Minimalists in History: Epictetus

© 2014 Christy King
“For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation. . . .”
- Epictetus

Epictetus, who lived from circa 55 – 135 C.E. (A.D.), spent his youth as a slave in Rome. Early on, he developed an interest in philosophy, and his owner allowed him to study with a respected Stoic philosopher.

After Epictetus obtained his freedom, he taught philosophy in Rome and lived simply, with few possessions.

“When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?”
- Epictetus

Like other philosophers of the time, Epictetus saw moral philosophy as having the practical purpose of guiding people towards leading better lives.

His most famous pupil, Arrian, studied under him and claimed to have written the Discourses from his lecture notes. He also compiled some of Epictetus’s practical advice into the Encheiridion.

“What, then, is that which makes a man free from hindrance and makes him his own master? For wealth does not do it. . . .”
- Epictetus

Epictetus believed that achieving happiness is entirely within our control, because we can choose how we respond to the world.

Instead of focusing on frivolous things like luxurious clothing and fancy shoes, we should focus on freedom, even-mindedness and tranquility.

We must accept what is not in our control. Only our inner life is within our control.

“If I have set my admiration on the poor body, I have given myself up to be a slave; if on my poor possessions, I also make myself a slave.”
- Epictetus

We are, according to Epictetus, responsible for how we interpret and respond to the things happening to us and around us.

If we accept responsibility for how we view the world and how our views affect our behavior, we free ourselves from slavery to external circumstances and become masters of our own lives.

For example, he says:

“When you see another man in the possession of power, set against this the fact that you have not the want of power; when you see another rich, see what you possess in place of riches: for if you possess nothing in place of them, you are miserable; but if you have not the want of riches, know that you possess more than this man possesses and what is worth much more.”

You’ll probably recognize Epictetus’s advice as being like much of the advice you’ll read today in many self-help books: Control what you can, and give up trying to control the rest.

“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.”
- Epictetus

You can read selections from the Discourses and Encheiridion free at the Gutenberg Project or, if that’s a bit dry for you, you may want to see if your library has Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.

I’ve not seen the book, but it appears to be a new translation/embellishment of Epictetus’s works for the modern reader.