Epictetus was one of the great Stoic philosophers. Born about two thousand years ago, he started out in life as a Roman slave. His wealthy owner Epaphroditus encouraged education, enabling him to benefit from a wonderful Stoic philosopher tutor named Musonius Rufus.
After obtaining his freedom Epictetus moved to Rome where he taught philosophy for twenty five years. He later founded his own school of philosophy in Nicopolis in Northwest Greece, where he taught until he died. His Manual for Living  Enchiridion translates as a ‘small handbook’ and is full of Stoic principles while his Discourses is a deeper dive into Stoicism. His far reaching influence was entirely by accident as he never wrote anything down. His teaching passed down by Arrian, one of his avid pupils.
For Epictetus life was about making progress rather than mastering perfection. For me, his teachings provide a practical path to resilience, fulfilment and wisdom, timeless principles to support you through the good and not so good times in life.

Key Life Lessons 

1. Remember What’s In Your Control

‘It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition.’

The Enchiridion or Manual is a distillation of Epictetus’ teachings. It begins with one of the most important principles in Stoic philosophy.

‘Some things are up to us, and others are not.’

To appreciate the crucial difference between those few things that are under your control (your thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, choices  and actions) and those many things that are not.

Examples of things Not in your control

The past

The future

What other people think or say about you

Other people’s behaviour.

The weather

The economy

The fact that you’re going to die

‘The robber of your free will does not exist.’

Your opinion of things is what makes them good or bad. A timely reminder not to become upset, frustrated or to waste energy on those things you cannot control, to let go and practice acceptance. (Think of it as the Stoic Serenity Prayer).

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.’

Epictetus says that  suffering arises when you try and exert absolute control over circle of circumstance and get anxious helpless or depressed frustrated when you are unable to fully control this. By all means do what you can to improve the world but recognise the limitations of what you can and can’t change. You always some control and influence over your thoughts and only limited control over everything else.

Use adversity as an opportunity to develop your inner freedom ‘It is circumstances which show what men are.’

Secondly by not taking responsibility for your circle of control – your thoughts and beliefs – and instead blame others abdicating responsibility.

2. Make Light of Life’s Challenges

Epictetus lived with a badly disabled leg, and spent much of his life lame, lacking family or freedom. However he fully accepted and made light of his situation in his teachings about Stoic resilience.

‘Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.’

3. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Focus your attention and energy on the choices you are making and how you are actually living your life. Leadership is all about setting example through your actions. As Epictetus said:

‘Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought.’

4. Build Good Habits

Epictetus appreciated how much of your daily actions are down to well cultivated habits. He encouraged pupils to raise their personal bar, to set higher standards of behaviour and to build the habits to support that value led way of being in the world. By setting out the direction of their lives he wanted his students to continue to work in that way.

‘Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.’

5. Spend Your Time Wisely

Many people spend their lives chasing things that turn out to be unimportant. Value your time. Remembering that death may be close on any given day will help you not to take your time for granted.

Wise Words – Epictetus Quotes

‘How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?’

‘Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.’

‘First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.’

‘Curb your desire—don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.’

‘That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.’

‘Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.’

‘The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…’

‘If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.’

‘No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.’

‘Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly; and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.’

‘Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will be serene.’

‘Curb your desire—don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.

‘If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.’

‘Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.’

‘It is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but the way in which we think about them…It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.’

‘It is for you to arrange your priorities; but whatever you decide to do, don’t do it resentfully, as if you were being imposed on…Always remember—the door is open.’ 

‘Counter temptation by remembering how much better will be the knowledge that you resisted.’

‘Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.’

‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.’

‘Counter temptation by remembering how much better will be the knowledge that you resisted.’

‘You become what you give your attention to…If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.’

‘If you wish to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.’

‘In public avoid talking often and excessively about your accomplishments and dangers, for however much you enjoy recounting your dangers, it’s not so pleasant for others to hear about your affairs.’

‘Just stick to your principles. And rest assured that, if you remain true to them, the same people who made fun of you will come to admire you.’

‘Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.’

‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’

“Make the best use of what’s in your power and take the rest as it happens.”

‘I cannot escape death; but cannot I escape the dread of it? Must I die trembling and lamenting?’

‘To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.’