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Epictetus On Living and The True Purpose of Philosophy

Wild Wild Western CivilizationEpictetus, a Roman Stoic philosopher, was born into slavery about A.D. 55 in Hierapolis, Phrygia, located in the eastern borders of the Roman Empire.

Imagine being born into slavery? What resulted from this horrifying life experience was ultimately the Stoic school of philosophy. How strange that a great adversity can turn into something so meaningful and timeless? When Epictetus was freed, he established an influential school teaching Stoic principles that focused on overcoming life’s griefs, annoyances, and roadblocks. Who better to learn from? Among his many students was the future emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius. If you ever read Meditations, you can see how deeply influenced Aurelius was by Epictetus.

In The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Epictetus (interpretation by Sharon Lebell), outlines the tenets of Stoicism and how we can use it in our daily lives. Epictetus endured an event that would normally unman a person. By realizing that he couldn’t control life’s events but rather his response to them, he was able to keep his sanity and also live on to share his teachings so that others may benefit from these spiritual practices.

Indeed, even thousands of years later, the Stoic school of philosophy is a system of principles that are relevant to both work and life. It’s a system that I follow closely because of its two simple goals: How to live a happy, fulfilling life, and how to be a good person.

But first, why philosophy? What does this subject provide us? Why should we learn it?

Sharon Lebell (the interpreter for this book) explains:

“Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs. His was a moral teaching stripped of sentimentality, piousness, and metaphysical mumbo jumbo. What remains is the West’s first and best primer for living the best possible life.


His prescription for the good life centered on three main themes: mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.”

Philosophy champions self-reflection and self-awareness

Philosophy came into my life at a time when I needed it most. I was failing college and miserable all around. A part of me knew that I had to reinvent myself and the other half was comfortable being miserable. When our soul cries out, as Epictetus would say, it means that we’ve reached a point where we need to reevaluate our lives.  This passage is probably one of my favorite passages in this book, and if it’s something you’re currently going through I think the answer is very clear [emphasis by me]:

“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’ve 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 first sincere philosophical questions.

It’s true: there is no obviously apparent meaning to our lives. Cruelty, injustice, bodily discomfort, illness, annoyances, and inconveniences big and small are the prosaic facts of any day. So what do we do about this? How do we—in spite of the pain and suffering in the outside world and our own wayward emotions—live ennobled lives rather than succumbing to a despairing numbness and merely coping like a mule with tedium and unbidden responsibilities?

When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity.”

So if you’re in a stage where you’re constantly reflecting and questioning everything, that is a good sign. Do it daily. Reflect on your behaviors, habits, beliefs, and desires. Continue questioning everything. These are some of the best moments to practice self-awareness, and in turn, spark the slow but steady process for change. In these moments, philosophy serves as our guardian angel.

Philosophy is about the love of wisdom

If you take a philosophy course in college, chances are you’ll be engaged in fruitless debates, theorizing, analysis, and more. Although the purpose of that is to strengthen the art of conversation, I find it much more rewarding to focus on philosophies that provide wisdom on how to live better and be a better human. After all, isn’t that the goal?

Epictetus explains what true philosophy is and how it helps us in our everyday lives [emphasis by me]:

“True philosophy doesn’t involve exotic rituals, mysterious liturgy, or quaint beliefs. Nor is it just about abstract theorizing and analysis. It is, of course, the love of wisdom. It is the art of living a good life. As such, it must be rescued from religious gurus and from professional philosophers lest it be exploited as an esoteric cult or as a set of detached intellectual techniques or brain teasers to show how clever you are. Philosophy is intended for everyone, and it is authentically practiced only by those who wed it with action in the world toward a better life for all.

Philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. Self-scruntiny applied with kindness is the main antidote. Besides rooting our 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.”

