in summaries

The author of The Art of Living Epictetus was born a slave in 55 a.C. at Hierapolis, in the Roman Empire, where nowadays is Turkey. After winning his freedom, he became a teacher for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Then, he built his own version of Greek Stoicism.

It focuses on the premise that human being cannot control life, but only his responses to it. This book has 93 actionable great pieces of advice. I have selected some of them that can help us to face daily challenges with more success and inevitable losses with grace.

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness

History and work

Epictetus has not left any philosophical writings. Like Plato, Flavius Arrianus also compiled the main ideas from of his master’s talks. This bulk generated 8 books – a compendium known as “Discourses” – from which only 4 have survived time. As a slave, he had an owner called Epaphroditus who was Nero’s secretary. Out of the admiration for Epictectus’ cleverness, his owner sent him to study in Rome.

After becoming the most prominent student under Musonius Rufus, he won his freedom. He stayed in Rome until 94 a.C., when emperor Domitian expelled him. This was due to the political threats philosophers were posing to his government.

Following, he went to Nicopolis, in the northwest of Greece, where he spent the rest of his life lecturing about how to live with dignity and peace. His work is considered the “Western Buddhism” because it focuses on the divine essence of the individual. It addresses the following questions:

  • How to live a full and happy life?
  • How can I be a good person?

Being a philosopher to him is having the ability to separate what is true from what is merely a series of accidents caused by lack of reasoning, and cultural standards and well-intentioned but flawed lessons from our parents and teachers.

So, to minimise our soul’s suffering, we begin a process of introspection and a journey of awareness towards our beliefs and productive and unproductive habits in terms of freedom, happiness, and wisdom.

Premises & Definitions

Before we go to the instructions, it is important to assure you understand the premises and definitions on which he relies.

Premise #1

Philosophy’s main job is to help regular people to face life challenges and deal with inevitable losses such as grief, illness, and death.

Premise #2

Happiness and freedom derive from the understanding of the following principle: some things are under control and other things are out of our control.

Premise #3

Everyone has the opportunity to practice kindness, regardless of being rich or poor, religious or secular, with or without formal education.

Definition #1

Freedom is knowing how to separate what we can control from what we cannot control so we can act on the first and accept the latter.

Definition #2

Happiness is an ongoing and dynamic act of valuable actions.

Now, let’s move on to the suggestions for a full and happy life. 

Separate what you can control from what you cannot

Accepting the limits and working with them instead of fighting against them is the way to freedom. On the contrary, relying on the things that are out of our control is a prison.

What is in our control?

Our wishes, aspirations and the things that repel us.

This must be on us because these are variables upon which we can act. We can always interfere with what is internal.

What is out of our control?

The body in which we have been born, our family and the social prestige.

We need to remind ourselves that these are external factors about which we should not be concerned.

For this reason, the author recommends and intentional practice of indifference to external factors.

Life gives. Life takes away. Chances are that if it hasn’t happened already, you’re going to lose something or someone who is inordinately precious to you.

Maybe it will be a home, a job, a marriage, a friend, your prized possession, your sense of self-worth, your mobility, your dignity, your health, or something else, and you’re going to need to figure out how to carry on and make a good and meaningful life in the wake of and in spite of that potentially withering loss.

Behave like an adult

Nobody can hurt you. Nobody has this power over you. Even if someone says something that irritates you, even if they curse you, it is your choice to see the situation as an insult or not.

Therefore, Epictetus suggests the next time someone appears to be teasing you, remember it is only your own judgment that brings up this feeling.

Do not let your emotions arise for mere appearances. Try not to react at the moment. Back off the situation. Look from outside, take a deep breath. It is just a habit generated by a social condition. Something that you need to unlearn.

Following the same line, the author believes that we should not fear  criticism. Only the weak feel the urge to defend or justify themselves to others. Let your attitudes speak for you. We cannot control others’ impressions about us and the efforts to control it only unsettle our self-esteem.

So, the next time someone tells you “They told me that…”, do not worry about defending yourself. Just smile and answer:

“I believe they do not know my other flaws. If they did, they would not mention only these ones”

Except for extreme physical abuse, nobody can hurt you, unless you allow it.

Do not allow to be hurt and you will not be. This is under your control.

Value your family

The author argues that if you have a father or a mother, you have certain emotional and practical duties. Nature has tied you to an unbreakable bond. You have the obligation to take care of them and listen to their suggestions, even if they are not “good parents”.

Maybe one or both of them have little discernment, little instruction, bad manners or a different world perspective from yours. In spite of that, it is worth to think over:

Does nature give everyone the ideal parents?

As a matter of fact, does it give parents to everyone?

It does not matter how your parents are, this is of little importance.

The divine order does not put people or circumstances according to our taste.

Take the focus off of what they do or do not and embrace your role as the good kid. Just accept this reality, this is one of the variables you do not control.

Let others behave as they wish, including your parents, as this is not up to you.

Understand that nature arranges things for a reason, although not everything in nature is reasonable.

Choose your companies wisely

According to Epictetus, two things can happen when you approach someone: either you will influence them or you get influenced by them. Just like what happens when cold coal gets in touch with ember: they either cool off or burn.

This is a great danger to people, especially the soft-hearted ones.

Most of us do not have enough strength to attract people that relate to our purpose, so we end up dragged down by the crowd.

Our values and ideas get contaminated and confused, our judgment loses strength. It is hard to not get involved with low-level conversations if your friends are having it. We are pulled down by the social wave.

So, until you develop self-defense and positive influence over others, chose your friends, colleagues, and neighbors carefully. All these people have the power to change your destiny.

