The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus was one of his time’s most influential Stoic thinkers. Born around 55 AD, Epictetus grew up as a slave before being granted freedom. He studied Stoicism under the renowned philosopher Musonius Rufus and went on to open his Stoic school. Epictetus emphasized living a virtuous life above all else. His teachings provide a practical philosophy of resilience, wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control.
Epictetus stressed the importance of distinguishing what we can and cannot control, managing desires, living naturally, preparing for adversity, making steady progress, accepting fate, contemplating mortality, and visualizing future troubles. By learning and consistently applying these central Stoic principles, we can overcome destructive emotions, act with integrity, fulfill our human potential, and lead more meaningful lives.
Putting Epictetus’ wisdom into practice requires commitment and discipline. However, the benefits of reduced anxiety, increased tranquility, and acting with virtue instead of simply reacting make the effort worthwhile. Studying Stoicism remains highly relevant centuries later for anyone seeking practical guidance on living well.
Understanding the Dichotomy of Control
Epictetus stressed the importance of distinguishing between what is within our control and what is not. Health, wealth, and reputation are external to us and should not be the primary focus of our energy. However, our judgments, values, desires, and aversions are within our power to shape. Recognizing this dichotomy allows us to direct energy only toward what we can control.
For example, John was stressed about his performance review at work. Through reflection, he realized he could control his effort and attitude but not how his boss would evaluate him. This helped him gain perspective and focus where he had agency.
Managing Desires and Aversions
Epictetus warned against getting caught up in unhealthy attachments and desires. When we depend on specific outcomes for happiness, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, we can work on freeing ourselves from excessive wanting and wishing.
Lisa tended to fixate on her social media metrics and became upset when her posts did poorly. Applying Epictetus’ advice, she worked on caring less about external validation and finding fulfillment in creating content.
Living in Accordance with Nature
The Stoics believed in living virtuously by acting in harmony with nature. Each of us has a natural purpose as human beings. We fulfill our natural potential by living rationally and cultivating wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
Mark began volunteering and helping the less fortunate in his community. Even when it was inconvenient, he focused on doing the right thing and serving a greater purpose beyond himself.
Epictetus encouraged his students to premeditate future adversity to build resilience when hardship inevitably arises. We can thoughtfully examine our fears and prepare mentally by imagining challenges like loss, illness, or exile.
Julie would set aside time to reflect on losing her job or becoming disabled. Though initially uncomfortable, this stoic practice allowed her to gain perspective and realize she could endure potential hardships.
Progress Over Perfection
Implementing profound philosophies takes time and practice. Epictetus spoke of progress as being more important than perfection. As we learn Stoic techniques, what matters most is our sincere effort to improve gradually.
When Michelle started reading about Stoicism, she often felt discouraged that she wasn’t “good enough” yet. She had to remind herself that steady progress was what counted. Over time, she saw incremental improvements.
Amor Fati: Loving Your Fate
Stoics believe we must accept what comes to pass, even when it clashes with our desires. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, we can choose to love fate (amor fati) and embrace what we are dealt with with grace.
After a business deal fell through, Ricardo told himself this must be for the best in ways he could not see yet. Instead of being bitter, he moved forward with optimism about what life had in store next.
Memento Mori: Reflecting on Mortality
Contemplating our mortality may seem morbid, but it can foster presence and gratitude. By remembering we have finite time, we value each day more fully. Death awaits us all, so we must make the best use of our time.
Oscar started carving out time every morning to sit quietly and envision this day being his last. This memento mori meditation helped him appreciate life and shift his priorities toward what mattered most.
Premeditatio Malorum: Visualizing Adversity
Another proper Stoic exercise is premeditatio malorum, the practice of visualizing future adversity. By imagining troubles like illness, loss, or exile, we can examine our fears and become less disturbed when challenges inevitably arise.
John frequently pictured becoming disabled or losing his home. Though initially uncomfortable, this stoic technique allowed him to gain a helpful perspective and understand he could endure potential hardships.
Hierocles’ Circles Model
Hierocles proposed seeing ourselves as part of expanding circles of concern. First, ourselves, then family, community, country, and humanity. This helps counter selfishness and tribalism. Stoics recognize we are all interconnected.
Adriana started deliberately picturing difficult people as part of humanity to reduce her judgmental tendencies. She consciously expanded concern from solely herself to include wider circles, developing empathy and patience.
Case Study: Applying Stoicism to Change Your Life
Let’s see how Marcus, a young professional, transformed his life by applying Stoic principles. He took time each morning to reflect on what he could control and focus his energy there. He worked on easing attachment to superficial desires and became less frustrated when things changed.
Marcus also made an effort to act with virtue even when inconvenient. Volunteering and standing up for coworkers positively impacted his self-worth and purpose. He imagined troubles that could arise, like job loss or illness, to strengthen resilience. Though uncomfortable, this stoic exercise better prepared his mind.
When disappointments happened, Marcus responded with loving acceptance instead of bitterness. He frequently reminded himself of mortality and the value of each day. Making progress bit by bit became more critical than seeking perfection.
Marcus was markedly less reactive, anxious, and self-centered within a year. He nurtured his natural wisdom and lived more fully aligned with Stoic principles. His example illustrates how Epictetus’ teachings can profoundly shape our perspective and lives for the better.
The practical wisdom left behind by Epictetus continues to offer profound value for those seeking guidance on living a good life even today. His Stoic principles provide timeless insights that remain applicable in the modern world. While society has radically changed since Ancient Greece, human emotions and life’s challenges have not.
By learning Epictetus’ central ideas, such as the dichotomy of control, amor fati, and premeditatio malorum, we can access a practical framework for building resilience, overcoming destructive desires, and fulfilling our human potential. Putting Stoic philosophy into consistent practice allows us to face adversity with grace, reduce anxiety and anguish, act with integrity, and live more purposefully.