The Morals of Epictetus: Stoic Philosophy and Personal Finance

I’m still working my way through Poor Charlie’s Almanack about the teachings of Charlie Munger. The book is very dense with broad ideas and includes references to many scientists, businesspeople, and ancient philosophers I’ve never heard of before.

One of these ancient philosophers was Epictetus, who was born a slave but eventually became free and taught philosophy in Rome and Greece. I couldn’t find the “morals” found in the book listed in the same manner elsewhere, so I wanted to share them below. The bolded sentences are English translations of his writings, and after that are my personal notes and interpretations.

First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. Don’t open your big yap unless you know what you’re talking about. This seems to have changed to “open your yap all day long without knowing anything, and you’ll get your own show on television.”

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. Appreciate all the many things you have before you complain about the things you don’t have.

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. Let others teach you. It’s better to look stupid for a while than actually be stupid forever.

It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows. Some people just think they know it all, which eventually makes it much more likely that they don’t know anything.

It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Everyone gets dealt a different hand of cards – it’s how you play them that matters.

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Success is not winning. As coach John Wooden said “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

No man is free who is not master of himself. Self-discipline is key.

Only the educated are free. I found more meaning to this after finding the full quote to be “We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free.”

People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

It’s always interesting to find something written 2,000 years ago that is still perfectly applicable today. As a Stoic, Epictetus thought humans should be concerned less with external events outside our control, and more concerned with our reactions and behaviors to those events which are under our control. I like this idea, and will try to focus on sharing positive actions to improve our financial situations. I find this more productive than simply venting about the (admittedly many) negative things happening in the world.


  1. Johnathan, have you ever read a “A Man in Full”?

    Great Tom Wolfe book, written in the early 90s era, where it focuses on two different men, one a warehouse worker and the other a Boom-era Atlanta Real Estate developer financially on the brink, who both are greatly affected by the Stoics’ philosophy.

    I had never heard of that group of philosophers either until I read the book; it’s a highly entertaining and captivating book, one that I would rank among my personal favorites.

  2. “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Everyone gets dealt a different hand of cards – it’s how you play them that matters.” This is the biggest one for me. It’s actually a line that is repeated by the self-made millionaires such as the legendary Jim Rohn and Brian Tracy (business philosophers).

  3. “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Everyone gets dealt a different hand of cards – it’s how you play them that matters.” It is certainly also something a good shrink would advise you to help you out of a difficult situation. No question that’s it’s a wise thing to do in many of our life’s situations. But one must also respect our evolutionary biology, our social psychology and why we generally worry about things we do. Frequently we do have partial control over things we don’t think we do and the other way around. Take democracy, in all the chaos, political pondering and corruption we still vastly elect the people the majority of us chooses.
    Ultimately the statement can be misinterpreted as “worry about yourself and the rest will sort out” while it is our nature of worrying about each other is partly what makes our society so successful.

  4. Good stuff Jonathan. I too marvel at the wisdom of the ancients and how much it applies to me today.

    Sometimes I wonder when they’re basically talking about frugality, I wonder what exactly do they have to be frugal about: The 40′ yacht? The 5000 sq foot mansion?

    Their words are more apropos today than then.

  5. Begin frugal and saving up is ok..Until you ride the new Porsche 911 carrera you will be like saaayy what and all bets are off from then.

    Driving point a to point b on a 10 year old toyota or ford while stashing all the money in your bank makes no sense and would understand the true meaning of life.

  6. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    This is why I love Toastmasters! “First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.” It’s definitely a skill I need to work on.

  7. @say what Says
    Hmm, sounds like you are talking about me. I agree the 911 is a great ride but I use the same money and go on many vacations and drink nice wine. My Nissan is 14 years old. The longer I drive it, the more I don’t care about a car but then wine, that’s a different story.

  8. @MT – I haven’t, but thanks for the tip!

    I’m increasingly intrigued by the interplay of philosophy and financial decisions.

    There is too much anger and vitriol in most political discussions these days. We need more rational compromises. Too often you have one person yelling about how they are right and the other person is wrong and how obvious that is, while that other person is thinking the exact same thing.

  9. Moneywisdomtips says:

    Truths and principles are everlasting and always relevant.The world may change but they remain valuable and relevant

  10. Kurt @ Money Counselor says:

    I love that last one. It’s very similar to one of my mantras (literally framed in needlepoint on my wall, courtesy of a ‘crafty’ sister-in-law): “He who lives content with little possesses everything.”

  11. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the article. I’m often at a loss where to file these type articles, that contain lists of interesting principles that I’d like to periodically review…

  12. Albrecht says:

    Epictetus is on my favorite philosophers and has been for the last 30 years. He was the teacher of Marcus Aurelius and continues where Lucius Seneca started. Generally, the entire stoics’ school of thought is timeless and works for me in great number of ways.

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