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8 Timeless Lessons from Epictetus, the Greek Stoic Philosopher

Carolina Avendano
Carolina is a journalism student based in Canada who enjoys learning and sharing information about how to lead a meaningful life. She is passionate about traditional culture, handmade crafts, and the connection between humans and nature.
Published: February 14, 2023
Epictetus, author of "The Art of Living" was one of the greatest representatives of Stoicism. The Stoics believed that a wise man is one who is emotionally unaffected by misfortune and conforms his will to the rules of the natural and divine order. (Image: via Duckduckgo)

“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.”


Born a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey) around 55 A.D., Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who favored simple language and practical lessons over clever theorizing. Following in the footsteps of the great sages, he placed self-improvement and character refinement as the purpose of human life, exhorting his disciples to progress spiritually through the concrete circumstances of everyday life.

For Epictetus, happiness and personal fulfillment were the natural consequences of moral behavior. Thus, a happy life was synonymous with a virtuous life. This article highlights some of Epictetus’ most memorable lessons compiled in the book The Art of Living, with the aim of reviving his extremely practical guidance to become a better and happier version of ourselves. 

1. Know what you can control and what you can’t

According to Epictetus, happiness and freedom can only be achieved when we understand that not everything is under our control. When we want to have free rein over things that are beyond our control — such as how others regard us, whether we are born into a well-to-do family or not, or the type of body we have — we become frustrated, anxious and fault-finding.

As for the things we can control, such as our opinions and reactions, Epictetus taught that taking active responsibility for them was not only our primary duty, but also our path to inner peace.

Roman-era ruins (the Nymphaeum) at Nicopolis. Epictetus was born in present-day Pamukkale (Turkey). He lived in Rome, where he spent his youth as a slave and obtained his freedom after the death of Nero, fifth Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He later went into exile in the Greek city of Nicopolis, where he founded a school of philosophy and lived the rest of his life. (Image: Marsyas via Wikimedia Creative Commons)

2. Character matters more than reputation

In his writings, the Greek philosopher used to develop dialogues with the reader, predicting the questions that could arise and promptly providing an answer. When teaching about the importance of being a good person over having renown and power, he spared no effort in explaining the value of good character: 

“If I can get rich and powerful while preserving my own honor, faithfulness to family, friends, principles, and self-respect, show me how and I’ll do it. But if I have to sacrifice my personal integrity, it’s stupid and silly to urge me on.”


According to Epictetus, reputation is a vain pursuit, since it depends on the opinion of others, something beyond our control. He asserts that, despite the advantages of having a good reputation — such as being able to help friends, holding powerful positions and being invited to fancy parties — all of this is worthless if it comes at the expense of one’s moral character, the only thing over which we have control and the only aspect in which we can make a real difference.

3. Self-mastery is our true aim

The concept of self-cultivation was popular among our Eastern and Western ancestors. Just as the spiritual disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism teach rectifying the mind and purifying the heart to achieve spiritual perfection, Epictetus taught his disciples to renounce harmful habits — such as laziness, forgetfulness, or distractions — to regain sight of their true aim in life. 

 The Hellenistic school of philosophy taught that virtue is sufficient for happiness and therefore more important than external things such as health, wealth, pleasure and reputation. “When we remember that our aim is spiritual progress, we return to striving to be our best selves. This is how happiness is won.” (Giuseppe Rossi via Wikimedia Commons)

The Greek philosopher explained that self-mastery is possible when we are honest with ourselves and clearly recognize both our aptitudes and our flaws. When we identify the talents that divinity has bestowed upon us and when we listen to our special calling within the divine order, we will naturally develop in those areas in which we are destined to excel.

Epictetus also encouraged his disciples to accept challenges and to ceaselessly refine their skills. Difficult situations were seen as the best conditions for intellectual, physical and moral improvement.

4. Act well the part that is given to you:

According to Epictetus, we are all assigned roles in life by the divine. Thus, whether we are public leaders or public citizens, celebrities or ordinary people, we should fulfill our roles to the best of our ability without complaining. Only by giving an impeccable performance can we live in harmony with the rightful order of the world and achieve happiness. 

5. Approach life as a banquet

The Greek philosopher taught that a person’s behavior should reflect his spiritual progress and the refinement of his character. Therefore, he exhorted his students to avoid extravagance and embrace self-restraint. 

To impart this lesson, Epictetus compared life to a banquet. When food is served, a person should help himself in moderation. When a dish passes him by, he should cherish what is already on his plate. And if a dish is yet to come, he should patiently wait for his turn. 

Through this modest analogy, Epictetus expressed the importance of controling one’s impulses, severing one’s desires and appreciating what one already has. Graceful behavior and polite restraint were the traits of a superior man. 

Aureus of Marcus Aurelius (AD 176–177). Among Epictetus’ pupils was Marcus Aurelius, a brilliant disciple who later became the ruler of the Roman Empire. Guided by the teachings of his master, he was considered one of the Five Good Emperors in Roman history who ruled under the guidance of wisdom and virtue. His personal writings, compiled under the name of “Meditations,” offered important insights into Stoic philosophy. (Image: CNG via Wikimedia Commons)

6. Blaming is pointless

Epictetus explained that we are not affected by events but by the feelings and reactions we adopt toward them. Situations are simply what they are and what kind of effect they have on us is determined by our mindset. Thus, when we suffer setbacks, frustrations or disappointments, we should seek blame no further than own attitudes.

“One of the signs of the dawning of moral progress is the gradual extinguishing of blame.” 


Blaming others for perceived misfortunes is a habit of small-minded people. Reproaching others is common among average people. Yet the wise person forgoes the futility of finger-pointing and takes hardship as an opportunity to work on himself. 

7. Nothing belongs to us 

The Stoic philosopher believed that nothing is truly ours and that everything we possess will eventually return to where it came from. The grim example of a deceased child can be regarded as its returning to his or her place of origin, rather than as a loss to its parents.

Epictetus advises that in case of material loss — like when a bad person takes our belongings — we should refrain from feeling wronged and instead see it as the return of things to the place from whence they came. Only then would we see loss in the proper light.

Thus, he urges his students to take great care of what they have while the world lets them have it, placing contentment and gratitude as key virtues in a moral man.

8. Harmonize your actions with the way life is 

According to Epictetus, inner peace is achievable when a person’s actions are carried out to the best of his or her ability. When one devotes oneself wholeheartedly to the activity at hand, without forcing circumstances or pursuing results, one’s performance is impeccable, leading to self-realization and serenity. 

This way, even if difficulties — which Epictetus describes as a natural part of the divine order — arise, one’s inner world will remain undisturbed, for one will have achieved the end of one’s being: the ultimate fulfillment of one’s duty in the world. 

All quotes were taken from the book The Art of Living, written by Epictetus, translated by Marcus Aurelius, and interpreted by Sharon Lebell.