“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
The Discourses of Epictetus is a collection of notes from Arrian, a student of Epictetus. Epictetus delivered his lectures and Arrian recognized their brilliance and note them down. In a letter to Lucius Gellius, Arrian writes, “I tried to note down whatever I heard him say, in his own words as far as possible, so as to preserve memoranda for myself in the future of his manner of thought and frankness of speech.”
The Most Widely Read Stoic Writing?
Interestingly, the edition I read, the Oxford World Classics edition stated that The Discourses has been the most widely read and influential of all Stoic writings from antiquity onwards. I knew this could not be true in the 21st century. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Letters From A Stoic by Seneca seem to be much more widely recommended. So I checked out Goodreads for the number of review they have.
The Discourses of Epictetus has 3,500 reviews
Letters from a Stoic has 14,000 reviews
Meditations has 74,000 reviews
The Discourses of Epictetus was my personal favorite of these three books. Epictetus was a formal Stoic teacher, and very well respected in his age. The book reads like Stoicism teaching much more than any of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius’s writing. Of course the message of all three authors is the same, happiness is dependent on living a virtuous life and we can all move toward a virtuous existence, no matter what state we are in
People are naturally rational and should work towards this end
1.2 “‘Why is it, then, if we are fitted by nature to act in such a way, all or many of us don’t behave like that?’
‘What, do all horses become swift-running, or all dogs quick on the scent? And the, because I am not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won’t be better than Socrates; but even if i’m not too bad, that is good enough for me. For I won’t ever be a Milo either, and yet I don’t neglect my body; nor a Croseus, and I don’t neglect my property; nor in general do I cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because I despair of achieving perfection.'”
External events are outside our control
1.12 “Whereas in fact, if you’re living alone, you should call that peace and freedom, and view yourself as being like the gods; and if you find yourself in the company of a mass of people, you should call that not a source of uproar and vexation but rather a feast and a public festival, and so accept everything with contentment.”
Do not fear poverty
1.24 “And if you can’t find a bed you’ll end up sleeping on the ground; only be of good heart and snore away, remembering that it is among the wealthy, among kings and tyrants, that tragedies play out, and that no one who is poor has any role in a tragedy except as a member of the chorus.”
1.29 “What, then, are we to announce these truths to all and sundry? No, we must accommodate ourselves to laymen and say, ‘What this man thinks good for himself, he also recommends to me, so I excuse him for that.’ Socrates excused the jailer who wept when he was about to drink the poison and said, “How gracious of him to shed those tears for me.’ Was it to him that Socrates said, ‘That is why we sent the women away’? No, but to his friends, to those who were capable of understanding. As for the jailer, he accommodated himself to him, as one would to a child.”
Focus on external events leads to anxiety
2.16 “What do we admire? Externals. What do we make the prime object of our concern? Externals. And then we’re unable to grasp how it is that we fall prey to fear, or fall prey to anxiety. What else could possible come about when we regard things that bear down on us as being bad? We can’t fail; to be afraid, we can’t fail to be anxious. And then we say ‘Lord God, how can I break free of anxiety?’ Can it be that you have no hands, fool? Perhaps God didn’t make any for you? Then site down and pray that your nose doesn’t run! Or rather, wipe your nose, and stop making accusations.
Do not let news disturb you
3.17 “Whenever any disturbing news is brought to you, you should have this thought ready at hand; that news never relates to anything that lies within your sphere of choice.”
A philosopher understands their suffering
3.19 “The first difference between a layman and a philosopher is this, that the one says, ‘ Ah, how I suffer because of my child, because of my brother, ah how I suffer because of my father,’ whereas the other, if he can ever be compelled to say, ‘ah, how I suffer,’ adds after a moment’s thought, ‘because of myself’.
Work towards freeing yourself
4.1 “This is what you should practice from morning to evening. Begin with the smallest and most fragile things, a pot, or a cup, and then pass on to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a scrap of land; and from there, pass on to yourself, to your body, and the parts of your body, and to your children, your wife, your brothers. Look around you in every direction, and cast these things far away from you. Purify your judgements so that nothing that is not your own remained attached to you, or become part of yourself, or give you pain when it comes to be torn away from you. And while you’re training yourself day after day, as you are here, not that you’re acting as a philosopher (for you must claim that it would pretentious to lay claim to that title ), but that you’re a slave on the way to emancipation. For that is true freedom.”
Discourses, Fragments, Handbook by Epictetus