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.
Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.
Would you like to have more peace in life? What could you do differently—and how could you think differently—to live well?
The Stoic philosophers believed they knew the secret to the good life. Epictetus, one of the most influential of these philosophers, offers three pieces of advice: take life as it comes, treat others well, and be mindful of your mortality.
Read more to learn how to live a good life as Epictetus envisioned.
How to Live a Good Life
Once you have a basic grounding in Stoic reasoning and decision-making, it’s time to learn how to turn rational thought into virtuous action—actions that are in accordance with Nature and that sustain your peace of mind or improve the world around you. Let’s look at Epictetus’ advice on how to live a good life.
Tip #1: Take Life as It Comes
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. Epictetus says that, since all things happen according to Nature, a Stoic should never want anything to be different from how it is. This is a virtuous way to live because fighting against Nature—against the way things are supposed to be—will inevitably lead to unintended harm.
(Shortform note: Accepting things as they are isn’t just a philosophical idea—it has scientific backing. In Antifragile, risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains why interfering in natural events commonly does more harm than good: because the world is such a large and complex system that there’s no way to fully predict the outcomes of a given action, and disrupting that system can have destructive consequences. For example, human efforts to protect ourselves from diseases by overusing antibacterial soaps and cleaners have led to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” thereby worsening the problem we were trying to solve.)
Tip #2: Treat People Well
Second, be good to other people, regardless of how those people behave. This is not for their benefit but to maintain your own virtue and to act in accordance with Nature. Remember that you can’t control what other people do; trying to do so will upset your peace of mind and may upset the other person as well.
Epictetus explains that everyone acts according to his or her morals and reasoning. Therefore, when people do things that you believe are wrong or hurtful, remember that they did so out of ignorance rather than malice. Also, recognize that you could be the one who’s mistaken about what’s right. Keeping these things in mind will protect your peace of mind and help you to act with dignity and kindness.
(Shortform note: Epictetus is correct that being good to other people also benefits you. People who are kind and compassionate tend to experience less emotional stress and greater happiness than people who are selfish and aggressive. Some ways you might be good to others include doing volunteer work, donating to charity, or even engaging in small acts of kindness, like helping someone reach an item on a high shelf.)
Choose Your Relationships Carefully
While your thoughts and reason are ultimately under your own control, 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.
Spending time with crass and vulgar people can undo your progress in understanding Nature and practicing Stoicism. Therefore, if you do find yourself among common and uneducated people, do everything you can to avoid thinking or acting like them.
(Shortform note: Epictetus is right to warn about the dangers of spending time with the wrong kinds of people. Research shows that your friends influence your beliefs and behaviors, often without you even realizing it. The human mind is wired to constantly look for social cues and try to fit in, meaning that you’ll naturally become more like the people you spend the most time with.)
Tip #3: Be Mindful of Your Mortality
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. Remembering that your time is limited will keep you focused on what’s important.
(Shortform note: Stoicism teaches that death should be inspirational, not frightening. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reasons that death is part of Nature, and Nature ensures that events happen in the best way possible, so there’s no reason for a rational person to fear death. Aurelius also offers another way of thinking about death: Nature has given you the tools that you need to avoid harm, but there’s no way to avoid death; therefore, death must not be harmful.)
———End of Preview———
Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Epictetus's "The Discourses of Epictetus" at Shortform.
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