top of page

The Art of Living by Epictetus

Epictetus was born into slavery before being freed and starting his own school of Stoic philosophy. He is famous for teaching Marcus Aurelius, the most famous emperor of the Roman Empire, especially since Marcus was very well known for applying stoicism to his own life as emperor which we know from his book Meditations. The Art of Living is a translation by Sharon Lebell of Epictetus's teachings. It is a very well written and short book to deal with the troubles of everyday life and how to get the right frame of mind. I recommend reading it.


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. Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, in the things that repel us.

We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives. Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we are born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in Society.

Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business in on of yours.

Our desires and aversions are mercurial [subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind] rulers. They demand to be pleased. Desire commands us to run off and get what we want. Aversion insists that we must avoid the things that repel us. Typically, when we don't get what we want, we are disappointed, and when we get what we don't want, we are distressed.

However, if you try to avoid inevitabilities such a sickness, death, or misfortune, over which you have no real control, you will make yourself and others around you suffer. Desire and aversion, though powerful, are but habits. And we train ourselves to have better habits. Restrain the habit of being repelled by all those things that aren't within your control, and focus instead on combating things within your power that are not good for you. To your best to rein in your desire. For if you desire something that isn't within your own control, disappointment will surely follow; meanwhile, you will be neglecting the very things that are within your control that are worthy of desire.

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.

Don't try to make your own rules. Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal.

We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

Small minded people habitually reproach others for their own misfortunes. Average people reproach themselves. Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself.

The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for and unbidden events. Things simply are what they are. Other people think what they will think: it is of no concern to us. No shame. No blame.

Nothing truly stops you. Nothing truly holds you back. For your own will is always within your control.

The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveler takes care of a room at an inn.

The surest sign of the higher life is serenity. [Serenity is the state of being calm.]

For good or for ill, life and nature are governed by laws that we can't change. The quicker we accept this, the more tranquil we can be.

We are ultimately controlled by that which bestows what we seek or removes what we don't want. If it is freedom you seek, wish nothing and shun another that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave. Understand what freedom really is and how it is achieved. Freedom isn't the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life's limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free.

Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.

Your happiness depends on 3 things, all of which are within your power, your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas. Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions... Your happiness can only be found within.

Instead of averting your eyes from the painful events of life, look at them squarely and contemplate them often. By facing the realities of death, infirmity [infirmity is physical or mental weakness], loss, and disappointment, you free yourself of allusions and false hopes and you avoid miserable, envious thoughts.

Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you.

Remember: you will never earn the same rewards as others without employing the same methods and investment of time as they do. It is unreasonable to think we can earn rewards without being willing to pay their true price. Those who "win" at something have no real advantage over you, because they had to pay the price for the reward. It is always our choice whether or not we wish to pay the price for life’s rewards. And often it is best for us not to pay the price, for the price might be our integrity.

Learn the will of nature. Study it, pay attention to it, and then make it your own. The will of nature is revealed to us through everyday experiences common to all people.

Cultivate the habit of surveying and testing a prospective action before undertaking it. Before you proceed, step back and look at the big picture, lest you act rationally on raw impulse. Determine what happens first, consider what that leads to, and then act in accordance with what you have learned. When we act without circumspection, we might begin a task with great enthusiasm; then, when unforeseen or unwanted consequences follow, we shamefully retreat and are filled with regret: "I would have done this; I could have done that; I should have done it differently."

You are an essential piece of the puzzle of humanity. Each of us is a part of a vast, intricate, and perfectly ordered human community... Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the cosmic scheme by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties.

The divine order does not design people or circumstance according to our tastes.

Understand that nature as a whole is ordered according to reason, but that not everything in nature is reasonable.

Most people tend to delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good and what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions. They are ill prepared to act effectively and nobly when unexpected challenges occur, as they inevitably will.

Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind. If you yourself don't choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.

It is human to imitate the habits of those with whom we interact. We inadvertently adopt their interests, their opinions, their values, and their habit of interpreting events. Though many people mean well, they can just the same have a deleterious [deleterious is causing harm or damage] influence on you because they are undisciplined about what is worthy and what isn't.

Be selective about whom you take on as friends, colleagues, and neighbors. All these people can affect your destiny. The world is full of agreeable intelligent folk. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

The real test of personal excellence lies in the attention we give to the often neglected small details of our conduct. Regularly ask yourself, “How are my thoughts, words, and deeds affecting my friends, my spouse, my neighbor, my child, my employer, my subordinates, my fellow citizens? Am I doing my part to contribute to the spiritual progress of all with whom I come in come in contact?" Make it your business to draw out the best in others by being an exemplary yourself.

Don't be afraid of verbal abuse or criticism. Only the morally weak feel compelled to defend or explain themselves to others. Let the quality of your deeds speak on your behalf. We can't control the impressions others form about us, and the effort to do so only debases our character.

One of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate.

We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.

