His core idea – that you have total control over yourself and not be affected by external events is smart, underrated, and useful in moderation. But even among other Stoic writers, he seems to be quite eccentric and extreme.
For reading primary source Stoic writing, there’s a reason that most people gravitate to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They are much more worthwhile for the casual reader.
What I Liked
I did like the short, punchy style of writing. The entire book is a bunch of aphorisms, so it’s not only easy to read, but it’s also easy to dip in and out or skip over his stranger rants.
His overall philosophy is interesting and useful. He is one of the primary writers of Stoicism, which is one of the most useful schools of philosophy. There’s a reason it was the inspiration for modern psychological and evidence-based therapeutic approaches.
The book itself is beautiful and well-formatted. Standard Ebooks did a fabulous making a (truly) ancient book approachable and accessible (go support the project!).
What I Did Not Like
Epictetus definitely has issues with structure. Even though he has definitely thought through his philosophy in a structured way, he communicates it in a random, walk-about fashion. The aphorisms and stories are great, but many are simply rants or him pronouncing opinions about other philosophers.
Epictetus is a man of his time. That’s part of reading a primary source, but it is still distracting and requires extra reading work to find the nugget of truth in the (sometimes) toxic mud – e.g., his claims of how women are sub-human, slaves are integral to a good life, and all non-Greeks are idiots. I certainly appreciate modern philosophers and historians who do the difficult work of reading all the things to report back what is useful and interesting.
Focus your emotions on what you can control (i.e., your internal state rather than external events)
All his stories and aphorisms revolved around pretty basic life lessons that are so basic that it’s easy to forget them, like –
- Focus on what you can control and accept that which you cannot.
- The key to happiness lies within yourself – no external thing or person can make you happy
- Take responsibility for your actions, and the consequences that follow – blaming external factors is not useful, even if they are to blame.
- Don’t be attached to material things or outcomes.
- Have an attitude of gratitude and appreciation.
- Cultivate virtue and wisdom through self-reflection and study.
- Live in harmony with others and strive to do good.
- Remain humble and don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Cultivate a sense of humor and learn to laugh at yourself.
- Lead a life of purpose and meaning.