"The first person you lead is yourself."
-Epictetus of Hierapolis 55 to 135 C.E.
Standing in line at the register the other day in
, I couldn’t help overhearing the women on her cell phone in front of me. Portland
Her mother had abused her. Her employer didn’t appreciate her. Her kids disrespected her. By the time she was done, I could have sworn I heard the sun was too bright outside and the birds were singing too loud.
Some things never change…
If a citizen of ancient
Greece or were magically transported into the modern era, he would be astounded by the current state of agriculture, transportation, housing, medicine, architecture, technology, and living standards. Rome
But humanity itself would offer few surprises. We remain the same flawed human beings we always were, struggling with the same human faults our ancestors wrestled with millennia ago.
That is why ancient philosophers still speak to us—if we listen. The wisdom of the classical world transcends place and time.
The Stoic philosophy, for example, dominated the ancient world for nearly 600 years, beginning in the late 4th century B.C.E.
Stoics believed that reason was supreme. Tranquility is only achieved, they taught, by suppressing irrational emotions—like regrets about the past—and accepting life’s unavoidable disappointments and setbacks.
One of the great exponents of Stoicism was a slave named Epictetus, born around 55 C.E. in the east outreaches of the
Epictetus had few advantages in life. Aside from being born into slavery, he had a permanent physical disability. And he was poor, living a simple life in a small hut with no possessions.
Yet he became one of the leading thinkers of his age. When Epictetus was freed from slavery—we still don’t know how—he set up a philosophical school on the northwest coast of
, spending his days lecturing on how to live with dignity and tranquility. Greece
As his reputation for wisdom grew, people flocked to hear him. One of his most distinguished students was the young Marcus Aurelius Antonius, who became ruler of the
Epictetus was not one for airy theories (Read: The Secret). In his view, the job of philosophy is to help ordinary people deal with the challenges of everyday life. And his words, captured in a great book, The Art of Living, are a wise today as when he spoke them nearly 2,000 years ago:
“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly you own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.
One of the clearest marks of the moral life is right speech….Glib talk disrespects others. Breezy self-disclosure disrespects yourself….If need be, be mostly silent or speak sparingly.
Let the quality of your deeds speak on your behalf. We can’t control the impressions others from about us, and the effort to do so debases our character. So, if anyone should tell you that a particular person has spoken critically of you, don’t bother with excuses of defenses. Just smile and reply, I guess that person doesn’t know about all my other faults. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have mentioned only these.”
Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. Once you have determined the spiritual principles you wish to exemplify, abide by these rules as if they were laws.”
Epictetus had a deep understanding of human beings, of society…and of life. But he also understood death, too.
“I must die. If the time is now, I’m ready…How will I die? Like a man who gives up what belongs to another….A good death can only come from a good life.”
Epictetus argued that our prime motivation should be inner achievements, not outer ones. The right attitudes and values allow you to flourish no matter what the external world throws at you. Inner achievement lays the foundation for peace, tranquility, and personal freedom. And so he taught that true success comes from focusing ourselves within:
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose to respond to them.
“If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you. Therefore, when anyone seems to be provoking you, remember that it is only your judgment of the incident that provokes you.”
“Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone if foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether if be others or oneself.”
If anyone is unhappy, remember that his unhappiness is his own doing…Nothing else is the cause of anxiety or loss of tranquility except our own opinion.”
“He is wise who doesn’t grieve for the things he doesn’t have, but rejoices for the things he does have.”
“Fortify yourself with contentment, for it is an impregnable fortress.
Whether you are janitor or a CEO, Epictetus insists that your main job in life---your most important work---is improving yourself. Yet, always a realist, he emphasized moral progress over moral perfection.
Today Epictetus is widely recognized as the world’s first philosopher of personal freedom (Victor Frankel picks up on the theme in Man’s Search for Meaning). Its attainment, he insisted, is the result of mastering our thoughts, yielding to the inevitable, pursuing virtue rather than wealth and diverting our attention from constant desire, yearning and attachment.
In a modern translation of the Art of Living, philosophical writer Sharon Lebell observes that, “His was a moral teaching stripped of sentimentality, piousness, a and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. What remains is the West’s first and best primer for living the best possible life.”
Ironic, isn’t it? A man born into slavery was among the first to show us a path to personal liberation.
“Anyone is free who lives as he wishes to live,” said Epictetus. “And no one is free who is not mater of himself.”
In the words of another Stoic, Seneca:
“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”