Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, asked and answered some of the most important questions of life. If you think that an ancient philosopher couldn’t possibly have anything relevant to say abut modern life, you might want to think again.
Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living, a book that interprets Epictetus’s writing on how to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace.
Epictetus starts with a truth so elemental it has the power to change everything in your life. “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.”
In fact, that’s the Stoic philosophy in a nutshell. If you can control it, fix it, work on it, do. If you can’t control it, let it go. Epictetus had to learn to live well the hard way; he was born into slavery around 55 A.D., but was sent off to study with Gaius Musonius Rufus, another great Stoic philosopher whose writings still exist. In fact, he became Musonius Rufus’s most acclaimed student and was eventually freed from slavery.
Epictetus taught in Rome until 94 A.D., Lebell writes, when the emperor Domitian, threatened by the growing influence of philosophers, banished him from Rome. “He spent the rest of his life in exile in Nicopolis, on the northwest coast of Greece. There he established a philosophical school and spent his days delivering lectures on how to live with greater dignity and tranquility.” He lived his life the way he hoped his followers would: simply, with dignity and grace.
It’s the kind of life so many of us crave. We are all seeking answers to the big questions: How do I live a happy, fulfilling life? And how can I be a good person?
Lebell says that for Epictetus, “happiness and personal fulfillment are the natural consequences of doing the right thing.” But for him, life was not about reaching perfection; he believed that wasn’t possible for any of us. He wanted his students to focus on progress rather than perfection. He also believed that we shouldn’t focus on being good to impress anyone else or placate the gods. We should live well to achieve inner serenity and personal freedom.
21st century life is exhausting for many of us. We are constantly chasing success, fame and fortune, and comparing ourselves to others. We want desperately to believe – and have – what we see on our Instagram feeds. Epictetus views achievement, wealth and power 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. Your real life, not the life you might be pretending to have on social platforms.
Epictetus: “First, say to yourself what you would be; then do what you have to do.” We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives. That gives us enormous power over our own happiness.
The ancient Greek philosophers have a lot to teach us about modern life. More about Epictetus’ rules for living well in future posts.