The Manual: A Philosopher’s Guide to Life by Epictetus is one of the shortest and most famous books on Stoicism – it’s just 66 pages long. Yet, you are bombarded by life-changing ideas on every page that, if applied, can radically transform the way you live, make decisions, and handle your emotions. The book itself does not intents to give all the answers, rather, it aims to provoke thoughts about how to overcome life’s challenges.
The Core Idea:
To me, at its core, this ancient manuscript by Epictetus is all about the following two things: 1) Accepting the fact that some things fall outside your power; 2) Understanding that how you handle and react to those external events is all up to you and also crucial for your well-being.
Focus only on what’s within your reach and let go of everything you can’t control.
Train your mind to not be bothered by things outside of your control.
Be prepared to pay the price if you want to make a positive change in your life.
According to Epictetus, all the misery of mankind comes from our inability to understand what is within our power and what is not.
When we relentlessly try to change things that we can’t fully control, we naturally fall into despair. In contrast, if we take the time to pinpoint the things we have no control over, we’ll live a lot better life.
Unfortunately, few people realize this. We’re constantly trying to bend reality and make it work for us. Instead of focusing on improving our work, skills, mentality – things we can control – we spend time trying to change stuff we have little control over – other people, outside events, nature, physical laws.
And when things don’t go as we anticipated, guess what happens? We feel betrayed and we blame others. Only if we could see things differently – understand that a lot of things are simply outside of our scope.
If we learn to approach our day to day tasks with clarity and have the right expectations, we’ll no longer feel bad when we didn’t win the lottery because we’ll know that this thing is outside of our control.
Whenever distress or displeasure arises in your mind, remind yourself, “This is only my interpretation, not reality itself.” Then ask whether it falls within or outside your sphere of power. And, if it is beyond your power to control, let it go.” Epictetus
Lesson #2: You Are Responsible For Your State of Mind
How would you feel if, while driving to work, another driver hits you? No one is injured, but this unfortunate event is obviously making you late for work. Well? Most probably pissed, right?
But Epictetus will argue that not the event itself is the thing that disturbs you and makes you fanatically crazy. No! It’s your interpretation of the even.
Stoicism is all about accepting life as it is. To realize that there are things you can change and such that you can’t – as said above. Once the distinguishing is made, it’s up to you to train your mind to know the difference between the two. To act cool even when tragic events like the death of a loved one occur. This sounds brutal and emotionless, but what else can you do? After all, death is part of the journey and on a lot of occasions, there’s nothing we can do to prevent it.
And how do we reach this state of internal nirvana?
Start by observing your interpretations. Think about: “Why this is upsetting me so much?”
The problem is not the driver who forgot to hit the brake, it’s probably something else in your life that is making you feel unease with yourself and that accident simply unlocked it – cruel boss, a job you don’t like, teammates you don’t get along with, careless spouse. Once you figure it out, you can make the needed adjustments. Eventually, you will feel a lot better even if unexpected situations arise.
People who are ignorant of philosophy blame others for their own misfortunes. Those who are beginning to learn philosophy blame themselves. Those who have mastered philosophy blame no one.” Epictetus
Lesson #3: Your Thoughts Lie Underneath All of Your Possessions
What’s left if you strip away all of your possession?
A naked body with some thoughts, right?
So why bother spending so much time collecting false symbols of triumph? Playing stupid social games and arguing about things outside of your control?
Beneath the clothes you wear and the stuff you have laying around, there’s only you. Only your actions and your reactions to outside events matter.
“Mind your own business, keep busy with the work you are best suited for,” says Epictetus.
How others view your work shouldn’t bother you much. Rather, focus on how you, yourself, see your work. If you respect yourself enough, you’ll strive for perfection without having others to inspire you to keep forward.
Of course, this dedication requires a tremendous amount of willpower and internal contentment. Something only few in this world possess. Still, a path worth pursuing no matter how difficult.
Continually remind yourself that you are a mortal being, and someday will die. This will inspire you not to waste precious time in fruitless activities, like stewing over grievances and striving after possessions.” Epictetus
Lesson #4: Everything Has Its Price
You’re not regularly getting invited to parties? That’s not because you don’t wear the latest fashion trends, it’s because you haven’t paid the price. The price of connecting with others.
The same applies to any other form of achievement. You didn’t win the Olympics because you didn’t train enough. You didn’t become a world-famous writer because you didn’t spend enough time writing.
Why then we daydream about such things?
