Epictetus' Discourses

A series of short audio meditations on the Discourses of Epictetus.

I.1.5: Epictetus teaches us what is truly good in life.

I.1.32: Epictetus tells us that we have to tend to whatever is happening right now. If we are about to die, let’s deal with it. But if not…

I.2.33: Epictetus asks us at what price we are willing to sell our soul, and advises us to aim for the highest one possible.

I.4.20: Epictetus says that we become virtuous in the same way as athletes and musicians become more proficient at what they do: by constant practice.

I.5.1: Epictetus says that some people hardens their opinions into stones. It’s their problem, don’t waste your time arguing with them.

I.5.4 & I.5.5: Epictetus makes an interesting contrast between taking too much care of our bodies and too little care of our minds.

I.6.30: Epictetus reminds his student that certain things are an inevitable feature of the universe, and that it is better to work on them than just wish them away.

I.7.5: Epictetus reminds us that sometimes the reasonable thing to do is to suspend judgment. And always to face reality rather than engage in wishful thinking.

I.7.30: Epictetus says that not doing awful things isn’t enough, it’s too lazy. The point is to positively do good things.

I.8.12-13: Epictetus observes that even if Plato were handsome and strong, that doesn’t mean those are the traits that made him a great philosopher…

I.8.16: Epictetus says that the measure of a person is the goodness of her character. Let’s work on it, then!

I.9.1: Epictetus tells us that Socrates never replied to the question “where are you from?” with “I am from Athens,” but always with “I am a citizen of the world.”

 I.11.33: Epictetus on the fact that it isn’t exile, pain or death that determine our actions, but our opinions of those things.

I.11.37 & I.12.33: Epictetus reminds us that we are in charge of our judgments about things, and talks about Socrates, who chose to be in prison.

I.12.26-27: Epictetus notes that we can do a lot more with our mind than with our body. And yet we obsess over the latter and care little for the former.

I.13.4: Epictetus reminds people with power that they should remember whom they have power over: fellow human beings, made of the same stuff, wanting the same things.

I.13.7: Epictetus reminds us that when we face an impression about an external thing we should consider carefully whether to assent to it, withhold assent, or remain neutral.

I.15.7-8: Epictetus cautions us to be patient while working on improving our character. Nothing important comes into being overnight.

I.17 & I.21: Epictetus reminds us of the wisdom of understanding what is and is not under our control.

I.17.1-2: Epictetus argues that the only way to criticize reason is by way of applying reason. There are no alternative facts for the Stoics.

I.17.6: Epictetus reminds his students that without logic there is no serious talking about how to live the life worth living.

I.17.25-26: Even when threatened with your life, says Epictetus, you are the one in charge, you make the decision to yield or not to yield.

I.18.3: Epictetus reminds us of the Stoic doctrine that people don’t do bad things on purpose, but rather because they are mistaken about the nature of good and evil.

I.18.18-19: Epictetus advises us to start practicing with small things. The next time you are sick, try not to curse or complain. You’ll discover in you the power of endurance, and you’ll be far less annoying to other people…

I.19.29: Epictetus mocks a student who is bent on pursuing power and wealth. Those things are neither good nor bad for the Stoics, it’s a matter of how we use them.

I.20.12: Epictetus explains why being blind is far less of a problem than having your mind in the dark.

I.21.1 & I.21.4: Epictetus tells his students that they are fools if they think that being praised is important, particularly by people who they themselves do not think highly of!

I.22.4: Epictetus notes that people want to be good, regardless of their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion. But then they get lost in arguments over whether it is acceptable or not to eat pork.

I.22.10: Epictetus clearly states one of the fundamental principles of Stoicism: the dichotomy of control. Once we realize that some things are up to us and other things aren’t, it follows that we should focus on the first ones and cultivate equanimity toward the latter ones.

I.24.1-2: Epictetus uses a nice metaphor in which the universe is our trainer, sending us tough stuff to deal with so that we get used to breaking a sweat and prepare for the Olympics of life.

