The Most Epic Philosopher of All

How many times have you cursed your luck when something just isn’t going to plan?

I’m talking about that bad, bad day where things just aren’t going your way…

Ok fine. I’ll stop with the childhood song references… 😁

But really. It’s easier than ever to become irritated at all the small things that get in the way of life, whether they be long coffee lines or a less-than-cooperative boss. We’re always so connected to everyone else and sometimes it’s all too much!

So while it’s extremely easy to let that frustration get the better of you, we all know that it never ends well. How many arguments and headaches could have been stopped if we were just able to better manage the ups and downs of life?

The problem is that it’s easy to get frustrated at things beyond our control and hard to accept that we can’t do anything about them. In our modern, connected world 🌐, we’re more and more reliant on our environment. So when something goes wrong, we can’t help but react negatively to being stuck.

But as bad as it can be for you and most other people in today’s developing countries, imagine what it might be like for people thousands of years ago who literally had no control. How much bitterness might the slaves of Rome have had when their entire lives were out of their control — given that we get mad at a long line for coffee ☕️?

Despite this, there are some truly amazing people who were able to get over their lack of power in those ancient times and learn how to handle the uncooperative nature of life. And if they could do it with no power, can’t we learn to be happier with all our luxuries???

This week, I’ve been learning about the story of one of these people: a stoic philosopher named Epictetus. And while his name may be Epic… his lessons on handling our out-of-control lives were even Epic-er 😄

He was a slave in Rome about 2000 years ago that dared to embrace his life despite his lowly status. His master eventually let him explore philosophy (he was just that impressive :-) and Epictetus went on to become one of the most important stoic philosophers we know.

But what is a stoic philosopher???

Obviously, it’s the epic-est pokemon type out there!!!!

Okay, fine… So a stoic philosopher isn’t a fun pokemon type 😢 Actually, it refers to people who’re very mindful of controlling how the world influences them (not just the negatives, but the positives as well).

But the reason why Epictetus is so unique amongst all the other stoic philosophers is due to his background. When historians think of the stoics, they recall the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius or the prestigious Senator Seneca.

But Epictetus was a slave.

He was the perfect example of how stoicism can be universal. You don’t need to be an all-powerful Roman Emperor to accept things out of your control. You can be an average slave… or these days, an average person waiting for coffee.

So maybe Epictetus wasn’t all that well-known due to his humble origin, but I think that makes his lessons all the more interesting for the ordinary person.

Lesson 1: You Can’t Control the World — So Why Worry About It?

Say you’re stuck in a coffee line right now as you read this article… 😫 Given how busy you are, of course you’re worried about being late to work.

But does it make sense to worry?

You can’t really force everyone ahead of you to know what they want to order faster. The baristas can only go as fast as they’re able to work. And it’s not like you can freeze all the others in line and grab your coffee… 😁

Epictetus’ opinion on this was that it made no sense to worry about everything else — you’d probably be even more frustrated but you can’t fix what’s making you feel that way.

Happiness and freedom begin with… one principle. Some things are within your control and some things are not.

He believed that you needed to constantly remind yourself of that fact to be happy. When you have the habit of accepting that things just come as they do instead of always wishing that they happen as you want, you would no longer be worried about these things outside your control.

And when all is said, Epictetus didn’t really think these worries (like waiting in line) were caused by external forces like the other customers or the baristas. He believed that the worries were caused by your own perception of how awful it was to be stuck in line.

In his own life, Epictetus had a crippled leg, but he wasn’t unhappy about it. He thought he would be unhappy due to his self-pity about his disability (not due to the disability itself), so he realised that it was better to just not be self-piteous.

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.

Modern translation:

In our increasingly connected lives, we rely on others more and more of the time. There are so many things out of our control that we literally don’t have the time to be worrying about them all.

The point is that there is no point… in worrying about the big bad world’s uncooperative nature 😈 And in the end, you’re making yourself worse off by thinking you’re mad. So as every annoying sibling likes to say:

Why’re you hitting yourself?

Lesson 2: Humility Should Come with Wisdom

Think about you right now with your new knowledge of accepting things out of your control. After this enlightened status ✨, you decide to go preach your wisdom to all your coworkers with their coffee troubles.

