Epictetus: Stoicism Is Dignity & Discipline—4 Rules for Living Well

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Discourses of Epictetus" by Epictetus. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is there value in small talk? What’s the Stoic view of dignity? How should you spend most of your time?

According to Epictetus, Stoicism is about living well through dignity and discipline. He offers four rules for living as a Stoic: speak less, maintain an air of seriousness, focus on developing your mind (while not neglecting your body), and start practicing Stoicism now.

Continue reading to learn more about these four rules.

Stoic Dignity and Discipline

For Epictetus, Stoicism involves dignity and discipline. To round out the more general guidelines in his discourses, he provides four specific rules for practicing these two virtues.

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. There’s no benefit to talking too much, and it uses up time and energy that you could spend in quiet contemplation. Furthermore, talking about yourself won’t teach you anything that you don’t already know—therefore, it’s a waste of time for a Stoic, whose purpose is to learn about Nature. 

(Shortform note: Again, Epictetus provides a goal (don’t talk too much), but he doesn’t give any advice on how to accomplish it. One effective way to stop talking too much, and give yourself a chance to learn at the same time, is to simply ask questions. Doing so will allow you to participate in the conversation without dominating it.)

Most importantly, don’t waste time talking about your principles and your virtues; act on them instead. What other people think of your actions is irrelevant, so there’s no need to convince them that your reasoning is correct. Be confident in yourself (but not prideful) and you won’t feel the need to explain or justify yourself in the first place.

(Shortform note: There’s another benefit to acting instead of talking that Epictetus overlooks: the chance to lead by example. Leading by example proves to others that you truly believe and live by your values, which can have great benefits for your reputation. This is important because, although Epictetus says you shouldn’t concern yourself with what others think of you, reputation can count for a lot—especially in the modern world, where communication is so fast and widespread, and a bad reputation can follow you forever.) 

Rule 2: Maintain Your Dignity and Seriousness in All Situations

Don’t allow yourself to become overly excited by entertainment nor overly impressed by celebrities or important people, 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, either in frustration or for humor.

(Shortform note: By always acting in a calm and dignified manner and avoiding undignified behaviors as Epictetus suggests here, you’ll find that your thoughts become more calm and dignified too—in essence, you can “fake it until you make it.” This works because there’s a strong link between what you do and how you feel. In Unlimited Power, Tony Robbins explains you can control your emotional state by consciously choosing how to behave, what body language you use, and your facial expression. For example, if you want to improve your focus, you might try leaning forward and wrinkling your brow as if you’re thinking very hard about something.) 

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. 

(Shortform note: Stoicism teaches moderation and self-control as ways to live more harmoniously with Nature. For example, Nature requires humans to eat, and therefore you should eat; however, Nature does not require humans to be gluttonous, and therefore you should not overindulge in food. Many Stoics believe that indulging your desires—rather than just meeting your needs—weakens your reason and your willpower, and therefore makes you unable to practice philosophy.)

Learning to control yourself and your thoughts takes time and practice. Epictetus suggests that you begin by disciplining yourself in small things and move on to larger ones from there. For example, if you’re planning to fix your diet and eat healthier, you might start by just giving up soda instead of trying to change your whole diet right away. 

(Shortform note: Starting with small changes to your life does more than just build discipline and get you used to making changes. According to James Clear (Atomic Habits), small changes to your life can build on top of one another to create enormous improvements. For example, one small change might be to cook healthier dinners for yourself. That better diet gives you more energy, which you use to start going to the gym. That regular exercise further increases your energy, giving you the ability to make even more improvements to your life, and so on. Soon, you’re in better shape than you’ve ever been, all because you started with one small change.) 

Rule 4: Start Practicing Stoicism Immediately

Finally, Epictetus suggests that you start practicing Stoicism right now. You’ve now learned everything you need to know to begin, so don’t put off your personal growth until some time in the future when you have a teacher, or more money, or some other external thing. Begin disciplining your mind and your reasoning today.

(Shortform note: If you’re nervous about getting started with practicing Stoicism, or not sure where to begin, you can follow Mark Manson’s advice in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: Start with something trivial. Setting a very low bar eliminates your fear of failure, and reaching that first goal will motivate you to keep setting more goals. For example, your starting goal might be to ask yourself, “Is this difficulty I’m facing related to something that is in my control or out of my control?” just once per day.)

Epictetus: Stoicism Is Dignity & Discipline—4 Rules for Living Well

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Discourses of Epictetus summary:

  • Why you need to understand the laws of nature to be happy
  • Stoic strategies for remaining calm in the face of adversity
  • Epictetus's specific rules for living well

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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