In my previous posts on the subject, I consciously left out discussing the details of the Stoic precepts mentioned in the book. The book has two sections. The first section comprises 52 profound, byte-sized lessons from Epictetus while the second section has 178 aphorisms.
What follows in this post are my interpretations of some of the more important precepts and aphorisms from the book. I have tried to contextualize them in a more contemporary form so that it’s easier for the reader to assimilate them for their personal achievement.
The Roman numerals correspond to the lesson number mentioned in the book so you can cross-reference the same.
Here are the curated pearls of wisdom from the erudite book.
Think of death every day. Thinking about death will keep you grounded and not let you desire anything beyond your means.
People may laugh at you when you announce your dreams to the world. But you carry on nonetheless and score your little victories. Don’t let the initial success get to your head. Keep up the good work and your critics will become your admirers.
Your colleague who sucks up to your boss day in and day out gets a promotion. Should this drive you nuts? Epictetus says, no. That person may have given up his self-respect and dignity to attain that promotion. But you still have your self-respect with you.
When your friend’s son breaks an expensive piece of bone-china set, you jump right to his rescue, saying, “It was an accident. Such things happen.” You must feel the same when your own son does the same.
Epictetus wants us to transfer this reflection to greater things in life. When your neighbour loses their loved one, you say deep stuff like “Such is the circle of life.” But if the same event befalls you, you cry your heart out. You must remember how you felt about someone else’s misfortune, if that didn’t affect you, nor should your own misfortune.
You usually get vexed when someone bosses over you. But you don’t feel the same when you put your trust in someone and he betrays you. There is not much difference in two situations. Look Closely. You gave someone the power in the first case and you gave someone the trust in second case. Why does the first situation trouble you?
Epictetus says in every act there is always things that come first and those that follow. Always pay close attention to the things that come first (process) and ponder hard over them.
If you want to become an Olympian, merely visualizing yourself on the podium with the gold medal around your neck won’t do it. You must visualize what comes in order for you to get on to that podium. Visualize all the pain, blood and sweat that precede the podium shot.
Are you okay with following a strict diet regimen, working out in the gym for 4-5 hours, swollen ankles, torn knuckles, dislocated bones, etc. If not, then you have a dream or a passing fancy.
When you plan a goal, think hard over the process that would help you nail it and commit to the goal only if you think you can give your 100% to the process.
Epictetus instructs the reader to let silence be the general rule when you are in a party and refrain from indulging in humor. He opines that such actions gradually slide into more vulgar behavior.
He further exhorts the reader to not go to the banquets (parties) thrown by complete strangers. Going to theatres (open theatres of Greece) should also be avoided because they can lead to moral decadence.
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Epictetus advises the reader to stay away from temptations of all kind. If, still, you find it hard to overcome them, consider the following two scenarios. One where you indulge in an indecent act and other, the aftermath, where you repent your decision to having indulged in it.
Epcitetus urges you to think about the second scenario more and control your inner senses to avoid pleasure-seeking in the first place. The ability to rein in your base insticts is a great virtue.
If you are sure what you’re doing is not wrong, then don’t avoid being seen doing it. Of course, Epictetus doesn’t want you to go around crowing about it.
Some people prefer to operate under the radar and let their work make the noise. However, if you believe you are doing the right thing, says the Stoic, do not put extra effort in hiding it even if you are discovered; be open to criticism.
Epictetus warns the reader to be careful of overindulgence.
You should not let materialstic and carnal desires rule over your mental faculties and lead you astray. Instead you should make them a servant of yours. Never let them dictate terms to you.
All your attention should go into making your mind a powerful enough tool to surpress them.
Epictetus says, “be calm with people who loathe you or speak bad about your behind your back.”
If you know their opinions are wrong, don’t get mad at them. It’s just that they can’t see things from your perspective. It’s their loss and they are unwittingly deceiving themselves.
Epictetus says that everybody is bound by two handles. I believe handle here means a connection, a bond or a perspective.
He says that if you brother or a close relative swindles you on a deal, don’t let your mean side take over and start looking for a vengeful manoeuvre. Instead, look at the fact that he is still your brother and will be until death does you apart.
A hard scenario to come to grips with for modern-day people when people sever relations on the smallest of disagreements. I myself found this lesson a little difficult to digest, but, perhaps that’s why he was a great Stoic philosopher. The lesson here is:
Learned people should never let earthly differences come in between them.
In this day and age, people define one another by how much they earn, what cars they drive and what plush houses they live in.
To a Stoic, the worldly possessions count for nothing. Epictetus says that possession of wealth or a skill, for that matter, does not mean that you are better than other people. These are temporary possessions, you are neither your possession nor your skill.
If you are richer than your friends and colleagues, you should put it like this: I am richer than you, therefore my possessions are greater than yours (as opposed to I am richer than you, hence I am better than you.)
Don’t brag about your acquired skills when you are in the company of people who don’t have them.
Stay silent, don’t show off and let the wisdom you have extracted from your knowledge make the noise. For example, if you are invited to a party (refer to earlier piece) where a group of strangers/uninstructed people are talking about a theorem you know of, stay silent.
Though the urge to regurgitate everything you know to impress everyone will be too hard to resist, yet, you must invoke your inner power to suppress those temptations. Doing so would pave the path for you to become a Stoic.
Epictetus says a Stoic never points fingers at other for his loss; he never praises others nor does he accuse others.
If a man with lesser knowledge criticizes him, he would walk away from the scene with his head down. At no point, would he boast of himself, that he is a big-time visionary or a polymath. A Stoic doesn’t care what other people think of him.
A Stoic is immune to both criticism and praise. Period.
Do you keep commitments you have made to yourself? Epictetus advises you to see commitments as impenetrable laws that must be adhered to.
Unless you want to postpone all the good things in your life, stay committed to your goals. Cut out all distractions from your life and focus only on those matter. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the number of distractions we have in our modern life.
Epictetus cites the example of Socrates who only paid attention to his cognitive faculties. What others did or said about him was of no consideration to him. Socrates lived a beautiful life because he continually reflected on his daily life, from moment to moment.
Epictetus underlines what matters most in philosophy and in which order
Precepts(Core lessons) –>Demonstration of those precepts—>Confirmation(proving of hypothesis)
However, Epictetus says, people spend more time on confirmation and give little to scant attention to the overarching rules. He emphasizes on inculcating philosophical rules if the aim is to achieve higher things in life.