Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” Summarized

The Enchiridion is an important philosophical work by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The word “enchiridion” means “handbook” or “manual”, and it was put together by Epictetus’ student Arrian, who frequently listened and recorded Epictetus’ lectures. This manual is very short in terms of its pages, but it is a worthwhile read and anyone who wants to know more about Stoic philosophy should definitely find a copy. However, for those wanting a brief overview, this article will summarize what the text is about and why it is worthwhile.

Happiness and Control

The main question Epictetus asks in the Enchiridion is: How can we achieve happiness? He found a partial answer in the nature of our control. The Enchiridion starts with this crucial text, which explains what we can and cannot control:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.” 

Epictetus, Enchiridion

In this extract, we can see Epictetus’ basic idea of control. Only the things that are in our power (our mind and will) are worth our time, because if we are occupied with things that are not in our power (all external things), then we will struggle to obtain happiness.

“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

Freedom of the Mind

In order to become fulfilled in life, one must first be free. One can’t be happy if one is not free from the influence of things beyond one’s reach. Therefore, freedom is the first milestone that must be obtained if you want to lead a fortunate life. Bear in mind that by “freedom”, Epictetus means “freedom of the mind”. He noticed that people are often disturbed, not by things themself, but by our negative opinions of those things. These opinions can cloud the mind and bring suffering, anxiety and fear. 

For example, in Enchiridion, Epictetus mentions death as something that most people fear. However, for Epictetus, death is not something terrible, because there are men such as Socrates who did not fear death. That means that Socrates had a different idea of death that was not terrible or something to be feared. Epictetus concludes that death itself is not terrible; it is simply our opinion (or idea) of death that we find terrible. 

Mind vs Body

The next subject that occupies Epictetus’ attention is our relationship with the body. Epictetus thought that our soul (or mind) is within our reach, but our body isn’t. We can be aware of it, but we can’t command it in every respect. For example, imagine you lose all feeling in your legs and you fall into despair because of it. Epictetus would say that is beyond your control – our body can fail us, but a trained mind will never fail: 

“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

Epictetus though there are many worldly situations that can disturb our happiness. Therefore, the ideal aim of all practice is to reach serenity (lasting inner-happiness). Stoics called this inner state ataraxia. The disturbance of our happiness is mostly caused because we give external things too much value. In order to avoid that, we should be able to give proper names to things. In this respect, the body is only the vessel of the soul:

“If you love an earthen vessel, say it is an earthen vessel which you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed.” 

Epictetus, Enchiridion

This practice may seem hard or extreme. It tells us to reduce or abolish the meaning we give to other things or people. We often give meaning to the things and people we emotionally bond to, and without this bond, they lose their purpose. That is why this is an ideal; it is something almost impossible to reach, but we should aim for it nevertheless. If there can’t be any perfection of actions or thoughts, then Stoics should not worry because it is beyond his reach. Stoicism is a path, not a goal.

These are the main premises of Epictetus’ Enchiridion. If you want a more in-depth look at his philosophies, we highly recommend reading the full text.