Epictetus on Living a Virtuous Life

This is our predicament: Over and over again, we lose sight of what is important and what isn’t. We crave things over which we have no control, and are not satisfied by the things within our control. We need to regularly stop and take stock; to sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not; which risks are worth the cost and which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.

That is one of the reminders Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher born into slavery, offers in the book “The Art of Living – The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness“. The book is not by him. It’s an interpretation by Sharon Lebell, a musician, writer and speaker.

The book is beautifully divided into topics most of which are only one or half a page long. The minimalism of the book makes it therapeutic.

In one of the sections, the book highlights that we adopt the habits of the people we spend time with, we adopt their interpretation of events, their way of looking at life. Isn’t that an experience we’ve all had? How many times have we covered ourselves with the shadows of others? How often do we get swept away by the currents of someone’s outlook on life? People are like waves. We get swept up and swallowed by them if we don’t remind ourselves to stay safe by the shore.

Epictetus encourages us to stop our “knee-jerk impressions of the events of the world and other people.”  People’s misunderstandings of us and our actions are a source of usual enragement. It’s piercing to have somebody see us through their eyes, not ours. So we turn defensive or apologetic.

So much time of our lives have been spent living for others — in efforts of making others like us, love us, find us delightful & good, understand us, and see us the way we see ourselves. Our lives have become worthless missions to invoke the admiration of others.

But when we remind ourselves of the difference between the trivial and the vital, the fleeting and the truth, instant gratification and contentment, we slowly step away from hollow ambitions and move toward a virtuous life and a peaceful mind.

“We stop trying to look good to others. One day, we contentedly realize we’ve stopped playing to the crowd.”  

We don’t have to make excuses anymore, or defend our honour — we can simply live our life. What it takes is a constant reminder. It takes pulling ourselves from the whirlpool of everything humans have ever created and asking ourselves: what kind of life do I really want to live? It takes homework, every single day.

“There is great relief in being morally consistent. To live a life of virtue, you have to become consistent, even when it isn’t convenient, comfortable, or easy.”

And when we do that, we can simply relax knowing that what we have control upon is being taken care of, and that upon which we don’t have control is received by us with resilience and grace.

“Regardless of what is going on around you, make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it occurs.”

A virtuous life is perhaps what we must insist upon if we must insist upon anything at all. A virtuous life is a life lived un-rushed, in peace and clarity.

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