Once you have deliberated and determined that a course of action is wise, never discredit your judgment. Stand squarely behind your decision. Chances are there may indeed be people who misunderstand your intentions and who may even condemn you. But if, according to your best judgment, you are acting rightly, you have nothing to fear. Take a stand. Don't be cravenly noncommittal.

Just as when you walk you are careful not to step on a nail or injure your foot, you should similarly take the utmost care not to in any way impair the highest faculty of your mind. The virtuous life depends on reason first and foremost. If you safeguard your reason, it will safeguard you.

Without moral training, we can be induced to excess.

Those who seek wisdom come to understand that even though the world may reward us for wrong or superficial reasons, such as their physical appearance, the family we come from, and so on, what really matters is who we are inside and who we are becoming.

Your main attention should be given to the care and development of your reason. For through your reason, you are able to understand nature's laws.

It is important to learn how to think clearly. Clear thinking is not a haphazard enterprise. It requires proper training. It is through clear thinking that we are able to properly direct our will, stick with our true purpose, and discover the connections we have to others and the duties that follow from those relationships. Every person should learn how to identify mushy and fallacious thinking. Study how inferences are legitimately derived, so that you avoid drawing unfounded conclusions.

Most people don't realize that both help and harm come from within ourselves. Instead they look to externals, mesmerized by appearances. Wise people, on the other hand, realize that we are the source of everything good or bad for us. They therefore don't resort to blaming and accusing others. They aren't driven to convince people they are worthy or special or distinguished. If wise people experience challenges, they look to themselves; if they are commended by others, they quietly smile to themselves, unmoved; if they are slandered, they don't feel the need to defend their name... They harmonize their desires with life as it is, and seek to avoid only the things that would prevent their ability to exercise their will properly.

The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as "We ought not to lie," into practice. The 2nd step is to demonstrate the truth of the principles, such as why it is that we ought not to lie. But the 3rd step, which connects the 1st and the 2nd, is to indicate why the explanations suffice to justify the principles. While the 2nd and 3rd steps are valuable, it is the 1st step that matters most. For it is all too easy and common to lie while cleverly demonstrating that lying is wrong.

Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul's cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears. Philosophy calls us when we have reached the end of our rope. The insistent feeling that something is not right with our lives and the longing to be restored to our better selves will not go away. Our fears of death and being alone, our confusion about love and sex, and our sense of impotence in the face of our anger and outsized ambitions bring us to ask our 1st sincere philosophical questions. It's true: There is no obviously apparent meaning to our lives. Cruelty, and justice, bodily discomfort, illness, annoyances, and inconveniences big and small are the prosaic [lacking poetic beauty] facts of any day.

Philosophy’s purpose is to eliminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us.... and besides rooting out the soul’s corruptions, the life of wisdom is also meant to stir us from our lassitude and move us in the direction of an energetic, cheerful life.

The only worthy object of all our efforts is a flourishing life.

To know that you do not know and be willing to admit that you do not know without sheepishly apologizing is real strength and sets the stage for learning and progress in any endeavor. The wisest among us appreciate the natural limits of our knowledge and have the mettle to preserve their naivete. They understand how little all of us really know about anything.

If you really want peace of mind and success in your endeavors, forgo self-importance.

Notice what is actually happening, not just what you think is happening or wish were happening. Look and listen. To do anything well you must have the humility to bumble around a bit, to follow your nose, to get lost, to goof.

New experiences are meant to deepen our lives and advance us to new levels of competence; they are not meant to be used by the self-important as fodder for shoring up their previously adopted views and conclusions.

To live an extraordinary life means we must elevate our moral stature by culturing our character.

The morally trained, rather than resenting or dodging their current life situations and duties, give thanks for them and fully immerse themselves in their duties to their family, friends, neighbors, and job. When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities. The overvaluation of money, status, and competition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be achieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are.

Examine things as they appear to your own mind; objectively consider what is said by others, and then establish your own convictions. Socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable. So many of our beliefs have been acquired through accident and irresponsible or ignorant teaching. Many of these beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they are hidden from our own view.

When someone speaks to you curtly, disregards what you say, performs what seems to be a thoughtless gesture or even an outright evil act, think to yourself, “If I were that person and had endured the same trials, borne the same heartbreaks, had the same parents, and so on, I probably would have done or said the same thing.” We are not privy to the stories behind people's actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend our judgment of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding. This does not mean we condone evil deeds or endorse the idea that different actions carry the same moral week.

Try, also, to be as kind to yourself as possible. Do not measure yourself against others or even against your ideal self. Human betterment is a gradual, 2 steps forward, once step back effort.

Forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.

Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn't. We create things over which we have no control, and are not satisfied by the things within our control. We need to regularly stop and take stock; To sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not: which respire worth the cost in which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be made more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.

Virtue is our aim and purpose.

Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t. We crave things over which we have no control, and are not satisfied by the things within our control. We need to regularly stop and take stock; to sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not; which risks are worth the cost and which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be made more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.

bottom of page