Epictetus’ Discourses

Translation by T.W. Higginson

 Discourses offers the wisdom of Epictetus [Eh-pick-tee-tis] (55 BC -135AD), a slave in the Roman Empire (who is among the most heralded Roman philosophers and who likely walked the same streets as Christ and may have even known him) is likely the best known stoic.  His philosophy was revived in Tom Wolfe’s bestselling novel, A Man in Full.  Epictetus was a lighthearted, humble but brilliant master of logic and the art of disputation, who (like Lao Tsu, Socrates, Buddha, Christ, et al) wrote nothing, but is credited with Discourses, which was prepared by his students, especially by Amian.  Epictetus’ philosophy shaped the mind of the much-revered Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), who quoted Epictetus extensively in Aurelius’ renowned Mediations.

 The word “stoic” is currently defined as “one who is indifferent to pain or pleasure”, and, while that captures a key part of its core, stoicism embraces much more.  More accurately, a stoic is one who lives his life by reason, one devoted to logic.  Snippets of his logic, as “interpreted by Sharon Lebell”, include:

“A happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous…”

The good life centers on three main themes: mastering your desires, performing your duties and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relationship to your loved ones, friends, community and the planet…

The stoic’s Serenity Prayer is well known to many: ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’… The essence of Epitetus’ stoic philosophy is illustrated in the following snippets: Wealth, power and fame are irrelevant to (and may even prevent) true happiness… Accept what life gives you… We can’t change many of our external circumstances, but we can control how we respond to them… It is our view of events, more than the events, that control us most… There is nothing to be gained by blaming others or oneself for mistakes or difficulties; Things are what they are; accept things and move on… Never depend on the admiration of others; grow up and stop caring what others think about you; create your own merit… Don’t let others ignite your anger; your response to what others do determines how you feel… By facing reality, you free yourself of illusions… Worry and fear are a waste of time… All rewards have a price… Test prospective actions before proceeding, lest you act imprudently on raw impulses; Think things through thoroughly before committing fully… Don’t eat or drink to excess… Don’t succumb to anger… Strive to achieve things that you have a reasonable chance of accomplishing… Doing nothing often heightens risk… Your main attention should be focused on the development of your reason… The life of wisdom is the life of reason... When I die, must I die lamenting or can’t I die smiling and contented?”

Epictetus’ Discourses and Aurelius’ Meditations, and similar philosophical works of that era, provide a priceless guide for turning adversity into advantage, to grasping what is important in life, and to making the best of our lives.  It is difficult to think of any philosopher or philosophy that can help us more than can this humble, Roman slave, in many ways mirroring his contemporary, The Carpenter.  Indeed, the early Roman Catholic Church adopted Discourses as a manual.  The stoics offer priceless wisdom for all societies and merit our daily attentions.