8 Stoic Principles from the Handbook of Epictetus

The Enchiridion, or Handbook of Epictetus, stands as one of the most influential and concise presentations of Stoicism ever published. Written by Epictetus’s student Arrian in 135 CE (Epictetus wrote nothing down himself), the Enchiridion is a succinct summary of Epictetus’s more practical ethical teachings. 

The Enchiridion has remained popular throughout history as a manual for achieving intellectual freedom and happiness regardless of circumstances. In addition to the profound impact Epictetus had on the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Enchiridion has been found in the personal libraries of Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, not to mention its direct and indirect influence on modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

After a careful reading of the manual, I’ve compiled eight core Stoic principles that can help lead us towards ataraxia (tranquility), or a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety.

1. Acceptance

“Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you will have a calm and happy life.”

There is no better, more succinct encapsulation of the Stoic mindset than this. The degree to which you put this precept into practice is the degree to which you are making progress as a Stoic. 

The practicing Stoic accepts events as they are while making the best of every situation. While the Stoics did have preferences (known as preferred indifferents), they were not attached to these preferences or disturbed when they became lost. 

For example, the Stoic, like most everyone else, prefers wealth to poverty—and can even take the actions necessary to achieve wealth—but does not lament the loss of fortune when and if it occurs. The Stoic learns to accept any outcome as it is, and places supreme value only on the few things within one’s complete control: judgment, character, action, and virtue.  

2. Perspective

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Someone who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.”

Epictetus recognized that we do not become disturbed by events, but rather by our judgments of events, and that our judgments are entirely up to us. We have the freedom to become disturbed by death, for example, but also the freedom to be undisturbed by death, like Socrates. Death is an event that cannot be changed, but our judgments of death are up to us. With the right perspective, fear can be eliminated.

The practicing Stoic resists the urge to place blame on others for their own disposition and conditions; rather, the Stoic accepts her condition and seeks only to improve her own character and judgment.

3. Resilience

“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.”

Stoicism emphasizes growth through adversity. The practicing Stoic is not only able to overcome adversity; he actively seeks it out as an opportunity to improve, just as the athlete actively seeks out resistance training at the gym. 

Epictetus is pointing out the fact that, regardless of whatever hardship you must face, you will find the inner strength necessary to endure it, and that this adversity will, with the right perspective, make you stronger. As Seneca said, “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”

4. Humility

“The condition and character of a layman is this: that he never expects that benefit or harm will come to him from himself, but only from externals. The condition of a philosopher is this: that he expects all benefit and harm to come to him from himself. The signs of one who is making progress are that he criticizes no one, praises no one, blames or accuses no one, and never speaks of himself as being anyone of importance.”

The person who broadcasts their affiliation with Stoicism—other than for the purposes of instructing others—is the person looking for external validation. But the opinion of others is outside of one’s direct control, so the degree that you obsess over the opinions of others is the degree to which you are not living by Stoic ideals. 

Practicing Stoics do not seek the approval of others, nor are they under the impression that they will ever “master” the practice. They seek only to reflect on, with humility, their own ethical self-improvement. 

“Never call yourself a philosopher,” Epictetus said, “and don’t talk among layman for the most part about philosophical principles, but act in accordance with those principles.” It is enough to demonstrate Stoic principles by acting in accordance with them than constantly pointing out how great of a Stoic you are (this will not win you many friends anyway).

5. Freedom

“Everyone is subject to anyone who has power over what he wants or doesn’t want, as one who is in a position to confer it or take it away. If anyone wants to be free, then, let him neither want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others; or else he is bound to be a slave.”

The Stoics prized intellectual freedom as the greatest kind of freedom, one that can never be taken away by external events or other people. They realized that if you place ultimate value on material possessions, money, wealth, or fame, you will live in constant servitude to those who can take these away. 

Epictetus recognized that the quicker path to wealth is through the elimination of desires for external things altogether. In this regard, Stoicism agrees with Epicureanism. As Epicurus said, “If you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give him more money; rather, reduce his desires.”

6. Symmetry

“The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things.”

Epictetus is pointing out the common fact that we often fail to take our own advice. We expect others to quickly recover when they break their favorite mug, for example, yet we tend to exaggerate the importance of the event when it happens to us. We must always ask ourselves what advice we would give to others when adversity strikes, and then act accordingly. 

As Epictetus said, “If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them dies, you won’t be upset.”

If this sounds harsh, remember that you can’t control these events, only your reactions to them. It is enough that you’ve lost someone close to you; it is not necessary to also add to the pain by misjudging what cannot be controlled and in the process preventing yourself from living the rest of your life. 

Epictetus tells us to “never say about anything, ‘I’ve lost it,’ but rather, ‘I’ve given it back.” You won’t avoid mourning the death of a loved one for an appropriate length of time, but reason compels you to move on with your life, as you would no doubt advise others to do in a similar situation.

7. Humor

“If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.’”

Epictetus’s brand of humor accomplishes two things. First, it diffuses the situation with self-deprecating humor and disarms your opponent. Most people sling insults just to get a reaction, but by following Epictetus’s lead, you won’t give them the satisfaction of getting under your skin. 

Second, this response is consistent with the Stoic mindset that disregards the importance of the opinions of others. It is enough to act according to the principles of good character; whether or not this is recognized by others is not your concern.  

8. Morality

“The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.”

Epictetus is claiming that moral philosophy should be practiced, not theorized. As social animals, we understand, innately, what it means to be moral and virtuous and why we should not inflict unnecessary harm upon others. This is why the Golden Rule, or some variation of it, is found within virtually every ethical system ever developed. This universal recognition of the reciprocal relationship between individuals of equal status is the foundation of morality. 

If we get distracted with theoretical justifications for moral behavior, we develop sound arguments for ethical practice while acting in the opposite way. When virtue is not our primary concern, we have no motivation to act on our abstract principles. This is the limitation of modern ethics, including utilitarianism; we endlessly debate what it means to be moral without concern to practice virtuous behavior each day. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Further Reading

To learn more about Stoicism, start with the classics (below are my favorite translations):

And here are my two favorite contemporary works:

Also check out the post Stoicism and the Art of Living: Three Principles for Daily Practice.

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