Have you ever received a book and been as happy as a little kid on Christmas?
Until Epictetus’ A Manual for Living appeared.
Who was Epictetus? The short answer is a slave, a cripple, a philosopher. One of the most practical, impactful, and clear.
Why was I so happy when I saw the book?
Simple pleasures. It’s a short book. Deciding to read a book is a commitment with high expectations for yourself. That you’ll stick with it from beginning to end. We feel bad about ourselves when we quit a book like discarding New Year’s Resolutions January 23rd. So what happens? We don’t read. We don’t exercise. We don’t resolve.
Someone somewhere once said, “happiness equals reality minus expectations”. When I heard “manual for living”, I expected a challenge, a mountain to scale. When I received it my expectations were immediately exceeded. I got less book and I was happy about it. Lowered expectations for myself. I could do this. I could read this in a day. Happiness soared.
But I didn’t read it in a day. I savored it. I read an excerpt or two per day. Most excerpts were a paragraph or two. Fifty-three excerpts total. Not all gems but enough insight to power a stronger character, a better life. With practice. The hard part.
Pretty quickly I thought, “why don’t more authors condense wisdom down into such consumable chunks?” And a purist might say to read the originals, that’s where the real magic lies. And they might be right. But we’re busy people. The first stoic book I read was The Obstacle is the Way, a modern take on the philosophy. Books like this may not be the OG-stoics but they’re like a gateway drug. You read one and you want more. Or you don’t but with a short enough book you at least save time.
Top ten excerpts
And if you’re so impatient you want to save yourself the time of Amazon delivering you the book and weeding through more oblique passages, here are my top ten favorite excerpts from the manual.
Now find a quiet place.
Block a little time.
Or just read one.
Take a deep breath.
They’re still oblique.
Growing gardens in the mind requires a good environment and time.
Now the food.
1. Is this in my power?
Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammelled; things not in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you.
2. Let me put you to the test.
…confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this – the chief test of all – ‘Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.
3. Accuse no one.
What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgments on events. For instance, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates would have thought it so. No, the only dreadful thing about it is men’s judgment that it is dreadful. And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgments. To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.
4. Pay the price of a quiet mind.
If you wish to make progress, abandon reasonings of this sort: ‘If l neglect my affairs I shall have nothing to live on’; ‘If I do not punish my son, he will be wicked.’ For it is better to die of hunger, so that you be free from pain and free from fear, than to live in plenty and be troubled in mind. It is better for your son to be wicked than for you to be miserable. Wherefore begin with little things. Is your drop of oil spilt? Is your sup of wine stolen? Say to yourself, ‘This is the price paid for freedom from passion, this is the price of a quiet mind.’ Nothing can be had without a price.
5. Mind what I control to be free.
It is silly to want your children and your wife and your friends to live for ever, for that means that you want what is not in your control to be in your control, and what is not your own to be yours. In the same way if you want your servant to make no mistakes, you are a fool, for you want vice not to be vice but something different. But if you want not to be disappointed in your will to get, you can attain to that. Exercise yourself then in what lies in your power. Each man’s master is the man who has authority over what he wishes or does not wish, to secure the one or to take away the other. Let him then who wishes to be free not wish for anything or avoid anything that depends on others; or else he is bound to be a slave.
6. Did I judge this into existence?
When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: ‘What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event.’ Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being.
7. Play your part. Play it well.
Remember that you are an actor in a play, and the Playwright chooses the manner of it: if he wants it short, it is short; if long, it is long. If he wants you to act a poor man you must act the part with all your powers; and so if your part be a cripple or a magistrate or a plain man. For your business is to act the character that is given you and act it well; the choice of the cast is Another’s.
8. You anger you.
Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgment that they are so. So when any one makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you. Wherefore make it your first endeavor not to let your impressions carry you away. For if once you gain time and delay, you will find it easier to control yourself.
9. Whatever happens, use it.
When you make use of prophecy remember that while you know not what the issue will be, but are come to learn it from the prophet, you do know before you come what manner of thing it is, if you are really a philosopher. For if the event is not in our control, it cannot be either good or evil. Therefore do not bring with you to the prophet the will to get or the will to avoid, and do not approach him with trembling, but with your mind made up, that the whole issue is indifferent and does not affect you and that, whatever it be, it will be in your power to make good use of it, and no one shall hinder this.
10. You are more than your display.
It is illogical to reason thus, ‘I am richer than you, therefore I am superior to you,’ ‘I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you. It is more logical to reason, ‘I am richer than you, therefore my property is superior to yours,’ ‘I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours.’ You are something more than property or speech.
A few more short quotes
- Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.
- If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being, for then if death strikes it you will not be disturbed.
- If you wish to make progress, you must be content in external matters to seem a fool and a simpleton; do not wish men to think you know anything, and if any should think you to be somebody, distrust yourself.
- Do the same yourself; instead of displaying your principles to the multitude, show them the results of the principles you have digested.
Video on Stockdale and Epictetus
And if you’d like to hear the story of James Stockdale who used Epictetus in the direst of circumstances, watch the speech below.
Two more paraphrased quotes from Epictetus I repeat in the speech are:
- “Your master is anyone who has control over things you want or hope to avoid.”
- “And there is no such thing as being a victim of another. You can only be a victim of yourself.”
The first quote reminds me you make a slave of yourself by giving away control. And the second hits me like a bat. It implies that emotions, feelings, our labels are a choice. It never feels like that, hence the bat. But if dare practice thinking of the way we describe ourselves as a choice, in time you might notice.
Read Stockdale’s short book Courage Under Fire (free pdf here) for his story in his own words. If you read about Stockdale’s time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam it might depress you. It depressed famous author Jim Collins. He asked Stockdale about it and the answer became known as the Stockdale Paradox. Read Collins’ description of the conversation that became The Stockdale Paradox. Read the originals first for context.
The parts that stuck with me are:
- …despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—get out of this—but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.
- You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.
- We are not getting out of here by Christmas.
It’s a powerful perspective for optimists that lean too positive or realists who lean too cynical. I’ve played both parts. Stockdale’s words ground you in a courage I may never know. Still, words matter when setting a model to follow.