Ancient Philosophy: Epictetus

Denny at The Ceaseless Reader Writes challenged me to post about an author or philosopher of the ancient world. I’ve chosen the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. I’ll be sharing three quotes and some additional interesting facts, and will be inviting a few additional bloggers to participate in the challenge.

Having attended Catholic school for fifteen years, I’ve always been intrigued by the origination of ancient leaders, teachings, and practices. Lately, I have been particularity interested in Stoicism, as the teachings seem to be a recurrent baseline for modern philosophies and guidelines for living.

Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher, born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey). His wealthy owner gave him permission to pursue liberal studies, which exposed him to Stoic philosophy. Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after emperor Nero’s death and taught philosophy in Rome for nearly 25 years. Emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophy in Rome, at which time Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece, where he founded a philosophy school and taught until his death.

“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”

Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life, rather than simply a theoretical discipline. He believed that all external events are beyond our control and that we should calmly and dispassionately accept whatever happens. However, he also taught that individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”

Epictetus also taught that each individual must recognize that humans have a tendency to act out of habit and suggests that we set personal principles and standards, to which we adhere both in company and in solitude. He calls this “prescribing yourself a character.” On a similar note, Epictetus recommends that each man focus on how he is actually living and the choices he is making, rather than considering how he wishes he might speak and behave.

“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.”

Finally, Epictetus teaches us that we are responsible for bridging any gap between our present circumstances and the future we envision. Each step requires time and effort, which are fulfilled by developing the qualities of patience and persistence. We can not buy a successful career, good health, or a happy relationship. Epictetus teaches that all success is gradual and the is result of dedication over an extended period of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about Epictetus, Daily Stoic and Wikipedia are great places to start.

Finally, I’d like to invite some of my recent follows to share the wisdom of their favorite ancient author or philosopher.

Check out their websites, and consider this an open invitation if you’re interested in participating but not explicitly listed above!

10 thoughts on “Ancient Philosophy: Epictetus

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  1. Epictetus, one of my favourites as I think you have read on my blog. Be good to hear more of your own “personal experience” in relation to the philosophy of Epictetus or Stoics in general?

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    1. Yes, I received Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic two years ago for Christmas and so many of the ancient truths still make so much sense in the context of our modern world. I would love to share an example of my experience with Stoicism here, and perhaps later expand as a full post.
      Objectively, May was a rough month for me. My home flooded, we’re staying with the inlaws, I was diagnosed with a severe fungal infection, I had to cancel a trip to my dream school’s open house to see an infectious disease doctor, work has been especially stressful, and I may need a spinal tap. Stoicism, and particularly Epictetus and his teaching that, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” In spite of the recent hardships, I’ve made efforts to laugh at the situation, be extra loving in my self-care, and profusely thank everyone who has been helping me navigate the situations. Though June is likely to bring more of the same, reminding myself that I can find moments of joy, or at least contentment, in any moment has helped me remain positive, proactive, and productive, rather than sinking into self-pity or fear.

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      1. Thank you for replying, sounds very very tough. It’s when we hear stories like yours about how you react stoically to something. For me, the beginning was the death of my 22 years old son 20 years ago. All of my pain was entirely psychological, but the knock on physical effect was very real. My wife and I are Buddhists and that helped.

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      2. I’m sorry to hear about your son–the untimely death of a loved one is, perhaps, the toughest situation of them all. I once wrote a post about my cousin, who died from cancer at age 30, and there was a beautiful comment about how maybe these individuals are more spiritually evolved than most, and come into our lives in order to teach us how to live more fully. My hope is that anyone going through a difficult time will come to realize (even if it takes years) the quiet power of non-attachment; it’s human nature to cling, but the clinging is often the source of our suffering. Thank you for sharing your story, Dr B.

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  2. I do not have any favourite “ancient” philosopher or philosophy I follow buy I believe that philosophy is a way of life. Philosophy entails serious observation of life, and of one’s own nature. Philosophy takes away the knee-jerk tendency to be a follower.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Sha’Tara! It’s so true–we each have the power to observe our own lives, come to our own conclusions, and treat philosophy as a way of life.

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  3. You chose interesting quotes, well done. I have read his Discourses and Enchiridion and he really reached to me. This kind of philosophy can in contemporary times be understood mostly in therapeutic manner, since people in the West do not suffer as much as Romans did under emperors (wars, sickness, tiranny etc.). Once I read that for the peaceful times Epicurus’ philosophy is more adequate and for the truly difficult and life-threatening – the stoic one. I can also add that to live as a stoic is a good way to retreat in your “inner citadel”, if you must, but otherwise I would recommend a more lenient attitude

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