Epictetus’ Handbook* is ancient wisdom for the modern attention span. I am perpetually juggling work and home responsibilities and tend to have ten half-read books on my nightstand. It is not a badge of honor, but a curse. I have read only a few of the Discourses but have actually read all of the Handbook. It spans only about 25 pages in the book of Epictetus’ writings that I bought recently. 

When I was reading through it, I started to see some common themes. The entries tend to (1) advise us how to reframe our thinking, (2) tell us what to do, or (3) tell us what not to do. I like to organize things, so I decided to classify each of the Handbook entries according to which one of those three themes seemed like its main gist. There was some overlap, but I thought most entries fell primarily into one category over the others. I’ll focus on the first type of entry in this post–Epictetus’ guidance on how we can adjust our thinking to improve ourselves and be happier individuals. 

1. Not everything is under your control–only some things are. We are playing the part that Providence has assigned us, and enjoying the fruits it has given us. (Handbook, 1, 11, 17, 33.13, 37)

Some things are within our power, while others are not. (1^)

[I]f . . . it is your duty to go [meet some powerful man], then go, and put up with whatever comes about, and never tell yourself, “It wasn’t worth the trouble.” For that is the mark of a layman, of someone who can be upset by externals. (33.13)

It is a liberating shift in mental habits to refrain from trying to control everything in one’s life. I wrote about this a few months ago, but you can decide for yourself how this shift will improve things for you. Not that it is an easy way out: examining your thoughts and desires and seeking to purify and strengthen them is not child’s play.

Never say about anything, “I’ve lost it,” but rather, “I’ve given it back.” (11)

Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. (17)

If you take on a role that is beyond your power, you’ll not only disgrace yourself in that role, but you’ll also neglect to take on that which you might have been capable of filling. (37)

Modern stoics are conflicted over the notion of “Providence.” The ancients believed in it, to varying degrees. I am an atheist and have written about my quandary after reading a passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that conflicted with my idea of individual agency. However, I think we can all agree that we essentially have no idea what brought us here to this planet at this particular point in time. My husband, child, job, house, cats, my health, my very life–any of these could be taken from me; they are not my birthright, but gifts. Substituting the notions life, nature, or “unknown chaotic forces” for Providence does not change the meaning much, for me.

The stereotype of the Stoics is that they are dour doomsayers, always imagining the worst, but their mental exercise of envisioning everything you value being taken from you–while difficult and painful–takes only a brief moment, and gives you a greatly increased feeling of gratitude and joy.

  1. There is a difference between the event and our judgment of the event. Attitude is everything. (Handbook, 5, 9, 12.1, 18, 20, 30)

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them. (5)

Remember that what insults you isn’t the person who abuses you or hits you, but your judgment that such people are insulting you. (20)

For no one will cause you harm if you don’t wish it; you’ll have been harmed only when you suppose that you’ve been harmed. (30)

When we’re upset about something, we should take a close look at our mindset. Is there a way we can adjust it so that our tranquility is kept intact? This is not mere self-indulgence. If our equilibrium is disturbed, how can we nurture those we love? Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine not being upset if someone were actually hitting me (see entry 20; as a former slave, Epictetus could teach me something about enduring discomfort), but bearing any pain–physical or mental–with equanimity would be the ultimate show of strength.

Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to choice, unless choice wills it to be so. (9)

If you want to make progress, reject such thoughts as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have nothing to live on.” . . . For it is better to die of hunger, but free from distress and fear, than to live in plenty with a troubled mind. (12.1)

But for me every omen is favorable for I want it to be so; for whatever may come about, it is within my power to derive benefit from it. (18)

The takeaway: The mind is a powerful tool. Cultivate a positive mental state; it is the beginning and end of our sense of tranquility.

  1. When someone does harm to you based on an error in judgment, he is the one who is harmed.

Now, it isn’t possible for him to act in accordance with what seems right to you, but only with what seems right to him. So if he judges wrongly, he is the one who suffers the harm, since he is the one who has been deceived. . . . If you start out, then, from this way of thinking, you’ll be gentle with someone who abuses you, for in each case you’ll say, “That is how it seemed to him.” (42)

This is a standalone entry, as I did not see others echoing this sentiment in the Handbook. It distills the message of Discourse 1.28, where we are asked, “And just as we pity the blind and lame, shouldn’t we also take pity on those who have become blinded and crippled in their governing faculties?” (Disc. 1.28.8.)

I confess that I find this the most difficult advice of any of the foregoing, requiring the most strenuous mental yoga. I don’t think it exonerates bad behavior; Epictetus is pretty clear that wrong behavior is still wrong.

His advice is helpful in that it immunizes us against harm from others, since it is they who are harmed, not us (and frankly, that makes us happy)–and, just as importantly, against the toxic anger that follows from having been wronged. That anger does nothing to harm the wrongdoer, and only serves to corrode our peace of mind and poison our outlook on the future.

The discourse suggests that we should try to persuade a would-be wrongdoer to change her plans: “Show her clearly that she is mistaken and she won’t follow that course; but as long as you haven’t shown it, what else can she do than follow what seems best to her? Nothing else.” (Disc. 1.28.8.) This at least hints that we might have some control over the situation, and it implicitly warns us not to adopt a victim persona too readily.

Handbook 42 also charitably reminds us of humans’ innate affinity to one another. We need to move on from actual and perceived wrongs or else the fabric of society will be shredded to ribbons.


*Free version here. The Handbook appears to be an abstract of his Discourses (see this entry for more information).

^Numbers in parentheses within the block quotes refer to Handbook entries.

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