatively accept whatever they cannot change while remaining indifferent to them. In other words, the wise follows his destiny without despising it nor fighting against it. By acknowledging the necessity of external events and by desiring that they happen as they are supposed to, we live in harmony with the world. On the contrary, if we desire things beyond our power, such as wealth, or disdain things whose occurrence does not depend on us, such as disease, we necessarily suffer because of our inability to obtain the former and avoid the latter.

                To achieve this state of indifference towards the external world, work must be done on one’s opinion. Epictetus argues that everything we perceive is a mere impression of reality upon ourselves. This reality, objective in itself, is turned into a subjective idea once we form a judgment upon it. Thus, to avoid subjectivity when it comes to destiny, one must not judge it at all, but only say to oneself that something happened because it had to. For instance, when we buy a piece of cloth, we say to ourselves from the beginning that the fabric making it up can be torn, and that the cloth will eventually end up broken. In the same way, we must also recognize that our family and friends are mortal beings, and that disease, injuries and death are in their nature. Thus, when a tragedy occurs, we would have known it a long time ago.

                Moreover, since opinions dictate our perception of the world, we must heed not to formulate them in such a way that brings hatred towards destiny. All events should be seen in such a way that they can easily be accepted. Epictetus claimed that if someone lost an object of great value, that person shall consider that object as restored to its true master, as it is bound to eventually.

                To better illustrate his idea of indifference, Epictetus proposed a theatre analogy. During a play, multiple actors incarnate different characters, either rich or poor. The storyline entirely depends on the playwright. All the actors can do is to put their best effort in playing their role. In this situation, an actor’s talent does not measure by his character’s actions, but by his own performance. In the same way, we should not heed about what happens from the external world (that is not up to us). We should lead a meaningful life well given the circumstance we are in. This realization is key to happiness.


    Control of Desires and Aversions
                  A major source of our misery comes from the failure of our desires and ambitions. This is illustrated by someone desperately wanting something, but who is unable to obtain it. The stoic approach to this problem is to restrain our desires to a particular category of things, those under our control.

                We know from previous sections that Epictetus divides everything in two categories: those that depend on us and those that do not. Among those that depend on us, some are good while others are bad. Those depending on fate are those towards which we should behave indifferently. Epictetus argues that we must only desire good (virtue), despise bad (vice) and calmly accept the indifferent. As this level of control is not present at birth, it implies working on our mind to change some of our values.

                We naturally desire some things because we believe that possessing them brings a happier life (mostly wealth). In the same way, we despise some things because we believe they bring a miserable life. However, our mistake precisely lies in those believes winning a lottery brings a temporary feeling of satisfaction while having an arm amputation due to an accident brings a temporary feeling of misery. These feelings start at a high level but fade away after some time. It is pointless to desire or despise things on which we have no control, as most of our lives will be wasted in expectation or in fear. Inversely, by desiring only virtue, and by despising only vice, we will never be impeded by chance, since we control the realization of both. Knowing this, one should cease to fear death, to complain about misery, and to desire influence.


                  According to Epictetus, if one wants to live happily, they must at all times have entire possession of themselves. For a large part, this means to never forget what really matter in one’s life: only what they control. To illustrate this, Epictetus proposes the metaphor of a traveller’s journey. When a boat arrives at a port, the passengers are free to go pick up shells on the beach. However, when the captain calls, they must drop everything they do at once and return to the ship. Applied in the real world, this story refers to the course of a life. People are free to look for shells, representing ephemeral goods, such as houses, cars, friends, family, etc. When death approaches, that person must drop whatever interest he has in those goods (since they are independent from him) and focus on himself. He must, for instance, reflect on his life, review his values, and prepare for his exit.

                During one’s life, it is always preferable to maintain constancy. Once we decide on doing something, we should put our full effort into realizing it without thinking of something else. He who spends his life changing from one pursuit to the next wastes it away doing nothing.

                On top of all that, the wise must fulfill his responsibilities towards others and towards the world. Although stoicism mainly focuses on working on oneself, it also requires individuals to engage actively in the society around them. For instance, when a friend needs help, we should assist them as best as we can. When our country is in danger, we should risk ourselves to support it. Epictetus claims that logic and reason command us to do so.