The world is full of talented people that are searching for the same things as you are. The golden rule is: choose people that arouse the best in you.

Keep up “good-level” conversations

The author points out that people should not restrict themselves to sublime conversations or philosophy at all times, but they should be aware of certain types of conversation that have a corrosive effect on the way to happiness and freedom.

Most of the time, when we talk about ordinary subjects, we become ordinary because our mind gets full of trivialities.

In other words, you become what you pay attention to.

If people start badmouthing that leads to nowhere, step aside, if you can. If you cannot, at least stay quiet and make a serious face to show you do not agree with them.

Another option is trying to subtly change the subject to healthier topics. It takes skill to make it smoothly though. If you are among strangers, it may be harder. If you are not confident yet to do so,  keeping away is much better than engaging in.

At last, the author believes that laughing and a good sense of humor are healthy, especially when they do not happen in spite of something or someone.

“Laugh with” but do not “laugh at”.

Do not look for approval

Never depend on the approval of others, advises the author. There is nothing smart about it. Personal merits cannot come from an external source. It should not come from people. The fact is that people will not necessarily agree with your opinions or share the same interests, even if they love you.

Do your best at work. Do not worry if people recognize it or not. Do your job regardless of other people’s appreciation.

When going through hard times, the author suggests to not overreact or walk in circles. Look within and ask yourself what you can do to deal with the problem. Dig deeply. You have powers that you are unaware of. Just find one of them and use it.

According to Epictetus, an accurate sign of a good life is serenity. That happens because ethical progress frees us from internal storms. Worries go away naturally. For this to happen, he suggests quitting thoughts and attitudes such as: “If I do not work more than others, nobody will appreciate me”, “I will never be someone in life”, “if I do not criticize my employee, he will take advantage of my goodwill”.

Stop putting energy into making an impression as sophisticated, unique or intelligent. As a matter of fact, keep an eye open if you start to look “special”. This may also drive you to lose focus for vanity. The truth is, when we try to please people, we lose power over what is inside our influence zone.

“Above all else, stop comparing yourself to anyone else but you. Comparing is searching to control an external variable, meaning, loss of freedom and happiness.” Reasonable people look inside when challenged.

Therefore, stay in harmony with your truth. If you try to control other people’s impressions, you will lose your inner power.

Do not take things personally

When someone acts impolitely with you, regardless of what he or she has done, you should wonder:

“If I were the same person and had been through the same challenges, born in the same condition, with the same parents, would I behave the same?”

We do not know people’s journey and their inner struggles, so it is reasonable to be patient and understand their limits. It does not mean being complacent, but instead, trying to understand the context and see that the intention behind the action is usually a good one.

Even if the intention is not positive, the best answer to give is being compassionate, for he or she has lost the greatest ability a human being can have: distinguish what is healthy for him/herself from what is not. At this point, the person has lost the inner peace.

So, next time, instead of hatred or anger, have mercy for these people that are out of themselves.

Do not be kind because of something

Epictetus argues that the practice of virtue and happiness are synonyms, meaning, kindness is the means and the end. Practice and reward are inseparable. It is not showing off good manners but a series of adjustments in our character that comes with time.

We align our thoughts, words, and attitudes progressively in a healthy direction. According to the author, the logic “I will be good to get x, y, or z” does not work.

Virtue lies in intention, not on results.

Therefore, we should be kind because being kind is being happy, meaning, be peaceful and free from worries.

Learn to replace habits

According to the author, each habit is reinforced by its correspondent action.

The act of walking reinforces the habit of walking.

The regular run makes a better runner.

The same works for soul-related issues.

If you let people irritate you, it will only grow feed your anger habit.

If you do not want to have a short temper, do not feed the habit of rage.

If you give in to the reaction, you will see that this habit will get replaced little by little. Exercise not reacting in the beginning and count the days in which you did not pop up in anger.

Over time, you will stop being angry “all the time” to being “most of the times” and then “every now and then”, until the habit of calmness has taken its place.

Commit yourself to a meaningful life

Most of us would like to live in a world with integrity and without corruption. Epictetus observes that everyone would appreciate living a world with more trust, generosity, and tolerance. However, no one is willing to commit and be the innocent idealist that takes the first step towards it.

And, this is not because we are lazy.

It is simply because we are afraid. We fear the uncertainties of life.

People are good, just not outstandingly good.

Most of them cultivate thoughts, words, and attitudes that comply with what is morally acceptable in their time to keep friends, business and prevent chaos. In the meantime, we often feel a weird nostalgia of what is living with virtue, meaning, living happily, freely and to its fullest expression.

The stoic see anxiety, lack of purpose and fear of loss as a consequence of our own exile from virtue.

And this is exactly their game. They prefer to be virtuous than to be nice, defensive or conservative.

Virtue is the only unconditional good.

Other assets such as friendship and affection are valuable goods, but they are conditioned.

Therefore, virtue is supreme.

It is the only way to our inner self and to the authentic feeling of connection with others and with nature.

Conclusion

You can learn three lessons from Epictetus: freedom is to separate the variables we control from the ones we cannot control so we can act on the first and accept gracefully the latter. A happy life is the same as a virtuous life. Happiness and self-accomplishment are natural consequences of right attitudes. Philosophy’s main job is to help regular people to face life challenges and deal with inevitable losses such as grief, illness, and death.

How about you?

What do you think of Epictetus’ ideas on the art of living?

Can you relate to any?

I would love to talk to you in the comments below. 🙂

Anyways, I think you might also like to read Purpose: The Courage to be Who You Are To Love and Be Free.