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Epictetus: How To Master The Art Of Living
Lessons from the stoic slave philosopher
Epictetus was a slave in Rome who later become one of the greatest stoic philosophers. In contrast to the powerful Marcus Aurelius and the rich Seneca, Epictetus shows that stoicism really is for anyone. In this conversation with Epictetus, we talk about happiness, habits, and how to live a good life.
I was too sick to do a live recording for this one, so this episode was shot in Minecraft. You can watch the podcast video here:
As always, the full text transcript with citations is posted below. Thank you for listening/watching/reading. Hope you enjoy.
The following is a conversation with Epictetus, a stoic philosopher who lived from 50 AD to 135 AD in Rome. He’s one of the most famous stoics in history, alongside Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. He was born into slavery, and eventually gained his freedom and became a philosopher. His teachings offer great wisdom on how to live a happy life.
This conversation was written based on the complete works of Epictetus. A full transcript, with citations, is available on the podcast website.
This is the DKB Show, and now here’s my conversation with Epictetus.
DKB: You described the goal of stoic philosophy in your writings as “mastering the art of living”. What does it mean to master the art of living?
Epictetus: Mastering the art of living means you’re always happy. No matter what circumstances you’re in, you’re content and at peace. Everyone wants happiness, but most people look for it in the wrong place.
You mentioned that in the 21st century there are less wars, and most people live safe lives, and you have amazing technology that lets you travel from one country to another in hours, and you can instantly communicate with anyone.
But can your technology save you from misfortune? Can it save you from grief? Or getting angry? Or envy?
Your technology can’t solve any of these problems, but philosophy can. If you learn stoic philosophy, then no matter what happens, you won’t get distressed or angry. You’ll be unconstrained and free. You’ll live a trouble-free life.
There is a harmony to the universe and to nature, and the goal of stoic philosophy isn’t for you to be able to change or affect this harmony, but for you to learn how to keep your intellect in harmony with everything that happens.
DKB: It would be amazing to always be happy, but is that really possible? Ups and downs are part of life right? What’s the stoic approach that leads to this life of infinite joy?
Epictetus: Some things are up to us and some are not. The things that are up to us are judgment, inclination, desire, aversion, etc. The things that are not up to us are our bodies, possessions, reputations, and so on.
The things that are up to us are naturally free, unimpeded, and unobstructed. While the things that aren’t up to us are weak, enslaved, and subject to impediment.
If you try to find happiness in things that are external to you, and aren’t subject to your will, you’ll inevitably be impeded and obstructed, a slave to those who have power over the things you value and fear. And you’ll inevitably be impious because you’ll think that God isn’t treating you well.
But if you find happiness in the things that are up to you, then you’ll be free, content, unharmed, principled, pious, and grateful to God for everything. You’ll never complain about any of your experiences or criticize anyone. No one can ever constrain you. No one can impede you.
DKB: That’s true.
Epictetus: I just want to scream to everyone: What are you doing you poor fools? You’re looking for happiness in the wrong place, where you can’t find it, and when someone shows you the way you react with disbelief.
Why do you look for happiness in externals? It’s not to be found in the body. It’s not to be found in possessions. Look at the super rich and see how their lives are filled with trouble. It’s not to be found in power. If it were, CEOs and politicians would be happy, but they aren’t.
If you look for happiness externally, it can lead you down bad paths. If you think making money is the path to happiness, you may end up doing immoral things to make that money. How would it be possible for you to treat others well if you’re so focused on selfish gains? If it’s good for you to have a plot of land, then it’s also good to take your neighbor’s plot of land. If it’s good for you to have a toga, then it’s also good for you to steal one.
This is how war starts, and civil strife, and tyranny.
If we locate the essence of goodness in externals, all these consequences necessarily follow.
DKB: So caring for externals is just a recipe for disaster. Though a lot of people care about externals without becoming horrible immoral people, you know.
Epictetus: Sure, but it probably still causes them anxiety and fear.
What is it that makes a public speaker remain anxious when he knows he’s composed a good speech, and knows it by heart, and he has a great speaking voice?
It’s because it’s not enough for him to just practice his art. What else does he want? To win the praise of the audience. So if his performance has audience approval, he leaves the stage with pride, and if the audience reacts negatively, he’s devastated.
