One of the main philosophers of Stoic philosophy was Epictetus, a Greek man born in Roman slavery around 55 AD. He eventually won his freedom in Rome and was able to study stoicism full time, but was banished alongside other philosophers by the emperor towards the end of his life. The Enchiridion is a summary version of a larger text by him called The Discourses.
The essence of Stoicism can be found in passage XLVIII:
1. “The condition and characteristic of [an instructed person] is this: he expects all advantage and all harm from [his mind and not from his environment].”
2. “He censures no man, he praises no man, he blames no man, he accuses no man, he says nothing about himself as if he were somebody or knew something;”
3. “…when he is impeded at all or hindered, he blames himself: if a man praises him, he ridicules the praiser to himself: if a man censures him, he makes no defense.”
4. “…he removes all desire from himself, and he transfers aversion to those things only of the things within our power which are contrary to nature.”
5. “…he employs a moderate movement toward everything.”
6. “…whether he is considered foolish or ignorant, he cares not.”
His principal teaching is that you choose how to interpret and think about events that happen to you; negative feelings are completely your choice and in the realm of pliable thought. He also teaches not to envy or be jealous of another man, since you have not paid the price that he has in the form of time, effort, work, flattery, and so on. For things that a man can achieve which you cannot, you will possess things that he does not have.
Some of his other important tenets:
You have control over your mind
Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.
But you yourself will only wish to be a general or senator or consul, but a free man: and there is only one way to this, to despise (care not for) the things which are not in our power.
Remember that it is not he who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When then a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you.
Do not be overly desirous
Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and is opposite to you. Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency. Suppose that is passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it is not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you. Do so with respect to children, so with respect to a wife, so with respect to magisterial offices, so with respect to wealth, and you will be some time a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods. But if you take none of the things which are set before you, and even despise them, then you will be not only a fellow-banqueter with the gods, but also a partner with them in power.
Resist lowly company
Avoid banquets which are given by strangers and by ignorant persons. But if ever there is occasion to join in them, let your attention be carefully fixed, that you slip not into the manners of the vulgar (the uninstructed). For you must know, that if your companion be impure, he also who keeps company with him must be impure, though he should happen to be pure.
If you put yourself before someone who can reject you, bear it
When you are going to any of those who are in great power, place before yourself that you will not find the man at home, that you will be excluded, that the door will not be opened to you, that the man will not care about you. And if with all this it is your duty to visit him, bear what happens, and never say to yourself that it was not worth the trouble. For this is silly, and marks the character of a man who is offended by externals.
Don’t hide things you’re embarrassed by
When you have decided that a thing ought to be done and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavorable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?
You are not the sum of positive traits
These reasonings do not cohere: I am richer than you, therefore I am better than you; I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better than you. On the contrary these rather cohere, I am richer than you, therefore my possessions are greater than yours: I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours. But you are neither possession nor speech.
Check (punish) your passions that you may not be punished by them.
Freedom can only exist in the mind
For he who is loose (free) in the body, but bound in the soul is a slave: but on the contrary he who is bound in the body, but free (unbound) in the soul, is free.
Appreciate what you have instead of asking for more
When we have been invited to a banquet, we take what is set before us: but if a guest should ask the host to set before him fish or sweet cakes, he would be considered to be an unreasonable fellow. But in the world we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and we do this through the things are many which they have given.
It is not poverty which produces sorrow, but desire; nor does wealth release from fear, but reason (the power of reasoning). If then you acquire this power of reasoning, you will neither desire wealth nor complain of poverty.
He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
He who is dissatisfied with things present and what is given by fortune is an ignorant man in life: but he who bears them nobly and rationally and the things which proceed from them is worthy of being considered a good man.
We should enjoy good fortune while we have it, like the fruits of autumn.
Bodily pleasures are fleeting
In banquets remember that you entertain two guests, body and soul: and whatever you shall have given to the body you soon eject: but what you shall have given to the soul, you keep always.
Pleasures should come infrequently
Of pleasures those which occur most rarely give the greatest delight.
If a man should transgress moderation, the thing which give the greatest delight would become the things which give the least.
Is it part of a wise man to resist pleasures, but of a foolish man to be a slave to them.
Choose rather to punish your appetites than to be punished through them.
Don’t listen to the mob
As a goose is not frightened by cackling nor a sheep by bleating, so let not the clamor of a senseless multitude alarm you.
Don’t listen to flatterers
Crows devour the eyes of the dead, when the dead have no longer need of them. But flatterers destroy the souls of the living and blind their eyes.
You ought to choose both physician and friend not the most agreeable, but the most useful.
Don’t seek attention or validation
As the sun does not wait for prayers and incantations to be induced to rise, but immediately shines and is saluted by all: so do you also not wait for clapings of hands, and shouts and praise to be induced to do good, but be a doer of good voluntarily, and you will be beloved as much as the sun.
Do not be upset by life’s happenings
He is unreasonable who is grieved (troubled) at the things which happen from the necessity of nature.
Stoicism is a formula for being happy as you are, but is that not also a formula, as stated through the above quotes, for not achieving and having low ambition? I believe not: it is more for understanding that achievement in isolation can not give your mind more than what it already has, and you should do things for the reason of doing them alone, guided through the pursuit of virtue and good instead of what worldly benefits you hope to attain.
I’ve seen this in my own life where raising my monetary income and increasing bodily pleasures provides only short-term happiness as I quickly adapt to the new benefits. Therefore a program of “raising” myself up seems somewhat fruitless in the end if fleeting comforts and pleasures were my only goals. What I must instead value is the knowledge and wisdom gained from the pursuit of those pleasures, not the pleasure themselves.
I’ve studied both Buddhism and stoicism, and have wondered in the past which I should choose as a sort of manual to life, but I can now see that they can complement each other. Buddhism will teach you about meditation and releasing yourself from desire while stoicism will give you more practical tools on approaching life and dealing with its inevitable problems. A combination of these two philosophies, I believe, seems to provide the most amount of answers for helping the modern man.
The Enchiridion is written in a obtuse style that you would expect from a 2,500 year old philosophical text, but it is short with many helpful quotes. It’s well worth a read.
Read More: “Enchiridion” on Amazon