Epictetus (AD 55 – 135) was born a slave but became a leading philosopher whose work continues to influence today. His life is a story of resilience.
Epictetus loved philosophy and his owner allowed him to study the subject. When Epictetus was thirteen, emperor Nero died (68 AD) and Epictetus was freed. He continued with philosophy, and this learning elevated his social status. Time passed and Epictetus started teaching philosophy in Rome, but when he was thirty-eight, philosophers were banished from Rome so Epictetus went to Greece. There, he set up a philosophical school. Epictetus’s stature and reputation grew; he was charismatic and sought after as a conversationalist, including by Emperor Hadrian. Epictetus’ teachings survived because his pupil Arrian wrote them down and published them in “Discourses” and “Enchiridion”. This is how we know that Epictetus’ literal words on bouncing back were “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Many modern thinkers follow Epictetus’ views. Some identify “bounce ability” as the prime indicator of success: US psychologist Angela Duckworth studies what makes people successful. She claims that the prime indicator of achievement is the possession of “grit”, the ability to dig in and keep going*. This view is widely endorsed, including by Dr. Siegel who lists resilience as one of the six essential psychological characteristics of successful people. The other five characteristics are optimism, creativity, self-control, emotional awareness and sociability.*
Interestingly, the U.S military uses the term “intestinal fortitude” for resilience and identify it as the ability to overcome adversity, learn from it, and push through to new heights*. Epictetus lived this fortitude – despite being born enslaved, he became a respected thinker whose work survives today.
Epictetus’ story evidences Dr. Siegel’s characteristics of success. It is interesting that Epictetus used philosophy to improve his life; this was his constant skill. Epictetus’ success informs for modern times: a central discipline can evolve you. This concept is attractive, with it suggestions of self-care and self-development – both of which combat mental distress while helping develop resilience.
“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” – Angela Duckworth
“Suite Success: The Psychologist from “The Apprentice Reveals” What It really Takes to Excel—in the Boardroom and in Life” – Dr. Siegel
“The One Quality All Successful People Have in Common” – Jeffry Harrison