The Noble Life

Published: March 30, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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You’re facing a crisis.
“Know what you can control and what you can’t.”

People challenge and criticize you.
“Refrain from defending your reputation and intentions.”

Some people use harsh language and bombast.
“Conduct yourself with dignity.”

If you’re looking for the calm while working your way through a great storm, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus just might be the guy for you.

The only thing we know of Epictetus comes from two works, The Discourses and the distilled version entitled, The Enchiridion or Handbook.  Both were handed down to us through his student, Arrian, who claims that “whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavoring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his way of thinking and the frankness of his speech.”

A Manual for Living, a recent interpretation by Sharon Lebell, distills key points from both works in form and language that makes him more approachable and clear.

“Character Matters More than Reputation.  Worry and dread are a waste of time and do not set a good example for others.  This is especially true regarding your reputation and influence…. you’re not responsible for what others think… Whatever position you can hold while preserving your honor and your fidelity to your obligations is fine.  But if you desire to contribute to society compromises your moral responsibility, how can you serve your fellow citizens when you’ve become irresponsible and shameless?”

What makes Epictetus timeless is his practical sense in leading “a morally awake life.”  However, he makes clear that such a life takes discipline and daily work.

“Consider What Comes First, Then What Follows and Then Act.  Cultivate the habit of surveying and testing a prospective action before undertaking it.  Before you proceed, step back and look at the big picture, lest you act rashly on raw impulse.  Determine what happens first, consider what that leads to, and then act in accordance with what you’ve learned.”

This is not too dissimilar from the ethical decision-maker who first considers the interests and well-being of all likely to be affected by his or her actions.

“When you are faithfully occupied with performing the acts of a wise and decent person, seeking to conform your intentions and acts to the divine will, you do not feel victimized by the words or deeds of others.

Among those influenced by the Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who frequently used Epictetus in his own Meditations.

American fighter pilot and vice-presidential candidate, James Stockdale credits Epictetus in helping him survive more than seven years in a Vietnamese prison.

“Except for extreme physical abuse, other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to.  Don’t consent to be hurt and you won’t be hurt – this is a choice over which you have control.”

Epictetus’s Manual makes clear that through discipline and deliberation all of us can make those small changes in our lives that can put us on the path to leading a more fulfilling and noble life.


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