The wisdom of Epictetus


The truth is the truth no matter what its source. And Epictetus taught much truth worthy of our attention.

Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 55 CE to around 135 CE, was raised as a slave. He acquired a love of philosophy early in life, and with the permission of his wealthy owner, he studied Stoic philosophy and grew more and more educated. He somehow became crippled. Some sources state that his leg was deliberately broken by his master, but others say he had been lame since childhood.

After he was freed, he taught that philosophy is not simply a way of thinking but a way of life. Most things are beyond our control, but as taught by stoic philosophy, we should accept whatever happens to us and to others calmly and dispassionately. But this does not mean we should be passive. We are responsible for our actions, and we can control what we do by examining what we do and with rigorous self-discipline.

No writings exist today written by Epictetus himself. What we have are his discourses as transcribed and compiled by his pupil Arrian who stated: “Whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, trying to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech.”

The following are some of the many very intelligent ideas of this master thinker in my own words from “The Golden Sayings of Epictetus”:

  1. Socrates used to say that we should never lead a life not subject to examination.
  2. If you want men to speak good of you, speak good of them. And when you have learned to speak good of them, try to do good unto them, and thus you will reap in return their speaking good of you.
  3. When a youth was giving himself airs in the theatre and saying, “I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men,” Epictetus replied, “I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!”
  4. Asked how a man should best grieve his enemy, Epictetus replied, “By setting himself to live the noblest life himself.”
  5. One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.
  6. Remember that you are an actor in a play, and of such sort as the Author chooses, whether long or short. If it be his good pleasure to assign you the part of a beggar, a ruler, or a simple citizen, your duty is to play it fitly. For your business is to act the part assigned you, well: to choose it, is another’s.
  7. If you are told that such a one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, He surely knew not my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these only.
  8. In company avoid frequent and undue talk about your own actions and dangers.
  9. Asked, Who is the rich man? Epictetus replied, “He who is content.”
  10. We should be like Socrates who praised God even while he was in prison.