What do most people think is important? Externals. What do we take an interest in? Externals.
And then we’re puzzled as to why we feel fear or anxiety?
DKB: Yeah that’s true. So I guess with externals you’re saying that, externals don’t matter and we should focus on things that we can control like our reactions and interpretations of things. So does that mean we shouldn’t care about material things and other people at all? Or what’s the right approach to externals?
Epictetus: Material things are indifferent, but the use one makes of them isn’t. Think of it like a board game. The dice are indifferent, you don’t know which way they’ll fall. But to use the result carefully and skillfully is your job.
You shouldn’t treat external things carelessly, because that’s bad for the will and contrary to nature. They should be treated with care, because the use to which we put them is not a matter of indifference, even though the material things themselves are indifferent.
Where everything important is concerned, no one can impede or constrain me. Getting things in the realm where I can be impeded and constrained is not up to me, and is neither good nor bad, but the use that I make of them is good or bad, and that is up to me.
Suppose we were on a voyage. What is it within my power to do? To choose the captain, and the day and time of departure. Then a storm falls on us. Why should that be any concern of mine? I’ve done all I can. Coping with the storm is the captain’s job. But now the ship is starting to sink. What can I do? All I can do is do what I can. So I drown without being frightened, without screaming, and without cursing God, knowing that everything that’s born is bound to die.
DKB: So we should care about external things, to the extent that we control them, but not more than that. Like we should care about making proper and good use of external things when we have them, but we shouldn’t be chasing after things like money or status.
Epictetus: Yeah, and when you start living like this, nothing can hurt you. You become invincible. If Nature wants me to be poor, then bring it on, and I’ll play the part as well as I can. It wants me to hold public office? Bring it on. It wants me to suffer hardship? Bring it on. It wants me to be banished? Bring it on. Wherever I go will be fine with me because here was fine with me too, not because of the location, but because of my judgments. And I take those with me. No one can deprive me of them. They’re my only true possessions.
DKB: If it’s your time to die, then bring it on.
Epictetus: Why say die? Don’t make a tragedy of it, but tell it as it is. Now it’s time for your matter to revert once more to the components of which it’s made. Is there anything to fear in that? Is any part of the universe going to perish? Is it in any way an abnormal or strange thing to happen?
God has made some things up to us and other things not up to us. The best and most important thing is up to us, and that is making use of impressions. When right use is made of impressions, the consequences are freedom, contentment, joy, justice, and virtue.
Everything else he made not up to us. So we too should be of one mind with God. In keeping with the way he has divided things up, we should do all we can to lay claim to things that are up to us, but give authority over things that are not up to us to the universe.
We should gladly surrender to it whatever it may need, which may even be our children, our homeland, or our lives.
DKB: You know, I read somewhere that if you want to be happy in life you can either achieve your expectations, or you can lower your expectations so that they match where you already are. Most people choose the first path, but you’re proposing the second path, where people just stop caring about externals.
This also made me think of the concept of Hedonic adaptation, where if you get rich overnight, you’ll be happy for a little bit, but soon you’ll adapt to it, and revert to your original mental state.
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on human psychology at a higher level. Like, how do you think about the mind and how it works?
Epictetus: Sure, we can get into the theory and technical stuff a little bit. So there are a few terms you need to understand.
The first is “impression” which can be an external sense impression, or something internally generated like a thought or memory.
Then there is the “command center” which is basically the mind. It’s the rational faculty within you that processes impressions and initiates action.
An impression comes to you in the form of a proposition about the world. If the proposition seems true, then the command center will assent to it, otherwise it will withhold assent or suspend judgment.
If it assents, then an “inclination” is generated which leads to action.
In other words, assent gives rise to desire, the belief that something is worth doing or pursuing. If we withhold assent, no inclination arises. The withholding of assent gives rise to an “aversion”, the desire to avoid or not do something.
Non-rational animals and children are different in that action follows directly from the impression, without the act of assent. Adult human beings have a choice as to whether they react to stimuli, and how they do so, which is what I was talking about before with only caring about things in your control.
Does that make sense?