Because other people who paid the price make it seem so effortless when we watch them. We see how strong people lift a pile of iron. How people speak in front of a crowd. How entrepreneurs juggle between businesses… Naturally, we start to think that it’s easy. But it’s not. Everything in life comes with a price.
And here we’re not talking about a price in terms of money but a price in terms of practice, persistence, and above all, the price of commitment.
“So, if you have not been invited to a party, it is because you haven’t paid the price of the invitation. It costs social engagement, conversation, encouragement, and praise.” Epictetus
Studying philosophy is a good way to understand how the world works and why we exist in the first place.
However, philosophy shouldn’t only be used to obtain knowledge, it’s more about actually practicing what we’ve learned. After all, what’s the point of gaining insights about life if we’re not using them?
Epictetus spotted this flaw in students who study philosophy. He noticed that most schools of philosophy spend hours debating life-changing topics but few of the students actually practiced what was discussed. That’s why he outlined three things to have in mind when learning:
Learn and live the principles.
Understand the reasons behind the principles.
Verify the principles through logic.
Say this is the principle we’re observing: “do not steal.” The second thing we should do is to understand the reasons behind our statement: “Why we shouldn’t steal?” Thirdly, brainstorming questions like: “What will happen if I steal? Are the outcomes confirming the above-mentioned reasons?”
Once we have our arguments and profs about the principle, we should mainly focus our time on actually doing the stated – not stealing because it’s bad – not simply discussing it and thinking that we’re noble.
Focus on things you can control: If you want to lose weight but if the progress is slow, don’t blame your yoga instructor, your DNA, the black cat passing, or your diet. These things are outside of your control and thinking about them will only discourage you. Focus on what you can control – your actions. Differentiate which things are within your power and which aren’t and focus on the former.
Try to go along with all things: The following quote resides in the book: “Do not wish that all things will go well with you, but that you will go well with all things.” Other people are too consumed by their own thoughts. They are careless of what you think and what are your intentions, but this can be used to your advantage. If you take the extra effort to go along with them, you’ll win their trust. Still, this also includes accepting when someone doesn’t adore you. Do what’s within your power to smoothen the situation, but be OK if they still don’t like you.
Life is a play: You’re an actor in a never-ending play. Although you don’t get to choose your initial stage in terms of location and participants, it’s up to you to make it work. Do everything possible to play your best part. Define what’s that you’re doing and don’t stop even if you reach an admirable by other’s level of performance.
Practice what you’ve learned: As said, philosophy is all about practicing what you’ve learned. Don’t be one of those self-help addicts who just sit on their couch and consume content without practicing anything. Apply what you’ve learned. Otherwise, you’re simply wasting your time.
Protect your thoughts: Dwelling about what others think of you corrupts your thinking. You should fiercely guard your mind. Your thoughts are the most important thing in the world. If you spend too much time considering how others perceive you, you’re giving away your freedom. Don’t hand your mind so easily to others. Note what they’re saying and move forward.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
Like every other human being, I’m anxious about things – whether I’ll do my job properly, how will people articulate my writings, what others think of me, etc. To my amazement, while reading the book, these weary feelings were lifted. I know that I should focus on my work and don’t corrupt my mind with thoughts about things I have little control but I didn’t know how. The Manual by Epictetus showed me what will happen in the long-run if I continue to worry about stuff I can’t control and ways to overcome my inner tension. It’s not in a form of 1-2-3 step program, rather, it’s by giving you things to think about. After each chapter, I spend hours thinking about what was said.
To some, Stoicism and the philosophy shared by the guild of ancient wisdom-tellers – people like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca – might sound cheesy and stupid. Yet, I think we’re fools if we don’t spend more time thinking about what these long-gone teachers wanted to say about the world we live in.
My personal takeaway is this: Focus on what you can change and don’t let things that are outside of your capabilities consume your mind. Life is too short to waste it on insignificant things.
I can’t recommend the book enough and there’s no way my summary can substitute the timeless knowledge of Epictetus. There are a lot of translations of this ancient manuscript but most people recommend the one I read – by Sam Torode.
So, once again, grab the book and read it.
When you desire something outside your sphere of power, you set yourself up for disappointment. But it is within your power to avoid disappointment, by directing your desires to things that are rightfully yours to obtain and control.” Epictetus
When anyone provokes you, remember that it is actually your own opinion provoking you. It is not the person who insults or attacks you who torments your mind, but the view you take of these things.” Epictetus
When you feel burning desire for something that appears pleasureful, you are like a person under a spell. Instead of acting on impulse, take a step back—wait till the enchantment fades and you can see things as they are.” Epictetus