Stoic philosophy is at the foundation of the best modern self-help approaches, such as rational emotive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and positive psychology.
In my library are two ancient books that, for me, are the most helpful self-help books of all: The Manual of Epictetus (55-135) and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180).
Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are pillars of the Stoic school of philosophy.
Stoicism doesn’t mean caring less and repressing emotion or shunning pleasure, but focusing on what is in our power and letting go of everything we can’t control. This is what Marcus said, based on the teachings of Epictetus:
To change your experience, change your opinion. If you’re upset by something outside you, it’s not the thing itself that upsets you, but your opinion of it. And it’s in your power to wipe away that opinion immediately.
Sounds like advice from Albert Ellis, who founded Rational Emotive (Behavior) Therapy (RE(B)T) in 1957. To be honest: Ellis credited Epictetus with providing a foundation for his system of psychotherapy.
The journal entries of Marcus Aurelius are just that: notes to himself. In one of the first entries in Book I he thanks his teacher Rusticus for introducing him to the work of Epictetus. So this philosopher is the first to get our attention. In the next message we will talk about Marcus Aurelius.
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey) and spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero. Early in life, Epictetus acquired a passion for philosophy and, with the permission of his wealthy owner, he studied Stoic philosophy under Musonius Rufus. Becoming more educated in this way raised his social status. At some point, he became crippled. Origen wrote that this was because his leg had been deliberately broken by his owner. Simplicius, in contrast, wrote that he had simply been lame from childhood. “Lameness is an impediment to the leg,” he would later say, “but not to the will.”
Epictetus obtained his freedom sometime after the death of Nero in AD 68, and he began to teach philosophy in Rome. Around AD 89, when Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, Epictetus moved to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded a school of philosophy.
Epictetus lived alone, with few possessions. But in his old age, he adopted a friend’s child who otherwise would have been left to die and raised him with the aid of a woman. He died sometime around AD 135.
His most famous pupil, Arrian, studied under him as a young man (around AD 108) and claimed to have written his famous Discourses based on the notes he took on Epictetus’s lectures. He wrote 8 books in this matter, but only 4 survived.
Arrian also compiled a popular digest, entitled the Enchiridion, or Manual. In a preface to the Discourses that is addressed to Lucius Gellius, Arrian states that “whatever I heard him (Epictetus) say, I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech“.
Arrian argued that his Discourses should be considered comparable to the Socratic literature. Arrian described Epictetus as a powerful speaker who could “induce his listener to feel just what Epictetus wanted him to feel.” Many eminent figures sought conversations with him. Emperor Hadrian was friendly with him, and may have heard him speak at his school in Nicopolis.
Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.
Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by distinguishing between those things in our power (prohairetic things) and those things not in our power (aprohairetic things).
“We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.“
This is similar to Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2), and John Milton’s “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
It has been justly said that, though Epictetus is named a Stoic, and that his principles are Stoical, he is not purely a Stoic. He learned from other teachers as well as the Stoic. He quotes the teaching and example of Socrates (470-390 voor Christus) continually, and the example of Diogenes the Cynic (404-323 voor Christus), both of whom he mentions more frequently than Zeno (490-430 voor Christus), the founder of the Stoic philosophy. He also valued Plato (427-347 voor Christus), who accepted from Socrates many of his principles, and developed and expanded them.
Epictetus strongly opposes the doctrines of Epicurus, of the newer Academics, and of Pyrrho, the great leader of the Sceptical School.