DKB: Okay, so we have the command center, aka the mind, and it’s receiving a bunch of impressions and then it’s deciding which ones to “assent” to, which basically means deciding which impressions and thoughts and ideas have value, and which don’t.
Epictetus: We only assent to something when it appears to be the case. It’s impossible for us to assent to something that appears not to be the case. It’s the nature of the mind to assent to truths, to find falsehoods unacceptable, and to suspend judgment in uncertain cases.
DKB: So we naturally assent to what is true, though we may be mistaken about what’s true or false. But we get to decide what we believe. It’s up to us to determine that. So that’s the freedom we have.
Epictetus: Yeah exactly, so you see that in this domain, you have a faculty of will that is unimpeded and unconstrained. There’s something in you that’s naturally free.
And the domains of desire and inclination are the same right? Who or what can overcome one of your inclinations except another of your inclinations? Who or what can overcome a desire or an aversion, except another desire or aversion?
DKB: I mean, someone can threaten to kill me, so that would definitely affect my desires and inclinations. That’s a kind of constraint.
Epictetus: No, it’s not the threat of death that’s constraining you, but the fact that you judge it better to act in ways that enable you to avoid death. Once again, we find that it’s your judgment that’s constraining you, which is to say that your will constrained itself.
So there are three domains in which a person must be trained if he wants to become truly good.
The first is the domain of desires and aversions, and the goal of this training is that you never fail to get what you desire, and never experience what you want to avoid.
The second is the domain of inclination and disinclination, and in general of appropriate behavior. The goal of this training is that you act in an orderly and well-reasoned manner, rather than being careless.
The third domain is of immunity to error and rash judgment, and in general the domain of assent. The goal of this training is achieving unassailability in the other two domains, so that even when asleep, drunk, or in a bad mood, no untested impression can slip past you.
DKB: It’s an interesting framework.
Epictetus: But it’s important not to get too caught up in all of this theoretical stuff. It’s not progress to read a bunch of stoic books, or listen to a bunch of podcasts, and learn all these technical terms and theories.
So let’s stay practical here.
DKB: Yes, of course. Let’s get practical.
Epictetus: Let’s get practical.
DKB: So how can we practically apply stoic philosophy on an everyday basis, and attain this goal of infinite perpetual happiness and contentment?
Epictetus: When you leave your house in the morning, examine everyone you see and hear. Then answer as though you were being questioned. What did you see? A good-looking man or woman? Apply the test: is physical beauty subject to will or not? It isn’t subject to will. Away with it.
What did you see? Someone grieving for the death of his child. Apply the test. Death isn’t subject to will. Away with it.
We have to make a daily practice to train ourselves to deal with impressions, because they pose questions for us. So-and-so’s father cut him out of his inheritance. Answer: not subject to will, not a bad thing. Caesar condemned him to death. Not subject to will, not a bad thing.
He’s upset about all this. Subject to will, a bad thing. He endured it nobly. Subject to will, a good thing.
As things are right now, we’re stunned and caught by every passing impression. When we see someone grieving we say “he’s a broken man”. If we see a rich person we say “a happy man”. If we see someone who’s in exile we say “poor fellow!”.
These are the pernicious judgments we need to eliminate. They are what we should be focusing on. After all, what is weeping and wailing? A judgment. What is misfortune? A judgment. What are strife, discord, fault-finding, and negativity? Nothing more than judgments, and they judge things that aren’t subject to the will as good or bad.
But if someone transfers his judgments to things that are subject to his will, I guarantee that he’ll be at peace, whatever circumstances he finds himself in.
DKB: So we just need to go out and pay way more attention than usual to our mind and our judgments of things. And we should scrutinize all of our judgments.
Epictetus: Yeah, and we also have to do some individual training based on our starting point. Different people should focus their training on different things. We all have different habits, some good, some bad. If you have a propensity for pleasure, then for the sake of your training, you should go over to the opposite extreme. If you have an aversion to work, then you should train and exercise your impressions with a focus on detaching that aversion.
In the early stages of training you should not “test yourself” with temptations. You should keep well away from things that are too strong for you. It won’t be a fair fight.
You have to build up the strength by building up the habits. It’s all about the right habits.