                As we live in a society where most people are non-philosophers, the wise must learn to adapt himself to such an environment. To start, he should maintain control and his inner peace even in the most unfair situations. According to Epictetus, if no one lets others harm his body, there is no more reason to allow such violence on one’s mind. For instance, when insulted, the wise would not let his anger take over himself. Instead, he soothes himself through various means. One of them is to tell oneself that: “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.” (33). Alternatively, Epictetus suggests that every incident should be taken from the most tolerable side. In his example, when a person acts unfairly with his brother, the victim must not only see injustice, but must see the brotherhood connection between them that developed as they grew up together. In the same way, we should not let ourselves be influenced by other people’s opinions, whether they are compliments or insults, since what they say is entirely out of our control. By doing this, the wise lives freely without any disturbance of the outsider world.

                Lastly, Epictetus reproaches most people for spending too much care on their body rather than on their mind (we go to gym, choose healthy diet, and look to drinking enough water). However, the whole point of self-discipline is to maintain a healthy way of thinking.


    Progress in Philosophy
                  Stoicism distinguishes from other schools of philosophy in that it uses philosophy as a guide to happy life rather than as a tool to search for truth. To be effective, it must not only be thoroughly learned, but also practised, as the most important part lies in the execution. Epictetus remarked that a problem in philosophy was that most people only contended themselves with learning the theory. According to him, we should all live according to Socrates, who puts reason above all. Furthermore, once the decision to engage oneself on the philosophical path has been made, we should never be distracted from this goal.


    Notable Quotes From Epictetus’ Enchiridion
    Epictetus’s main ideas can be summarized in a few quotes drawn from the book. They are worthwhile to be remembered:

    He who fails of the object of his desires is disappointed; and he who incurs the object of his aversion is wretched. ” (2): This passage reminds us that both the desire or the aversion of external things constitute a source of misery. Therefore, we must reserve them to things we control.

    Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. ” (8): We must always accept destiny as it is and desire whatever happens. Hoping things to go otherwise implies putting out happiness at risk, as people in this situation often end up deceived.

    But we have reason within us; and it directs us, even with these hazards, to stand by our friend and our country. ” (32): Unlike popular belief, stoicism is not simply a philosophy of resignation and abandon; it asks people to fulfill their moral duty, which implies engaging in the society when necessary to protect our friend and country.

    When any person does ill by you, or speaks ill of you, remember that he acts or speaks from an impression that it is right for him to do so. Now it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but only what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from false appearances, he is the person hurt, since he, too, is the person deceived.” (42): We should never lose control of ourselves because of someone else because this weakens our inner peace. In such a situation, we must think in such a way that makes the matter more tolerable.

    Never proclaim yourself a philosopher, nor make much talk among the ignorant about your principles, but show them by actions.” (46): As a philosophy, stoicism cannot be fully learned through words. Its importance lies in practice. This applies to both the learner and to the master.

    Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed; but hurt me they cannot. ” (51): This quote comes from the “Apology” by Plato. It relates a sentence pronounced by Socrates as he is unfairly condemned to death. Instead of complaining about his treatment, Socrates shows a composed attitude and declared that his death sentence, however wrong, cannot hurt his inner peace. This perfectly illustrates Epictetus’s point: we must stay indifferent to what is beyond us (judgment of the court) and focus on what depends on us (peace).


                  To sum up, stoicism as described by Epictetus resumes itself to the general idea that everyone can live happily, regardless of their wealth, their status, of their physical condition, etc. To reach this point, one must first work on their perception. Most importantly, they must consider anything that does not depend on themselves as devoid of importance. At the same time, everyone must seek to refine their spirit, making it more and more harmonious with the world. Reaching this state requires one to change oneself rather than the world, as desiring something out of their capacity inevitably brings misery. After having learned stoicism on paper, one must focus on practising it while constantly reminding themselves to never divert from it: this is the task of a lifetime. Those who succeed in it live in a true state of happiness that endures with them through the most difficult times.


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