When Life Hurts, Stop Clinging to It: The Philosophy of Epictetus

When Life Hurts, Stop Clinging to It: The Philosophy of Epictetus

Life inevitably brings pain and hardship. When faced with difficulties, our natural tendency is to resist and cling to how we want things to be. However, the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus taught that true happiness and inner freedom come from letting go of excessive attachments and desires. By focusing on what is within our control, accepting what is not, and aligning with nature, we can face life’s challenges with wisdom, resilience, and tranquility.

Epictetus was a renowned Stoic thinker who stressed that events themselves are morally neutral – it is our judgements and responses that imbue them with meaning. Through rigorous self-discipline and detachment, we can distinguish what we can control from what we cannot. This realization allows us to endure adversity calmly while exerting our power over inner thoughts and choices.

The principles from Epictetus provide a framework for finding fulfillment and contentment even amidst suffering. By mastering our perspective, letting go of uncontrollable things, and living virtuously, we can transcend difficult circumstances. Inner strength and character become our guides and possessions. This universal wisdom remains profoundly relevant today for handling life’s inevitable pains and disappointments with grace.

The Life and Philosophy of Epictetus

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Born a slave in Hierapolis, he was granted his freedom and became a renowned Stoic philosopher in Rome. After being exiled from Rome by Emperor Domitian, Epictetus established his own school where he taught the fundamentals of Stoic philosophy until his death.

The core principle of Epictetus’ philosophy is that we should accept calmly what happens to us in life, focusing only on what we can control. By practicing self-discipline and detachment, we can achieve inner freedom and happiness.

Accepting What You Cannot Control

A key tenet of Stoicism is to accept events and circumstances that are beyond our control. For Epictetus, this included health, wealth, reputation, power, and even life and death. He stressed that by worrying about external situations, we only bring ourselves more misery. Instead, we should focus our energy on what we can control – our judgments, values, desires, and attitudes.

Epictetus said: “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.”

Focusing on What is Within Your Power

Epictetus taught that while we cannot control what happens to us, we have absolute power over how we judge events and react to them. Our perspective and response is entirely up to us.

Even as a slave with no material possessions, Epictetus realized he had control over his thoughts and beliefs. He could choose to view his situation with wisdom and contentment. By taking responsibility for our own minds, we gain the power to be happy regardless of external circumstances.

Practicing Self-Discipline and Resilience

To control our perspectives requires rigorous self-discipline, said Epictetus. We must monitor our impressions, differentiate what is in our power from what is not, and then act accordingly. This discipline leads to resilience in the face of hardship.

Epictetus viewed adversity and suffering as opportunities to practice courage, patience, and self-restraint. By enduring difficult situations calmly and virtuously, we demonstrate our strength and prove external things cannot break us. The sage feels no anger or frustration at circumstances, only joy at the chance to exercise wisdom.

Viewing Events as Neither Good Nor Bad

At the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy is the idea that no external thing or event is inherently good or bad. What happens to us is morally neutral; it is our judgments about events that imbue them with meaning. To eliminate suffering, we must give up labeling events as good, bad, or harmful. If nothing is bad except moral errors, then the sage has no reason to suffer or complain.

Living in Harmony with Nature

For Epictetus, living virtuously means living in harmony with nature. This includes accepting events with equanimity, fulfilling our social duties, eating and drinking moderately, and pursuing moral purpose. Since the universe is deterministic, everything that happens must be as it ought to be. To struggle against the natural order leads only to anguish.

Achieving Inner Freedom Through Wisdom

True freedom, said Epictetus, does not depend on external conditions but on cultivating wisdom and self-mastery. By perfecting our faculty of judgment, we can distinguish good from evil and remain undisturbed by anything outside our sphere of choice. This inner citadel of peace and strength cannot be conquered by any external force.

Letting Go of Attachments and Aversions

Clinging to things beyond our control is futile, according to Epictetus. Most of our suffering arises from our attachments or aversions – wanting things to be different than they are. However, we will always be disappointed if we stake our happiness on getting what we desire. To end suffering, we must accept that all external things are transitory and let go of attachments.

Finding Happiness Through Virtue and Self-Mastery

Epictetus taught that happiness does not arise from getting what we want, but from living virtuously. By practicing integrity, courage, self-control, and detachment, we can flourish and live in contentment. True freedom and fulfillment come from mastering our judgments, conquering desire, and realizing that our character is our only possession. This is within everyone’s power, regardless of circumstances.

Case Study Applying Epictetus’ Teachings to James’ Life

James is a 35-year old corporate executive who seems to have it all – a high salary, nice home, loving family, and good health. However, James is deeply unsatisfied and chronically stressed. He constantly worries about finances, his reputation at work, his children’s future, and keeping up with the lifestyle of his peers.

Recently, James has been passed over for promotions at work despite dedicating immense time and energy to the company. He fears he will lose his job and status. At home, James’ teenage son is struggling academically and defying rules. His marriage has become strained due to constant arguing over finances and parenting approaches.

James decides to see a therapist, admitting he feels depressed and trapped. The therapist introduces James to the philosophy of Epictetus and Stoic principles:

  • Acceptance of the situation instead of fighting reality
  • Focusing energy on what is within your control
  • Viewing adversities as opportunities for virtue and wisdom
  • Recognizing external things as morally neutral
  • Finding inner freedom through self-mastery
  • Releasing attachments and fears

James resonates with these ideas. He realizes that despite material possessions, he has felt deeply unhappy and anxious. He has been clinging to desires rather than accepting life’s circumstances calmly.

James starts practicing self-discipline over his thoughts, letting go of attachments to status and money. He focuses on controlling only his own principles, judgment, and conduct. Over time, James finds more fulfillment in simple moments with family, in doing his duties well, and in cultivating inner resilience.

While external problems remain, James handles difficulties with more wisdom, tranquility, and virtue. He lets go of past frustrations and future fears, living in the present. With regular Stoic practice, James transforms his perspective and discovers the path to genuine happiness.

Key Takeaways

  • Accept and adapt to events outside your control rather than resisting or worrying about them. Focus energy on what you can control – your perspective and response.
  • Discipline your mindset and judgments. View challenging situations as opportunities to practice wisdom, resilience, and virtue.
  • Do not label events as intrinsically good or bad. Your perspective gives them meaning.
  • Align your conduct with nature’s laws. Moderate earthly desires and fulfill duties serenely.
  • True freedom comes from inner mastery, not external conditions. Cultivate judgment to transcend circumstances.
  • Let go of excessive wants and attachments. Clinging to uncontrollable things causes misery.
  • Find fulfillment in virtue, integrity, and self-control. Character is the source of genuine happiness.


The ancient philosophy of Epictetus provides timeless principles for enduring life’s difficulties with resilience and tranquility. By focusing within and letting go of external attachments, we gain inner freedom and contentment. Wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue become our guides and greatest strengths. Despite hardship, we can live in harmony with nature and control our responses. This mastery over the mind is the path to genuine happiness.