I.25.17-18: Tough topic for this episode: what is known as Epictetus’ open door policy, that is, the Stoic idea that suicide is permissible, under certain circumstances. And indeed, that it is its possibility that gives us freedom and courage to fight on.

I.25.28-29: Epictetus counsels us to react to insults as if we were a rock, that is, by ignoring them. An insult is only effective if you let it be, and that power resides exclusively in your own faculty of judgment.

I.26.15: Epictetus says that philosophy begins with awareness of one’s mental fitness. So let’s work on that, shall we?

I.27.7-8 & 9-10: Epictetus uses his dark sense of humor to remind us that death is inevitable. At the same time, though, fear of it is not. Moreover, awareness of death is what, in a sense, gives meaning to our life.

I.27.19: Epictetus has a little bit of fun with the Skeptics, who denied the possibility of human knowledge. If that’s the case, he says, how is it that you reliably go to the thermal baths when you want to relax, and to the mill when you want bread?

I.28.4-5: Epictetus says that people cannot assent to what they think is false. We always want to be right, but we are often not, which is why we rationalize things. That’s why we need to improve our ability to arrive at correct judgments about things.

I.29.1-2: Epictetus says that externals (health, wealth, education, good looks) are the means by which we do good or evil in the world. So it is entirely up to us, really.

I.29.3: Epictetus says that the way we improve our character is by paying attention and making good judgments, while if we keep making bad ones we make our character worse. So today reflect carefully on your decisions, and ask yourself what would Epictetus do.

I.29.21: Epictetus tells the story of a thief stealing his lamp at night, and reflects on what each of them lost in the process. He concludes that he came ahead of the thief.

I.29.35: Epictetus asks us a simple question: if we didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did we learn them for?

I.29.53-54: Epictetus defends the apparently strange notion that philosophy, like mathematics (or science, or lots of other things) is a profession, requiring expertise. He is not being elitist, he’s just being reasonable.

II.1.22: Epictetus reminds us that education, which involves the ability to shape our moral values, is the only ticket to achieving freedom. Something to remember, in these days in which people freely elect tyrants and autocracts.

II.2.4: Epictetus tells us that nobody can force us to agree to a judgment we think is incorrect. Surprisingly, this has countless applications to everyday life.

II.2.12: Epictetus warns us that if we let an external take precedence over the integrity of our character we are doomed to become slaves for life. And who wants to be a slave, right?

II.3.4-5: We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do we do? What today we say is good, tomorrow we’ll swear is bad. That’s because we don’t pay attention.

II.4.2-3: Trust is crucial for intimate relationships, for friendships, and even among fellow citizens. Research shows that nations with the highest degree of self-reported happiness among its citizens are those in which people feel like they can trust each other.

II.5.1: Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.

II.5.10-12: A nice analogy from Epictetus between our choices in life and those we have when we go on a trip. Even when the trip doesn’t end well…

II.5.25: Human beings are neither mindless drones in a beehive nor entirely self-contained individuals. We are highly social animals, and a number of ethical implications follow from this biological fact.

II.5.26: Because what is a human being? Part of a community – the community of gods and men, primarily, and secondarily that of the city we happen to inhabit, which is only a microcosm of the universe in toto.

II.6.14: Because we’re the only animals who not only die but are conscious of it even while it happens, we are beset by anxiety.

II.6.22: The island of Gyara was the exile place of choice for troublesome people during the Roman Empire. How would you handle being sent into exile?

II.8.4: Since plants do not even have the power of perception, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not applicable to them. Evidently, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ presume the power of using impressions.

II.9: What sets aside human beings from the rest of the animal world is our ability to reason and our propensity to be pro-social. So let’s reason well, and be helpful to fellow humans.

II.9: If someone gets the habit of writing ungrammatically, their art is bound to be destroyed and perish. In the same way the person of honor keeps their character by honest acts and loses it by dishonest.

