The enduring wisdom of a disabled man born into slavery nearly 2000 years ago.
Epictetus, born ~50AD, was a disabled man born into slavery in Phrygia (present-day Turkey). Nothing that he wrote down survives; we know about him only through the words of other scholars. But he was so wise that his ideas reverberate through society today. This article summarizes some parts of his incredible life and the impact that he had on the world:
Epictetus walked with a limp, a disability he may have had from birth, from when his leg was broken deliberately by his enslaver, or from a later medical condition (stories on this differ). He was passionate about philosophy from a young age. His enslaver, who had previously been a slave himself, let Epictetus study Stoic philosophy. Epictetus obtained his freedom in adulthood and taught philosophy in Rome. But the Roman emperor then banished all philosophers from the city. At that point, Epictetus moved to Epirus, Greece where he founded a school of philosophy.
The reason we know about his ideas is due to his most famous pupil, Arrian, who wrote in the prologue to Discourses of Epictetus: "whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavoring to preserve it." Arrian said Epictetus "induce[ed] his listener to feel just what [he] wanted him to feel."
People who cited Epictetus’ ideas in their writing include:
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius
Voltaire, who described him as someone "whom one almost despairs of imitating"
Author Tom Wolfe (the book, Enchiridion of Epictetus is referenced in "A Man in Full")
Novelist James Joyce
Herodes Atticus who called him “the greatest of the Stoics”
Additionally, Albert Ellis (1913 - 2007) credited Epictetus with providing a foundation for his system of psychotherapy, underlining the prevailing relevance of Epictetus’s observations about the people of ancient Greece. Ellis' theory (R.E.B.T.) eventually became a major part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most evidenced-based therapy for treating mental disorders today.
Epictetus was part of the Stoic school of philosophy, which is about letting go of negative emotions like fear and jealousy and being calm - or “stoic” - in the face of suffering.
Here are some of the most insightful quotes attributed to Epictetus organized by topic. You’ve probably heard some of these ideas expressed by famous people alive today. Well, Epictetus said these things almost two THOUSAND years before them. Let that sink in for a moment before reading on. (We’ve edited some quotes for clarity - you can find most of the originals on Goodreads.)
Epictetus on challenges
"There's one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will."
"The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests."
Epictetus on relationships
"Keep company only with those who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best."
"Anyone capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed."
"If evil be said of you, and it's true, correct yourself; if it's a lie, laugh at it."
"It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms."
"If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, 'He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.'"
Epictetus on self-improvement
"If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid"
"He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at."
"It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows"
"How long will you wait before you demand the best for yourself?"
"No person is free who is not a master of themself."
"Don't just say you've read books. Show through them you have learned to think better, to be more discriminating and reflective. Books are the training weights of the mind...it's a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents."
Epictetus on meaning
"Seek not the good in external things; seek it in yourselves."
"Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control."
"You are a little soul carrying around a corpse."
"Who is rich? He who is content."
Epictetus on wisdom
"Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness."
"He is a wise person who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those he has."
"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it."
Epictetus’s story is very inspiring, and it is a nice reminder that many of our experiences - and the wisdom that can guide us through these experiences - are shared by people who are geographically, culturally, and temporally distant from us.
If you’d like to hear more of Epictetus’s ideas, you can download this delightful illustrated modern translation of the Enchiridion created by Thomas Eliot at this link on our website here, or you can purchase a hardcover version here.