Art of Living, The, Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness
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Magical; Timeless wisdom to reflect upon daily.
Part of Epictetus’s enduring appeal and widespread influence is that he wasn’t fussy about distinguishing between professional philosophers and ordinary people. He expressed his message clearly and zealously to all people interested in living a morally awake life.
Epictetus nevertheless staunchly believed in the necessity of training for the gradual refinement of personal character and behavior. Moral progress is not the natural province of the highborn, nor is it achieved by accident or luck, but by working on yourself—daily.
He considered himself successful when his ideas were easily grasped and put to use in someone’s real life, where they could actually do some good elevating that person’s character.
Epictetus well understood the eloquence of action. He exhorted his students to shun mere clever theorizing in favor of actively applying his teachings to the concrete circumstances of daily life.
Although his works are less well-known today, due to the decline of classical education, they have had enormous influence on leading thinkers on the art of living for almost two millennia.
Among his most distinguished students was the young Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who eventually became ruler of the Roman Empire.
Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs.
The Discourses could be thought of as the West’s answer to Buddhism’s Dhammapada or Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
For Epictetus, a happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous. Happiness and personal fulfillment are the natural consequences of doing the right thing.
With a keen understanding of how easily we human beings are diverted from living by our highest principles, he exhorts us to view the philosophical life as a progression of steps that gradually approximates our cherished personal ideals.
His prescription for the good life centered on three main themes: mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”—could easily be a sentence in this book. In fact, Epictetus’s thought is one of the taproots of the modern psychology of self-management.
Whereas our society (practically, if not always explicitly) regards professional achievement, wealth, power, and fame as desirable and admirable, Epictetus views these as incidental and irrelevant to true happiness. What matters most is what sort of person you are becoming, what sort of life you are living.
First, say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do.
the main points of his philosophy were preserved for future generations by his devoted pupil, the historian Flavius Arrian. Arrian painstakingly transcribed a large number of his teacher’s lectures in Greek for a friend. These lectures, known as the Discourses (or Diatribes), were originally collected in eight books, but only four survive.
Epictetus’s Manual (or Enchiridion) is a pithy set of excerpts selected from the Discourses that forms a concise summary of Epictetus’s essential teachings. It was roughly modeled on military manuals of the day and thus shares some of the bold simplicity of such classics as The Art of War. (Soldiers even carried the Manual into battle.)
Know What You Can Control and What You Can’t
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.
Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.
Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.
Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrance; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.
Stick with Your Own Business
Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours. If you do this, you will be impervious to coercion and no one can ever hold you back. You will be truly free and effective, for your efforts will be put to good use and won’t be foolishly squandered finding fault with or opposing others.
In knowing and attending to what actually concerns you, you cannot be made to do anything against your will; others can’t hurt you, you don’t incur enemies or suffer harm.
If you aim to live by such principles, remember that it won’t be easy: you must give up some things entirely, and postpone others for now. You may well have to forego wealth and power if you want to assure the attainment of happiness and freedom.
Recognize Appearances for What They Really Are
From now on, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: “You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.” And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself not to worry about it.
Desire Demands Its Own Attainment
Our desires and aversions are mercurial rulers. They demand to be pleased. Desire commands us to run off and get what we want. Aversion insists that we must avoid the things that repel us.
Typically, when we don’t get what we want, we are disappointed, and when we get what we don’t want, we are distressed.
If, then, you avoid only those undesirable things that are contrary to your natural well-being and are within your control, you won’t ever incur anything you truly don’t want. However, if you try to avoid inevitabilities such as sickness, death, or misfortune, over which you have no real control, you will make yourself and others around you suffer.
Desire and aversion, though powerful, are but habits. And we can train ourselves to have better habits. Restrain the habit of being repelled by all those things that aren’t within your control, and focus instead on combating things within your power that are not good for you.
Do your best to rein in your desire. For if you desire something that isn’t within your own control, disappointment will surely follow; meanwhile, you will be neglecting the very things that are within your control that are worthy of desire.
See Things for What They Are
Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.
Open your eyes: See things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation.
Think about what delights you—the tools on which yoii depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them.
As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup; so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things—or people—toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify.
Remember, for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility.
When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.
What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.
Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.
Harmonize Your Actions with the Way life Is
Don’t try to make your own rules.
Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal.
Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. When you carry out your tasks, such as taking a bath, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature. When you eat, do so—to the best of your ability— in harmony with nature, and so on.
It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties will arise— for they are part of the divine order too—inner peace will still be possible.
Events Don’t Hurt Us, But Our Views of Them Can
Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.
Therefore even death is no big deal in and of itself. It is our notion of death, our idea that it is terrible, that terrifies us. There are so many different ways to think about death. Scrutinize your notions about death—and everything else. Are they really true? Are they doing you any good? Don’t dread death or pain; dread the fear of death or pain.
We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.
No Shame, No Blame
If it is our feelings about things that torment us rather than the things themselves, it follows that blaming others is silly. Therefore, when we suffer setbacks, disturbances, or grief, let us never place the blame on others, but on our own attitudes.
Small-minded people habitually reproach others for their own misfortunes. Average people reproach themselves. 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.
One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress is the gradual extinguishing of blame. We see the futility of finger-pointing. The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for unbidden events.
Things simply are what they are. Other people think what they will think; it is of no concern to us. No Shame. No Blame.
Create Your Own Merit
Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it be found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you!
Create your own merit.