II.10.8: Epictetus advises us to forgo issues of material resources and remember that family relationships in great part define who we are. After all, if we can’t practice virtue with our brothers, sisters, and parents, with whom can we practice it?

II.10.10: Epictetus introduced a major innovation in Stoic ethics with his theory of roles. We are first and foremost members of the human cosmopolis. But also fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, colleagues. How do we balance the conflicting demands of such diverse roles in life?

II.10.15: A straightforward quote by Epictetus allows us to reflect on what a philosophy of life is, and why everyone needs one.

II.10.25-26: Epictetus reminds his students that engaging in a wrong act, even one done in response to an injustice, stains our own character, and therefore hurts us first and foremost. Stoics don’t favor retributive justice systems.

II.11.7-8: A splendid example of Epictetus’ sarcasm by way of a bit of dialogue with one of his students. In the course of which we learn about the virtue of practical wisdom, the discipline of desire, and the dichotomy of control.

II.11.13: According to Epictetus philosophy gets started when we are genuinely interested in why people disagree about things. Not in terms of factual matters, which empirical evidence can settle, but about values and how we should think about the world and therefore act in it.

II.11.22: Epictetus engages in a short dialogue with one of his students, asking him a trick question. How would you answer the question of whether pleasure is a good thing, something to be proud of?

II.12.3-4: Epictetus says that if we encounter someone who is lost we don’t make fun of him, but give him directions. Why, then, do we engage in sarcasm against people who disagree with us?

II.12.9: Epictetus reminds us that it is senseless to talk to others just in order to score points. That way we don’t learn, understand, or persuade; we just puff ourselves up and waste opportunities.

II.12.14: Epictetus reminds us that Socrates made an effort to talk to people while avoiding rudeness and invectives. Imagine if we did the same today, instead of indulging in the current climate of acrimony about social and political issues.

II.12.24-25: Epictetus tells the story of when he first started preaching, instead of teaching, philosophy. It did not go well, and he got punched on the nose. He quickly learned the difference between preaching and teaching.

II.13.2: Epictetus says that a lyre player plays beautifully when he practices on his own. But gets very nervous in front of an audience. That’s because he wants something that is not under his control. Learn and internalize this lesson and your life will be happy and serene.

II.13, 15: Epictetus explains why king Antigonus was anxious to meet Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and not vice versa. The king had not yet internalized the fundamental principle of the dichotomy of control: making a good impression on others is not up to us.

II.14.10: Epictetus reminds us that one does not become a good carpenter, or pilot, by simply studying the theory of carpentry or piloting. Mindful, repeated effort is needed to see results. The same goes with one’s philosophy of life.

II.14.21-22: Epictetus notes that nobody tells a doctor that they are rude if the doctor says they are sick and need medicine. But if the philosopher does that with one’s moral health…

II.15.7: Epictetus chastises one of his students for wanting to stick with a decision just because he said he would. Which leads us to a discussion of the roles of reason and emotion.

II.15.13-14: Epictetus warn us that a little knowledge of philosophy, without proper guidance, can actually turn us onto even more stubborn fools than we were before.

II.16.1: Epictetus reminds us that the only things that are truly good or bad for us are our judgments, which are under our control. It follows that “happiness,” in the sense of a life worth living, is also under our control.

II.16.13-14: Epictetus, with his sarcastic sense of humor, reminds a student that he doesn’t need to pray to deal with a bad situation. He already has all the tools he needs: courage, fortitude, and endurance.

II.16.15: Epictetus wonders why people pay attention to outcomes, which are outside of their control, and not so much to planning, which very much is under their control.

II.17.1 & II.17.39: Epictetus advises his students, and all of us, to drop our preconceptions and actually open our minds to new notions. Try to practice that the next time you engage in a “conversation” on social media.

II.18.4-5: Epictetus reminds us that character is a matter of habit. Willfully change your habits, and you will be on your way toward becoming a better human being.

