Minimalists in History: Epictetus


“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.


8 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Epictetus

  1. Hi Christy, I truly enjoyed this post. In fact, I love all your posts, but especially those in this series. There’s so much to be learned from these minimalists in history! And it’s interesting to see the common threads through much of their thinking.

  2. Christy, I am constantly amazed that you do not run out of historical figures to feature here. As I look around my home I can’t help but want to do more decluttering. How I wish I could live with just a few meager items as it’s true the less I have the happier I am.

    • I know it’s not for me to judge anyone else, but it seems to me you’ve done an awfully good job of decluttering already. Perhaps if I ever get to your point, I will feel the same way. For now, I’m happy that my gradual decluttering has resulted in noticeable changes, though I still have a bunch more stuff I want to get rid of (and will need to before we downsize our home next year).

      • Ha! you should see my house at the moment. I have projects inside due to rain, I am storing items for week until relatives can move into their new home… So I feel as if I am surrounded by clutter which makes me want to purge my own stuff. I’ve got a couple of things listing on Craigslist so it’s a continuing process that I don’t think has any end.

        • So true that it’s a process.

          As to storing stuff for others….this is a bit different, but since I don’t like to be wasteful, I end up using up items my son gets and then doesn’t use. So I got a big influx of things (e.g., toothpaste, shampoo) when I had my son clean out his bathroom. So much for my minimalist bathroom – but it’s so much better than throwing it out.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.