My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Epictetus was a slave-turned-philosopher who was born in Hierapolis and famously lived in Rome until Emperor Domitian banned philosophers from the city. Like Socrates—who Epictetus quotes and refers to frequently—we would know nothing of the thoughts of Epictetus if it were not for one of his enthusiastic students, Arrian, who compiled his mentor’s teachings.
Epictetus was one of the Stoics, philosophers who believed that one should be unmoved by the situations and conditions handed one by the universe—for such things are beyond one’s control. While the word “stoic” has come to mean emotionless in the colloquial, the philosophy might better be summed up by the Serenity Prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
In other words, one must not be made unhappy by what one cannot change, and one must strive towards self-improvement (changing the things one can) through intense discipline.
As the title suggests, the book consists of a collection of numbered sayings, some are pithy sentences and others are full paragraphs, but few are as long as a page. After the body of the text there is a collection of fragmentary sayings. Some of these “fragments” pack a whollop in themselves, such as, “Give me by all means the shorter and nobler life, instead of the one that is longer but of less account.” This is a central idea in Stoicism–that fear of death is the cause of many of man’s worst features.
Lest giving up one’s anger and fear of the unknown seem too daunting, Epictetus does advocate a gradual approach to self-improvement. He says that if one can at first say that one went a day without anger, one is on the path. As long as one works in the direction of saying it has been a week and then a month without anger.
As intimated above, Epictetus shows a great admiration for Socrates and applauds the elder philosopher for accepting that which he didn’t know and for his continual struggle to be a better man.
While the Stoics are often perceived as hard people, it should be noted that some of Epictetus’s ideas echo those of Mahatma Gandhi and other pacifist leaders. He praises the ability to forgive, not just letting a transgression go, but not allowing one’s mind to become fixated on perceived slights. Epictetus also echoes the notions read in Indian works such as the Bhagavad-Gita when he says, “Reward! Do you seek any greater reward for a good man than doing what is right and just?”
Epictetus shows his wisdom in suggesting that people lead others by example and not by trying to force them into changing their ways.
I think everyone should read this brief work of wisdom.