II.18.12: Epictetus treats anger as an addiction: we should suppress the urge as soon as we begin to feel it, and celebrate the days we have managed to stay away from this temporary madness.

II.18.24: Epictetus tells us about a fundamental Stoic technique: never act on first impressions and implied judgments. Always pause, challenge your impressions, make the judgments explicit, and see whether they were on target or not.

II.18.26-27: Epictetus complains about something that hasn’t changed much in two millennia: people who are happy to discuss the fine logical points of ethical dilemmas, but are apparently not that interested in becoming better human beings.

II.21.9: Without knowing about modern psychological research, Epictetus figured out that we all too easily fool ourselves. Here are three Stoic techniques to at least partially remedy the problem.

II.21.16: Epictetus bluntly tells us that if we have not been affected by philosophy and have not changed our mind about something important as a result of it, we are simply playing a game. So, has philosophy changed your mind yet?

II.21.20: Epictetus argues that things are useless or useful not in themselves, but as a result of what we do with them. As usual in Stoicism, the answer comes from within, from our own attitudes toward things.

II.22.6: Do you find yourself in the thralls of fear, jealousy, or anger? Do you act inconsistently in life? Then you ain’t wise yet.

II.22.9: No doubt you have seen dogs playing with, and fawning before, each other, and thought, ‘Nothing could be friendlier.’ But just throw some meat in the middle, and then you’ll know what friendship amounts to.

II.22.23: Paris stole Menelaus’ wife, Helen, thereby starting the Trojan War. He did that because he assented to the impression that it was good to pursue the wife of his host, and that misjudgment resulted in ten years of misery for so many.

II.22.36: Plato said that “every soul is deprived of the truth against its will.” Which means that we need to treat people who make mistakes with sympathy, not criticize and dismiss them.

II.23.11-13: An eye, when open, has no option but to see. The decision whether to look at a particular man’s wife, however, and how, belongs to the will.

II.23.36-37: People act like a traveller headed for home who stops at an inn and, finding it comfortable, decides to remain there. You’ve lost sight of your goal, man. You were supposed to drive through the inn, not park there.

II.23.41: Some become captivated by all these things and don’t want to proceed further. One is captivated by deductive or equivocal arguments, someone else by yet another ‘inn’ of this kind; and there they stay and rot as if seduced by the Sirens.

II.23.47: When I see that one thing, virtue, is supreme and most important, I cannot say that something else is, just to make you happy.

II.24: According to Epictetus, the root of our problems is that we don’t know, or refuse to acknowledge, how the world works. As opposed as to how we wished it worked.

II.25: A student asks Epictetus whether we should really bother to learn logic. “Would you like me to provide you with an argument?” Yes. “How would you know if my argument is a good one, if you don’t understand logic?” QED.

II.26: Nobody wants to do what is bad for them. So when the thief steals, he is under the wrong impression about what is and is not good for him. We should therefore pity him, and help him understand, if possible.

III.1: Epictetus stresses the difference between physical and inner beauty.

III.2: There are three areas of training in Stoic ethics: to desire the proper things, to act properly in the world, and to arrive at the best possible judgments.

III.2: Epictetus puts to rest the notion that Stoics are supposed to suppress their emotions.

III.3.1: Epictetus reminds us that to become a better person we need to apply our reasoning faculty to arrive at better judgments.

III.3.18-19: What, after all, are sighing and crying, except opinions? What is ‘misfortune’? An opinion. And sectarian strife, dissension, blame and accusation, ranting and raving – they all are mere opinion.

III.5.7: Epictetus asks us to think about what we’d like to be doing when death will overtake us. It’s an interesting exercise in self-knowledge.

III.5.14: Socrates liked to daily monitor his moral self-improvement. How can we do the same?

III.6: Epictetus draws a distinction between philosophy pursued for its own sake and philosophy as the art of life.

III.7: Epictetus argues that rational creatures will always oppose tyrannical governments.