Every habit and ability is strengthened by relevant actions. If you want to be a good reader, you read. If you want to be a good writer, you write. If you want to do something, make it habitual. And if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it, but make a habit of doing something else instead.
The same goes for states of mind. Every time you get angry, it’s not just that something bad has happened to you, but you’ve also strengthened the condition. It’s as though you’ve added fresh fuel to a fire. When you’ve succumbed to sexual desire, you shouldn’t think of that as just a single defeat, but appreciate that you’ve fed and strengthened your self-indulgence.
Your actions won’t just create new habits, but will intensify and strengthen those that already exist.
DKB: This reminds me of the concept of samskaras in Hindu philosophy. It’s the idea that there is a field of forces in our mind, and the combination of these forces determine our personality. And these forces get strengthened based on our habits. So if you’re greedy, and you keep giving into that, then you develop a stronger samskara around that, and it becomes a more core part of your personality and conditioned behavior.
Epictetus: Yeah exactly. This is how moral infirmities take root. If as soon as you’ve conceived a desire for money, you fight it, the desire ceases and the command center is restored to its original state.
But if you don’t fight it, the command center won’t return to the same state, and the next time it’s aroused by a relevant impression, the flame of desire will be ignited in it more quickly than before.
And if this happens time after time, a callus is eventually formed. A condition that fixes the desire in place. A person who had a fever and then got better isn’t in the same condition as he was before the fever, unless he’s completely cured. The same goes for desires that affect the soul. It retains certain traces, and if they’re not thoroughly erased, the next thrashing in the same place will cause wounds.
If you’re defeated once and, despite your promise that you’ll win the next time, the same thing continues to happen, you can be sure that at some point you’ll find yourself in such an appalling and enfeebled condition that eventually you won’t even be aware of your mistakes, and you’ll start to come up with reasons to justify your behavior.
So don’t feed bad habits. Don’t add anything that will strengthen them. Take it one day at a time, until you make it to 30 days. A habit is first weakened, then utterly destroyed.
Be strong. Don’t let yourself be carried away. Great is the struggle and divine is the work, to win a kingdom, freedom, contentment, and serenity. Remember God and call on him for help and support.
DKB: I notice that you’ve used the words God, Zeus, and Nature, kind of interchangeably while talking here and throughout your writings. What does the word God mean to you? And what role does God play in stoic philosophy and in your own beliefs?
Epictetus: What is the world? Who is directing it? No one?
The state of a household is unable to last for even a short time without someone to direct and take care of it. So do you think it’s likely that such a great and beautiful construct as the world is maintained in good order by sheer chance? There must be someone directing it.
Take any single feature of creation and on its own it’s enough evidence of providence to satisfy anyone. Consider just the fact that milk comes from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from an animal’s hide. Who made this happen? Who thought it up? No one?
DKB: Yeah it’s a beautifully complicated world where everything works together in this well-designed ecosystem. Do you think humans are anything special then, or are we just one of many things created by God.
Epictetus: There are many things that are unique to us as rational animals, but we also share many features with non-rational animals.
Animals don’t understand what happens. God wanted them to make use of impressions, but he wanted us to *understand* the use we make of impressions. Hence it’s enough for them to eat, drink, rest, mate and do all the other things that animals of every kind do. But that’s not enough for us because he also gave us the faculty of understanding.
So when it comes to animals, God makes one of them to be eaten, another for farm work, another to produce cheese, etc. For them to carry out these functions, they don’t need the capacity to understand impressions and distinguish between them.
But he introduced human beings to be spectators of himself and his works, and not just to observe them but also to interpret them. That’s why it’s shameful for a person to begin and end where non-rational animals do. He should begin where they begin, and finish where nature finished in our case, in contemplation, in understanding, and in living a life that’s in harmony with nature.
DKB: So what makes humans unique is our rationality. God didn’t give other animals the ability to understand what’s really going on. So basically consciousness.
Epictetus: Yeah. What is God in his essence? Flesh? No. Land? No. Status? No. He is mind, knowledge, and right reason. So that’s also where you should look for the essence of goodness.
Where else would you look for goodness besides in what differentiates rational creatures from non-rational ones?