Personal merit cannot be achieved through our associations with people of excellence. You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don't be concerned with who is watching you.
Do your own useful work without regard to the honor or admiration your efforts might win from others. There is no such thing as vicarious merit.
Other people’s triumphs and excellences belong to them. Likewise, your possessions may have excellence, but you yourself don’t derive excellence from them.
Think about it: What is really your own? The use you make of the ideas, resources, and opportunities that come your way. Do you have books? Read them. Learn from them. Apply their wisdom. Do you have specialized knowledge? Put it to its full and good use. Do you have tools? Get them out and build or repair things with them. Do you have a good idea? Follow up and follow through on
it. Make the most of what you’ve got, what is actually yours.
You can be justifiably happy with yourself and at ease when you’ve harmonized your actions with nature by recognizing what truly is your own.
Focus on Your Main Duty
There is a time and place for diversion and amusements, but you should never allow them to override your true purposes. If you were on a voyage and the ship anchored in a harbor, you might go ashore for water and happen to pick up a shellfish or a plant. But be careful; listen for the call of the captain. Keep your attention directed at the ship. Getting distracted by trifles is the easiest thing in the world. Should the captain call, you must be ready to leave those distractions and come running, without even looking back.
If you are old, do not go far from the ship, or you might fail to appear when you are called for.
Accept Events As They Occur
Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible.
Your Will Is Always Within Your Power
Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.
Sickness may challenge your body. But are you merely your body? Lameness may impede your legs. But you are not merely your legs. Your will is bigger than your legs.
Your will needn’t be affected by an incident unless you let it. Remember this with everything that happens to you.
Make Full Use of What Happens to You
Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.
Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use.
On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: Remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize ybu have. Find the right one. Use it.
If you encounter an attractive person, then self-restraint is the resource needed; if pain or weakness, then stamina; if verbal abuse, then patience.
As time goes by and you build on the habit of matching the appropriate inner resource to each incident, you will not tend to get carried away by life’s appearances. You will stop feeling overwhelmed so much of the time.
Care for What You Happen to Have
Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Have your children died? They are returned to where they came from. Has your mate died? Your mate is returned to where he or she came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from.
Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you?
The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes care of a room at an inn.
The Good Life Is the life of Inner Serenity
The surest sign of the higher life is serenity. Moral progress results in freedom from inner turmoil. You can stop fretting about this and that.
If you seek the higher life, refrain from such common patterns of thinking as these: “If I don’t work harder, I’ll never earn a decent living, no one will recognize me, I’ll be a nobody,” or “If I don’t criticize my employee, he’ll take advantage of my good will.”
It’s much better to die of hunger unhindered by grief and fear than to live affluently beset with worry, dread, suspicion, and unchecked desire.
Begin at once a program of self-mastery. But start modestly, with the little things that bother you. Has your child spilled something? Have you misplaced your wallet? Say to yourself, “Coping calmly with this inconvenience is the price I pay for my inner serenity, for freedom from perturbation; you don’t get something for nothing.”
When you call your child, be prepared that she may not respond to you, or if she does, she might not do what you want her to do. Under these circumstances, it doesn’t help your child for you to become agitated. It should not be in her power to cause you any disturbance.
Disregard What Doesn’t Concern You
Spiritual progress requires us to highlight what is essential and to disregard everything else as trivial pursuits unworthy of our attention. Moreover, it is actually a good thing to be thought foolish and simple with regard to matters that don’t concern us. Don’t be concerned with other people’s impressions of you. They are dazzled and deluded by appearances. Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.
Refrain from trying to win other people’s approval and admiration. You are taking a higher road. Don’t long for others to see you as sophisticated, unique, or wise. In fact, be suspicious if you appear to others as someone special. Be on your guard against a false sense of self-importance.
Keeping your will in harmony with truth and concerning yourself with what is beyond your control are mutually exclusive. While you are absorbed in one, you will neglect the other.
Conform Your Wishes to Reality
For good or for ill, life and nature are governed by laws that we can’t change. The quicker we accept this, the more tranquil we can be. You would be foolish to wish that your children or your spouse would live forever. They are mortal, just as you are, and the law of mortality is completely out of your hands.
Similarly, it is foolish to wish that an employee, relative, or friend be without fault. This is wishing to control things that you can’t truly control.
It is within our control not to be disappointed by our desires if we deal with them according to facts rather than by being swept away by 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.
Understand what freedom really is and how it is achieved. Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.
Approach Life As a Banquet
Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself to a moderate portion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait your turn.
Carry over this same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career, and finances. There is no need to yearn, envy, and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time.
Diogenes and Heraclitus were impeccable models of living by such principles rather than by raw impulses. Make it your quest to imitate their worthy example.
Avoid Adopting Other People’s Negative Views
Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.
If you encounter a downhearted friend, a grieving parent, or a colleague who has suffered a sudden reversal of fortune, be careful not to be overcome yourself by the apparent misfortune. Remember to discriminate between events themselves and your interpretations of them. Remind yourself: “What hurts this person is not the occurrence itself, for another person might not feel oppressed by this situation at all. What is hurting this person is the response he or she has uncritically adopted.”
It is not a demonstration of kindness or friendship to the people we care about to join them in indulging in wrongheaded, negative feelings. We do a better service to ourselves and others by remaining detached and avoiding melodramatic reactions.
Still, if you find yourself in conversation with someone who is depressed, hurt, or frustrated, show them kindness and give them a sympathetic ear; just don’t allow yourself to be pulled down too.