III.9: You have vessels of gold, but your reason–judgements, assent, impulse, will–is of common clay.

III.10: Epictetus explains one of the most powerful techniques in the Stoic toolkit for a better and more meaningful life.

III.10: If now is the time for fever, take your fever in the right way; if for thirst, thirst in the right way, if for hunger, hunger aright. Is it not in your power? Who will hinder you?

III.10: ‘My brother ought not to have behaved so to me.’ No, but it is his business to look to that; however he may behave, I will deal with him as I ought.

III.12: We should always examine our impressions and ask whether they pass the test: are they in according with reason?

III.13: Epictetus reminds us to draw a distinction between our objective situation and the way we feel about it.

III.14: Are you proud of things for which you don’t really deserve credit? Or for things that are not important? Reflect on this, and set your priorities straight.

III.16.10: Keep well out of the sun, then, so long as your principles are as pliant as wax.

III.17: When people say that the unjust person is better off because he has more money, what exactly is their system of values?

III.20.4: ‘Being healthy is good, being sick is bad.’ No, my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad.

III.20.8: For God’s sake, stop honoring externals, quit turning yourself into the tool of mere matter, or of people who can supply you or deny you those material things.

III.20.9: A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner – and my accuser is my sparring partner. He trains me in patience, civility and even temper.

III.20.11: I have a bad neighbor – bad, that is, for himself. For me, though, he is good: he exercises my powers of fairness and sociability.

III.21: Those who have learnt precepts and nothing more are anxious to give them out at once, just as men with weak stomachs vomit food.

III.21: So you can talk the right talk about Stoicism. But do you also walk the right walk?

III.21: My mind represents for me my medium – like wood to a carpenter, or leather to a shoemaker. The goal in my case is the correct use of impressions.

III.22.42: Look, can you be forced to assent to what appears to you wrong?’ ‘No.’ ‘Or to dissent from the plain truth?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you see you do have within you a share of freedom.’

III.23.3-5: Let us play our roles in life well. Not acting lik a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast.

III.23.14: ‘He’s a clever young man and a fan of rhetoric.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘He praises me.’ Oh, well, that proves it, of course.

III.23.30: Friends, the school of a philosopher is a hospital. When you leave, you should have suffered, not enjoyed yourself.

III.24: How can you wish at the same time to grow old and not to see the death of any that you love?

III.24: At Olympia you do not want anything else; you are content to have been crowned at Olympia. Does it seem to you so small and worthless a thing to be noble and good and happy?

III.24: Epictetus tells us what happens when a person is truly free. Tyrants begin to tremble.

III.24: Epictetus gives us a very practical pointer about how to incorporate Stoic precepts in our lives.

III.24: Epictetus advises us to live the life we have, in the place we are, rather than indulge in regret for what we may have lost.

III.24.86: There is a proper time for everything, including enjoying your loved ones. Keep it in mind, before they’re gone.

III.25: Epictetus says that our moral improvement is not like the Olympic Games: when we fail, we can resume immediately, not having to wait four years.

III.26: When you think about it, it turns out that we have far less control over things and people than we think, and therefore far less blame.

III.26: ‘What then, if I fall ill?’ You shall bear illness well. ‘Who shall tend me?’ God, and your friends. ‘I shall lie on a hard bed.’ But you can do it like a man.

III.26: Epictetus and Seneca agree: our own death is the ultimate test of our character, and philosophy is a long journey to prepare us for it.

IV.1.2: Who wants to live with delusion and prejudice, being unjust, undisciplined, mean and ungrateful? ‘No one.’ No bad person, then, lives the way he wants, and no bad person is free.

IV.1.13: So you admit that you have at least one master. And don’t let the fact that Caesar rules over everyone, as you say, console you: it only means that you’re a slave in a very large household.

IV.1.63: What makes for freedom and fluency in the practice of writing? Knowledge of how to write. The same goes for the practice of playing an instrument. It follows that, in the conduct of life, there must be a science to living well.

