Epictetus part 33: 16 Lessons for Living

The thirty-third part of Epictetus’ Handbook contains a wealth of advice for living a good life. It is the longest part of the Encheiridion and gives an overview of best practices in a wide range of areas, particularly in social situations. Personally, I tend to follow some of them, should follow more of them, and disagree with a few others – as is probably true for most people. But I let you be the judge of it. So, without further delay, here are 16 lessons for living from Epictetus:

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1. From now on, form a type of character and model for yourself, which you will follow both when you are alone and when you meet with other people.

2. Remain silent for the most part or say what is required in few words. Only on rare occasions, when the situation calls for communication, then speak. But not about trivialities: not about fights or horse races, or sports, or eating or drinking – the everyday subjects – and certainly not about other people to blame them, praise them or compare them.

3. If you can, use your words to bring the conversations of your companions to what is proper. But if you happen to be stuck in company that thinks differently, then remain silent.

4. Do not laugh much, or at many things, or without restraint.

5. Refuse to swear an oath altogether if you can. If not, refuse as far as you can.

6. Avoid parties given by an outsider or a layman. But if you ever happen to be in such a situation, focus your attention and don’t slip away into the way of a layman. For you should know that when your companion is stained, anyone who rubs against him will inevitably become stained as well, also if he happens to be clean himself.

7. For the body, take things as far as they are bare necessities, like food, drink, clothes, shelter and slaves. But reject everything that is for show or luxury.

8. Keep clear of sex before marriage if you can. But if you engage in it, abide by what is appropriate. Do not, however, provoke or denounce people that engage in it. And do not bring forward often that you yourself do not engage in it.

9. If someone tells you that a certain person is speaking ill of you, do not defend yourself against the claim, but reply: ‘he must not be aware of my other faults, or else he would not have mentioned only these’.

10. It is not necessary to go to an award show often. But if it is ever time to go, do not show that you support somebody except yourself. Desire only what happens as it happens and only that the winner takes the prize: because this way you will not be let down. Refrain completely from shouting and cheering for someone, or getting overexcited. And after it has ended, do not talk about what happened as much as it does not lead to your own improvement. Because otherwise, it appears that you were captivated by the show after all.

11. Do not go to someone’s presentation at random or casually: if you go, then preserve your dignity and composure, while at the same time not being a nuisance.

12. When you are about to meet someone, especially someone of high regard, consider for yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such situation, and you will not be in doubt about how to behave properly in the encounter.

13. When you visit a person with great power, consider that you will not find him at home, that you will be shut out, that his doors will be slammed in your face, that he will not take notice of you. And with all this, if you still think you should visit him, then bear what happens during the visit and never say to yourself about it that ‘it was not worth that much’: because that is like a fool and someone who is distraught by external things.

14. When you are in company, stay away from recalling your own achievements and adventures often and excessively. For it may be pleasant for you to recall your adventures, but it is not as pleasant in this way for others to listen to your ordeals.

15. Also stay away from evoking laughter: this is a slippery slope towards vulgarity and can at the same time cause the people in your company to lose respect for you.

16. It is risky to use obscene language, too. When anything like that happens, rebuke the person that uses it if possible. If not possible, then show your disapproval about the words by maintaining silence, blushing and looking visibly stern.

 

To wrap up, let’s add one more comment from my side: don’t be too harsh on yourself. Try your best to live a good life and act appropriately in social situations. Follow the valuable lessons that the Stoics provide. But don’t beat yourself up if you let a lesson slip sometimes. We are all human, after all.

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