Plants are incapable of making use of impressions, so we don’t talk about goodness in plants. In order for goodness to be present, there must be the use of impressions. But even non-rational animals make use of impressions, and we wouldn’t say that those animals have goodness or the potential to be happy.
Animals are not parts of gods, but you are a fragment of God. You have, within yourself, a bit of him. So why are you so ignorant of your relationship with him? Why don’t you know where you’ve come from? When you eat and exercise, don’t you realize that you’re feeding God, exercising God?
If God had made you responsible for an orphan, would you be so neglectful of your responsibility? God has put you in charge of yourself, and he says “There was no one I could trust more than you. Look after this person for me, keep him in his natural state, with his self-respect, trustworthiness, objectivity, and serenity intact.” After all that, are you going to betray his trust?
Our souls are connected and coupled with God, since he is the greater whole of which our souls are fragments and splinters.
DKB: So God is some benevolent rational consciousness, and we’re all fragments of that. If you believe in a benevolent God with a plan, then how do you think about purpose? What purpose should people be striving for? What were we made for?
Epictetus: We should all think of ourselves as part of a whole instead of in isolation. Consider a foot. I may think it’s natural for a foot to be clean, but if you take it as a foot and not in isolation, it will also be appropriate for it to step in mud or on thorns, and sometimes to be amputated for the sake of the whole. Otherwise, it isn’t a foot.
We should think similarly of ourselves as well. What are you? A human being. If you look at yourself in isolation, it’s natural for you to live to an old age, to be rich, to be healthy. But if you look at yourself as a human being and as part of some whole, then for the sake of that whole it may be appropriate for you to be ill, or risk your life, or be poor, or die young.
Why get angry then? Don’t you realize that just as a foot taken in isolation is not a foot, the same goes for you as a human being? After all, what is a human being? A part of the city made up of gods and human beings.
So we all have different roles and responsibilities given to us. In the first place, you’re a human being, which means your highest faculty is will and you should keep your will unsubordinated. Your possession of reason sets you apart from wild beasts and sheep.
You are also a citizen of the world. What is the job of a citizen? Never to act in his own interest and think about himself as an isolated entity, but to behave as a hand or foot would if it had reason and was able to understand the natural order of things. It would never have inclinations or desires except by reference to the whole.
If a truly good person were to foresee the future, he wouldn’t resist even illness or death, because he’d realize that this is what he’s been allotted by the universe, and that the whole is more important than the part. The city is more important than the citizen.
DKB: So this is a very broad, high level way of thinking about purpose. We’re all part of a whole, and we should do what we can for the greater good. But what about individual purpose, because we all have different roles to play in the world right?
Epictetus: Of course, there are two kinds of purposes to refer to. One is general, and the other is personal.
In the first place, one must act as a good human being, as I talked about before.
The personal purpose has to do with an individual’s occupation and calling. A singer must act like a singer. A carpenter as a carpenter. And a philosopher as a philosopher. And you should be doing things for their own sake, not for the praise that comes with it. The praise of the masses should be meaningless to you.
You’re an actor in a play that’s just as the producer wants it to be. If he wants it short, it’s short. If he wants it long, it’s long. If he wants you to play a beggar, or a cripple, or a ruler, or a nobody, see that you play even this part proficiently. It’s your job to act your role as best as you can, but the role was chosen by someone else.
Some people complain “I don’t like this kind of assignment”. Is it up to you to get the kind of assignment you like? You’ve been given a particular body, particular parents, and brothers, a particular country, and a particular station in it. Then you come to me and say “Please change my assignment.”
Instead you should be saying to God “It’s your job to set the assignment, and mine to carry it out well.”
Every individual’s life is a military campaign, a long and complex one. You have to keep your role as a soldier and carry out every single one of the general’s commands, even guessing what he wants you to do.
DKB: I feel like I have hard time guessing what to do though. How do I figure out my purpose and my own personal role in all of this? I thought my role was to build software products, then I was making TikTok videos, then I was a tech blogger, and now I’m working on this podcast. I feel like it’s a real struggle to find the right thing to focus on.
Epictetus: Yeah, you have commitment issues. And that’s a problem, because you’ll never get anything done if you keep switching what you focus on.
