The Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus: Overview

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How can you achieve peace of mind? Is it reasonable to have pride? What are some strategies for dealing with hardships in life?

Stoicism teaches how to live a happy and fulfilling life through thoughtful, rational action. The key is accepting things as they are and doing the best you can with the life you’re given.

The Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus is one of the most prominent collections of Stoic teachings. Continue reading for an overview.

The Discourses and Selected Writings

Epictetus is considered one of history’s most influential Stoic philosophers, alongside the likes of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations) and Seneca (Essays). The Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus is the definitive collection of his teachings. 

Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes logic and quiet contemplation. It teaches that the best way to live well is to understand the laws of nature and how you, personally, fit into the universe. By accepting things as they are, recognizing your own relative unimportance and powerlessness in the grand scheme of things, and fulfilling your life’s purpose to the best of your abilities, you can live a happy and virtuous life. 

Though credited to Epictetus himself, Discourses is actually a collection of Epictetus’s teachings compiled by one of his students, Arrian of Nicomedia. Arrian explains in the book’s preface that he recorded Epictetus’s lectures word-for-word—as much as possible—to preserve both his lessons and the simple, direct way he spoke.

We’ve compiled the lessons within Discourses into three themes. First, we’ll explain why Stoics believe that reason is the most important thing in the world. Next, we’ll discuss how you can use your reasoning skills to overcome any challenge. Finally, we’ll examine what Epictetus teaches about living a happy and virtuous life.

The Importance of Reason and Choice

According to Stoic philosophy, your purpose is to live a happy and virtuous life by acting in accordance with Nature—which, in this context, means both your own human nature and the nature of the universe. You’re expected to achieve this lifestyle through the constant and disciplined use of reason.

In fact, Stoicism teaches that your reason is the only important thing in your life. This is because your reasoning interprets everything that you experience, and it also determines what you do in response to those experiences. In other words, the quality of your reasoning determines the quality of your life.

(Shortform note: One of Stoicism’s central beliefs is that everything in the universe happens according to natural, rational laws. However, humans are something of an exception: Human nature is part of the greater, universal Nature, but sometimes human nature leads us to go against Nature. For example, human nature leads many people to fear death—but death is part of Nature, and it’ll happen no matter what we do. Resisting Nature by being afraid of death just upsets us with no benefit. So, when a Stoic talks about understanding and following Nature, he means that we should use reason and rationality to understand the universe and then accept things as they are, instead of indulging our human nature by fighting against reality.) 

What You Can Choose: Beliefs, Desires, and Actions

To live well, it’s also important to understand what’s in your control and what isn’t; in other words, what you’re able to make choices about. This will help you keep your peace of mind.

Epictetus believes that the only thing you can fully control is your own reasoning: your beliefs, your interpretations of events, and your desires.

Epictetus says that, if you desire only things that are fully in your control—such as a clear mind and strong reasoning skills—then you will always be free; no one else can control those things.

You Are Always In Control

Along with your thoughts and beliefs, you also control your own actions. Remembering this will help you to live a virtuous life because you won’t be tempted to blame your bad choices on other people or on outside events—the only one who’s accountable for your actions is yourself.

The Unimportance of External Things

Epictetus claims that nothing outside of yourself can harm you or upset you—rather, the way you interpret and respond to things is what harms you. Just as things outside of yourself can’t harm you, they also shouldn’t inspire pride. The only thing worth being proud of is your reason.

Finally, always try to see things for what they are, and don’t value them more than they’re worth.

How to Face Challenges

When you face any kind of challenge, Epictetus says that you must start by bringing your reason to bear on it. Ask yourself what tools you have available to deal with the situation—these “tools” include your thoughts, your skills and abilities, and any resources you could use to help solve the problem.

It’s also crucial to the Stoic mindset that you endure challenges and hardships without complaining. Epictetus suggests meeting every unpleasant experience by asking, “Is this related to something that’s in my control or something that’s not in my control?” This question will help you keep your equanimity in any situation.

Strategies for Facing Challenges

Stoicism strongly emphasizes calm dignity and inner strength—in essence, you don’t let anything upset or excite you so you can bring your reason to bear in every situation.

Strategy 1: See Every Challenge as an Opportunity

View hardships as chances to become stronger and to prove yourself, not as deliberate attacks or as harmful situations. Face challenges head-on, Epictetus recommends—avoiding them is cheating yourself out of the chance to grow.

Strategy 2: Don’t Assign Blame

When you try to assign blame, you’re really just looking for a target for your anger and frustration. Accepting reality without assigning any blame shows true understanding. True acceptance means you recognize that everything, including your own decisions, is happening as it must happen.

Strategy 3: Think Before You Act

It’s easy to get carried away by your reactions to unpleasant events. So, before responding, take a moment to control yourself: Think rationally about what happened and what the appropriate response would be.

If you find it hard to think logically about an event, Epictetus suggests imagining that it happened to someone else instead.

The temptation to do something you know you shouldn’t is a different kind of challenge, but you can respond to it in the same way—by thinking carefully before you act. Take some time to consider what joy yielding to the temptation will bring you, versus how long you’ll spend regretting it afterward.

How to Live Well

First, to maintain your peace of mind, simply take events as they happen. Don’t upset yourself by wishing that something would happen sooner, or not happen at all.

Second, be good to other people, regardless of how those people behave. Remember that you can’t control what other people do.

Finally, remember that you will die. Enjoy the good things in life, but bear in mind that sooner or later you’ll have to leave them all behind.

Choose Your Relationships Carefully

Epictetus warns that you’ll probably become like the people you spend the most time with. Therefore, you’ll find it easier to remain virtuous if you surround yourself with virtuous people.

Epictetus’s Code of Conduct: Quiet Dignity and Discipline

Epictetus provides some specific rules for living well to round out his more general guidelines.

Rule 1: Speak Only When Needed, and Only as Much as Needed

Don’t indulge in small talk, and talk about yourself as little as possible. Most importantly, don’t waste time talking about your principles and your virtues; act on them instead.

Rule 2: Maintain Your Dignity and Seriousness in All Situations

Don’t allow yourself to become overly excited or overly impressed, Epictetus advises. When you find yourself bored, don’t make a scene or bother the people around you. Don’t try to make others laugh, for that makes it too easy to slip into vulgar behavior and it may lessen others’ respect for you. Also, don’t resort to foul language.

Rule 3: Give Your Body Only as Much Attention as It Needs to Stay Healthy

Spending too much time eating, sleeping, exercising, or dealing with any other bodily concerns is a waste. Devote as much of your life as possible to developing your mind. Epictetus suggests that you begin by disciplining yourself in small things and move on to larger ones from there.

Rule 4: Start Practicing Stoicism Immediately

Finally, Epictetus suggests that you start practicing Stoicism right now. Begin disciplining your mind and your reasoning today.

The Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus: Overview

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  • Why you need to understand the laws of nature to be happy
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “The Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus: Overview

  • October 30, 2023 at 3:23 pm
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    Epictetus’s Stoic teachings about rationality and acceptance totally resonate with modern mindfulness practices that encourage being present, observing thoughts without judgment, and finding inner peace. It’s fascinating how these ancient ideas still have relevance today.

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