When he says, “self-scrutiny applied with kindness,” I think the main lesson here is self-awareness. It’s very easy to critically examine yourself and immediately feel shame, hopelessness, or even anger. Be hard on yourself, sure, but also realize that this is what everyone goes through, so therefore it isn’t shameful. The idea is to become conscious of a false belief or bad habit and then to apply, with kindness, a solution that can lead to lasting change.

Stoicism is about mastering perception, will, and action

When you read Stoic texts, you’ll come across a unifying theme comprised of specific elements: Nature, perception, action, and will.

The Stoics made it their duty to understand nature’s laws and to know what can be controlled and what cannot. Think of it like this: What can you control? Your judgement, actions, opinions, thoughts. What can’t you control? Events, failure, sickness, death, adversity, bad fortune. Death, failure, and adversity are a part of life, but how we respond to it can vary in effectiveness.

Epictetus said:

“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. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. When you carry out your tasks, such as taking a bath, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature. When you eat, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature, and so on. It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties arise—for they are part of the divine order too—inner peace will still be possible.”

These spiritual exercises are about exercising our perception. This is important to remember and internalize: It’s is not the events that make us feel something, it’s what we tell ourselves. Bad judgements lead to false perception, and false perception leads to everything but clarity and peace. Indeed, it’s our responsibility to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

“From now on, practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘You are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’ And then thoroughly consider the matter according to the principles just discussed, primarily: Does this appearance concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not? If it concerns anything outside your control, train yourself to not worry about it.”


“When we name things correctly, we comprehend them correctly, without adding information or judgements that aren’t there. Does someone bathe quickly? Don’t say he bathes poorly, but quickly. Name the situation as it is; don’t filter it through your judgements.

Does someone drink a lot of wine? Don’t say she is a drunk but that she drinks a lot. Unless you possess a comprehensive understanding of her life, how do you know if she is a drunk?

Do not risk being beguiled by appearances and constructing theories and interpretations based on distortions through misnaming. Give your assent only to what is actually true.”

Needless to say, this is no easy task. For many of us, we’re trained in the arts of seeing things as we want to see them, not as how they are. We mistakenly place false labels on things because of our insecurities, fears, and acculturation.

What is the one thing that helps with this change of mind? Humility. As Epictetus would say [emphasis by me]:

The first step to living wisely is to relinquish self-conceit. See the delusional folly in being a nervous know-it-all whose giddy mind is always prattling on about its knee-jerk impressions of events and other people, forcing current experiences into previously formed categories: ‘Oh yes, this thing here is just like such and such.’

Behold the world fresh—as it is, on its own terms—through the eye of a beginner. To know that you do not know and to be willing to admit that you do not know without sheepishly apologizing is a real strength and sets the stage for learning and progress in any endeavor.”

Principles are a practice

Whether you’re following religious principles, Stoicism, Buddhism, Tao, or any other school of philosophy, the consistent goal is to practice the principles in our everyday lives.

“The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not to lie,’ into practice. The second step is to demonstrate the truth of the principles, such as why it is that we ought not to lie. The third step, which connects the first two, is to indicate why the explanations suffice to justify the principles. While the second and third steps are valuable, it is the first step that matters most. For it is all too easy and common to lie while cleverly demonstrating that lying is wrong.”

This is when “self-scrutiny applied with kindness” is helpful because it’s easy to believe that we are this kind of person, when in fact our actions prove otherwise. Abiding to our principles especially in times of grief or annoyance are testaments to our character. We will fail from time to time, without a doubt, but to reflect on our failures and to internalize the lessons are practices that lead to growth.

The Art of Living teaches us how to do just that: live well. The wisdom outlined in this book, and the interpretation by Sharon Lebell, is so clear that page after page the words should strike a cord and provide a sense of clarity and direction. This book isn’t a 500-page tome filled with jargon and ambiguous terms. The principles are straight forward, blunt, and in essence immediately practical. In the words of Seneca, “The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.” Find knowledge that helps you deal with your troubles and worries and generously apply it throughout your life.