In every project you undertake, consider what preliminaries are required and the consequences, before proceeding to act. Otherwise, you’ll make an enthusiastic start, because you won’t have given any thought to what comes next, and then later you’ll shamefully abandon the project when faced with some of the consequences.
DKB: Sounds familiar.
Epictetus: You want to be a victor at the olympic games? So would I. But consider the project from start to finish before setting about it. You have to be disciplined, maintain a strict diet, give up sweet pastries, undergo a strict training regime, exercise regularly every day however hot or cold it may be, refrain from cold drinks, drink no wine except when prescribed. In short, you have to submit to a trainer as you would to a doctor. Then during the contest you have to wield a spade, risk dislocating a wrist or spraining an ankle, and swallow a lot of sand. And if all that wasn’t enough, possibly suffer defeat as well.
Once you’ve taken all of this into consideration, go and compete if you still want to. If you don’t consider these things, your behavior will be like children, who at one moment pretend they’re wrestlers, and at another gladiators, then they’re musicians, then they’re actors in a play.
That’s what you’re like as well: one moment an engineer, and the next a TikToker, then a writer, then a podcaster, without committing yourself wholeheartedly to anything. Like an ape, you imitate any passing thing you see, and one thing after another attracts you. You don’t think through any of your projects or appraise them. You act without purpose and without really wanting anything.
Epictetus: First consider what kind of venture it is, then consider your own nature to see if you’ve got what it takes. If you want to be a wrestler, look at your arms and thighs. Different people are naturally suited for different things.
Once you decide what kind of person you want to be, act accordingly in everything you do. Athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be and from then on act accordingly. One wants to be a long-distance runner, so he establishes the appropriate regime in his diet, exercise, and training. Another wants to be a sprinter, so he adopts a different regime.
In everything we do, if we have no goals, we’ll be acting at random. And if we refer to an unsuitable goal, we’re bound to fail.
It’s going to be rough. You’re going to fail and struggle a lot. But if despite all of this, it feels appropriate for you to do it, then commit to it, and do it.
Like we talked about before, forget about the externals. Don’t do it for praise, and fame, and money, and all this external stuff. Because you can’t control that. Don’t make your happiness dependent on other people.
Just find the right thing for you to do, and do it for yourself.
DKB: I feel personally attacked here and I love it. It all comes back to not focusing on externals.
What you’re saying is also similar to the sentiment in the Bhagavad Gita where it says “you’re only entitled to your actions, not to the fruit of your actions.” and there’s a focus on selfless service, which is serving your purpose, not for personal selfish gains, but for the good of everyone. It’s interesting how both Hinduism and Stoicism converged on that point. Something to think about.
Anyway, Epictetus, it’s been great talking to you. I hope we can talk again at some point because I feel like we barely scratched the surface of stoic philosophy.
Epictetus: For sure. It was nice talking to you Dmitri. And let me say one more thing. Let me give you the secret to happiness in one sentence before I leave. Instead of wishing that things would happen as you like, wish that they would happen as they do, and then you’ll be content.
DKB: Alright everyone, you just got the secret to happiness. Epictetus, thank you so much. Friends, farewell and thank you for listening.
Discourses, Epictetus 3.13, 1.15, 1.12, 2.14, 3.23; Fragments, Epictetus 2, 4
Discourses, Epictetus 3.22, 1.4, 1.22, 2.5, 2.16, 2.17, 3.24, 4.4, 4.7; Handbook, Epictetus 1, 8
Epictetus The Complete Works, Robin Waterfield: Introduction; Discourses, Epictetus: 3.2, 1.4, 1.17, 1.18, 1.12, 1.28, 2.26, 3.3, 3.12, 3.22, 4.11; Fragments, Epictetus 9
Epictetus, Discourses 3.3, 3.8, 3.12, 1.15, 2.18
Epictetus, Discourses 1.6, 1.14, 1.16, 2.14, 3.17, 2.8, 2.5, 1.1; 2.10 Handbook, Epictetus 30, 31
Epictetus, Discourses 2.6, 3.23, 1.29, 3.24; Handbook, Epictetus 17, 29, 37, 33
Epictetus, Handbook 29
Epictetus, Handbook 8