IV.1.72-73: Whoever told you, ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I said only that the will to walk could not be obstructed.

IV.1.121-122: A plant or animal fares poorly when it acts contrary to its nature; and a human being is no different. Well, then, biting, kicking, wanton imprisonment and beheading–is that what our nature entails? No; rather, acts of kindness, cooperation and good will.

IV.1.174-175: Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.

IV.2.6-7: Formerly, when you were devoted to worthless pursuits, your friends found you congenial company. But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent you cultivate one you will fall short in the other.

IV.3.1: If you forfeit an external possession, make sure to notice what you get in return. If it is something more valuable, never say, ‘I have suffered a loss.’

IV.3.4-5: Very little is needed for everything to be upset and ruined, only a slight lapse in reason. It’s much easier for a mariner to wreck his ship than it is for him to keep it sailing safely.

IV.3.23: The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.

IV.4.35: Either you’re going to be depressed when your wish is not realized or foolishly pleased with yourself if it is, overjoyed for the wrong reasons.

IV.5: Is everything judged by its outward form alone? On that principle you must call your waxen apple an apple. No, it must smell and taste like an apple: the outward semblance is not enough.

IV.5: How will those who know despise one who is gentle and self-respecting? By those who do not know? What do you care for them? No craftsman cares for those who have no skill!

IV.5: Although we are capable of writing and reading these sentiments, although we can praise them as we read, yet they do not bring conviction to us, nor anything like it.

IV.6: Those who pity me shall take their own views: I have neither hunger nor thirst nor cold, but their own hunger or thirst makes them imagine the same of me.

IV.7: ‘Exile?’ Wherever I go, it will be well with me: for even here it was not the place that made me well off, but my judgements, and these I shall carry away with me, for no one can rob me of them.

IV.7: ‘But now the time is come to die.’ What do you mean by ‘die’? Do not use fine words, but state the facts as they are. ‘Now is the time for your material part to be restored to the elements of which it was composed.’

IV.7: When I hear a man called happy because he is honored by Caesar I say, ‘What is his portion?’ ‘A province.’ Does he also get a judgement, such as a governor should have? Does he get the skill to use it?

IV.8: ‘This man washes hastily.’ Does he do evil then? Not at all. What is it he does then? He washes hastily.

IV.8: Philosophy has been criticized since antiquity, and Epictetus explains why some of this criticism misses the point, and indeed shows that such critics could benefit from a bit of sound philosophical training.

IV.8: What then is the subject-matter of the philosopher? Is it a cloak? No, it is reason. What is his end? Is it to wear a cloak? No, but to keep his reason right.

IV.9: Epictetus draws a distinction between natural and greedy desires, reminding us that the first ones are part of a virtuous life, while the second ones are characteristic of a sick soul.

IV.9: ‘Get up’, says the trainer, ‘and wrestle again, until you are made strong.’ Let this be your attitude; for know that nothing is more amenable than the mind of a human being.

IV.9: You were shameless and shall be self-respecting, you were untrustworthy and you shall be trusted. If you look for greater things than these, go on doing as you do now: not even a god can save you.

IV.10: For my part I would be found by death busy with some humane task, whatever it be—something noble, beneficent, advancing the common weal.

IV.12: Now if such postponement of attention is profitable, it would be still more profitable to abandon it altogether: but if it is not profitable, why do you not keep up your attention continuously?

IV.12: Is it possible to escape error altogether? No, it is impossible: but it is possible to set one’s mind continuously on avoiding error.

IV.12: As it is, you say, ‘I will fix my attention tomorrow’: which means, let me tell you, ‘Today I will be shameless, inopportune, abject: others shall have power to vex me: today I will harbor anger and envy.’

IV.13.15: Just prove to me that you are trustworthy, high-minded and reliable, and that your intentions are benign, and you’ll find that I won’t even wait for you to open your heart to me, I’ll be the first to implore you to lend an ear to my own affairs.