Under most circumstances, people would probably think you’re being weird and maybe even a bit snobby for telling them how they should wait in line :-(

Epictetus thought that way about all of his knowledge and other possessions. He never tried to show off his philosophies to others and as he gained more freedom after being a slave, he still maintained only meager possessions.

For instance, Epictetus once brought a fancy iron lamp and displayed it out in the open, just to have it stolen. Instead of being upset, he just embraced his humility and bought a lowly clay lamp.

One of his fundamental beliefs was about how material success didn’t mean anything. The amount of wealth, quality of possessions, or size of property you have doesn’t say anything about your value.

And if someone else doesn’t have all those things, it doesn’t mean they have less value as a person. It means their wealth, possessions, or property have less value.

And when it came to philosophy, Epictetus clearly discouraged publicly disclosing your principles:

At an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought.

The core idea here is that you should act wisely using the principles you learn, not preach about them.

Wisdom should be accompanied by humility. The goal is to achieve greater knowledge to improve yourself, not to show others how much knowledge you’ve gained.

*He was such a firm believer in this, he never wrote down any of his philosophies. The only reason we know about his work today is that one of his students published it for the world.

Unfortunately though, this kind of thinking is EXTREMELY rare in society today. Think about that example of the value of a person vs. their possessions again. How often do we ignore that and see the Elon Musks of the world as successful just because of their wealth? 💰

The next time you think about a leader or a role model’s success, honestly ask yourself:

How much do I value them as a person and how much do I just value their material success?

Lesson 3: Nothing is Permanent — Loss Eventually Comes

What do you tell a friend when they lose their phone? Go through a break-up? Experience a family member’s death? Obviously, those scenarios vary a lot in how serious they are, but our response is usually the same.

We say, “it’s just life” in the nicest way possible and encourage them to get over their loss. But what about when we’re the one experiencing the losses?😕

We NEVER tell ourselves things are “just life.”

When it comes to being personally affected, we’re so much weaker than when viewing the situation from the outside in. Epictetus’ belief on this was that people grieved most for what they were attached to.

After realising this, Epictetus constantly reminded himself not to get too attached to things. It ties into his point of accepting things as they are and not wishing them to be another way. If you’re too attached to something, you just can’t have them any way other than how you want them.

His practical example was always that he would remind himself that his wife and children were mortal and bound to pass away one day every time he kissed them.

WOW, that seems really cold from our perspective today, but it gets the message across 😢

That being said, couldn’t we still apply that thinking to smaller situations? We’re living in a world of stuff and things. How many of them are actually valuable?

What if we DIDN’T always get wrapped up in the greatness of having a new toy/phone/laptop/car/house? Those things never made us permanently happy anyways.

It’s really hard to keep the downs in mind when we’re constantly exposed to so many ups. But if we manage to do it, we just might be able to see the world as it truly is: temporary, yet forever changing.

In the end, Epictetus left a lot of lessons for us to think about in our lives. He was one of the great stoics not because he exemplified stoicism like all the other philosophers, but because he was so different.

His important thoughts show that it is possible for the average person like you and me to really use these principles in our own lives, BEYOND any societal role forced upon us.

And the fact that we’re still talking about him is what’s most amazing of all — Epictetus proved stoicism transcended not only class, but time as well :-)

Key Takeaways

  • If it’s in your control, why worry about it? You have it under control. If it’s out of your control why worry about it? You can’t do anything about it.
  • Your wealth might be larger than someone else’s, but your value isn’t.
  • We can see the little significance of losses in others’ lives, but never in our own.

Actionables

  • When you get worried in the next coffee line, remind yourself it’s out of your control ;-)
  • Think about others’ success in terms of themselves, not their property.
  • When you’re grieving about a loss, ask yourself what you would do if a friend were experiencing it instead of you.

Before You Go

Hey, I’m currently sitting in the freezing Canadian winter in front of City Hall, reflecting on how the perfectly pretty ripples in the fountain in front of me are far from permanent ;-) If you enjoyed this article and will never again be able to look at some ordinary ripples in the same way 😁, feel free to:

  • connect on Linkedin
  • check out some other work on my website (100% non-shady :-)
  • subscribe to my newsletter (because I’m really extra)

So we can start a ripple revolution!

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/