Principles of Epictetus’ Philosophy and How to Apply It Today

Epictetus is one of the best-known Greek Stoic philosophers who lived during the first century AD. He developed his own unique philosophy, which is just as relevant for people today as it was when he first taught it. With this philosophy come certain benefits and challenges worth considering.  

If you’re interested in quotes by Epictetus, check out our article that covers his wisest quotes and musings. But while you’re here, let’s take a look at Epictetus’ philosophy and how to apply it to your own life. 

The Philosophy of Epictetus – How It Began 

Epictetus was born into slavery in Turkey but was eventually freed by his owner. He went on to study Stoic philosophy under the great philosopher Musonius Rufus. He learned from this experience that we should not allow our circumstances to dictate our happiness. Instead, we should focus on our own inner state and what we can control. While he never wrote anything himself, his teachings and ideas were shared by his pupil, Arrian in two works entitled Discourses and Enchiridion, or Manual. 

Epictetus believed that the path to happiness lies in self-mastery, living in harmony with others, and making reasonable decisions. He also taught that it is essential to take into account the nature of things when making choices and acting in the world.  

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5). 

The Philosophy of Epictetus and What It Means Today

bust of epictetus item
Bust of Epictetus. See it here 

The philosophy of Epictetus has a lot to offer people living in today’s turbulent times. By focusing on what we can control, we can learn to let go of things beyond our control. This can lead to a greater sense of peace and happiness. 

One of the most famous quotes from Epictetus is: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”  

This quote is a good reminder that we always have a choice in how we respond to the events in our lives. We can choose to let them get the best of us, or we can choose to rise above them. 

Epictetus also said: “We are not troubled by things, but by the view, we take of them”. This quote reminds us that our perspective matters. If we choose to see the glass as half full instead of half empty, we will likely feel happier and more content. 

How To Apply Epictetus’ Philosophy to Your Own Life 

be the change

If you are interested in applying Epictetus’ philosophy to your own life, you can do a few things. 

  • First, take some time to reflect on the things causing you anxiety or stress. Once you have identified these things, ask yourself if there is anything you can do to change them. If there is nothing you can do to change them, try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care about what happens; it just means that you will not allow your happiness to be dictated by something outside your control. 
  • Second, focus on living in harmony with others. When we can learn to live in harmony with others, it can lead to a more peaceful and fulfilling life. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everyone all the time, but it does mean trying to see things from their perspective and being respectful of their beliefs and opinions. 
  • Third, make reasonable decisions. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect, but it does mean taking into account the nature of things when making choices. For example, if you want to be healthy, you must accept that some things are out of your control (such as genetics) and focus on what you can do (such as eating well and exercising). 
  • Fourth, don’t sweat the small stuff. Life is too short to worry about things that are not important in the grand scheme of things. If something is really bothering you, ask yourself if it will matter in a week, a month, or a year from now. If the answer is no, then try to let it go. Living by the philosophy of Epictetus is not always easy, but it can lead to a more content and fulfilling life following this philosophy. 

The Benefits of Living by Epictetus’ Philosophy 

epictetus quote
Epictetus quote. See it here. 

Epictetus’ philosophy can be boiled down to one simple idea: We control our own happiness. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually a pretty radical idea. 

In the world today, so many of us believe that our happiness is determined by things outside of our control: our job, our relationships, and our bank account balance. But Epictetus believed these things are all secondary to our inner state of mind. He said that if we can learn to control our thoughts and emotions, then we can be happy no matter what happens to us on the outside. 

This might sound like wishful thinking, but there’s much evidence to support Epictetus’ view. Studies have shown that our happiness levels are determined more by our outlook on life than by our external circumstances. And people who live by this philosophy often report feeling a greater sense of peace and contentment, even in the midst of difficult situations. 

Challenges of Following Epictetus’ Philosophy 

One of the challenges that come with following this philosophy is that it requires a lot of self-awareness and discipline to control our thoughts and emotions. But the rewards are well worth the effort.  

Another challenge is that some people might not agree with the idea that we control our own happiness. They might believe that external factors, like our job or our relationships, have a more significant impact on our happiness levels. But if you’re willing to try Epictetus’ philosophy, it could help you find a greater sense of peace and contentment in your life.  

And finally, living by this philosophy might mean changing your lifestyle. If you’re used to chasing after material possessions or trying to control the people in your life, it can be tough to let go of those things. But if you’re willing to let go of your attachments and focus on what’s truly important, Epictetus’ philosophy can help you find a more fulfilling and satisfying life.  

If you’re interested in learning more about Epictetus and his philosophy, plenty of resources are available online. You can also check out the two fundamental works Discourses and Enchiridion, which are excellent introductions to his ideas. 

epictetus wall hanging
Epictetus quote poster. See it here. 

Some may argue that it’s not possible to follow Epictetus’ philosophy today because of time restraints. For example, many of us now live in cities and have jobs that require us to sit at a desk all day. This can make it challenging to find time for self-reflection and introspection, which are two of the critical components of Epictetus’ philosophy. however, that’s also exactly why we need to do this – as happiness and mastery of self can’t be achieved without some level of introspection. 

Another way to improve Epictetus’ philosophy for the modern world is to make it more inclusive. One criticism of his ideas is that they don’t consider the fact that some people have different circumstances than others. For example, not everyone has the same level of control over their thoughts and emotions due to factors like mental illness, trauma, or grief.  

And finally, some people might argue that Epictetus’ philosophy is too simplistic and doesn’t address the complexities of the human experience. While it’s true that his ideas are fairly basic, they can still help provide a framework for how to live a good life. And as we continue to learn more about the human mind and emotions, we may be able to adapt Epictetus’ philosophy to fit our needs better. 

Wrapping Up 

Epictetus was a philosopher who lived over 2000 years ago, but his ideas are still relevant today. His philosophy can help us find happiness and peace of mind, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. And although it can be challenging to live by his philosophy, the rewards are well worth the effort. If you’re looking for a way to improve your life, give Epictetus’ philosophy a try. You might be surprised at how much it can help you achieve your goals. 

Ankit Sharma