Sage Advice: Tutoring Tips from Epictetus

This Week: The Wisdom of Epictetus

This week in Sage Advice we’ll be examining a handful of quotes from the legendary Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the Roman world of the 1st century AD. Born a slave, Epictetus taught philosophy in Rome before he was banished to Greece. Like so many other ancient philosophers (Confucius, Plato, Jesus, etc.), Epictetus did not write down his philosophy. His pupil (Arrian) did, however, forever etching into history the practical ruminations of a remarkable man.

Epictetus promulgated a kind of stoicism, teaching that all external events are beyond control and to worry about them is to invite suffering. Happiness, Epictetus believed, is to be nurtured within oneself by approaching life calmly and reasonably, and with heavy-doses of self-discipline. He also taught that human beings have a duty to care for each other. Below are a few of his quotes that apply well to education and in to tutoring in particular.

“Only the educated are free.”

Without an education, can we really be “free”? Can we really make wise choices about anything in our lives? Pupils should always have this concept impressed upon them: that learning brings autonomy, wisdom, and happiness. The more you learn, the happier you are!

“Difficulties are things that show a person who they are.”

Joseph Conrad said, “I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work–the chance to find yourself.” Pupils should always be encouraged to welcome difficulty, because it is in difficult moments, whether studying for the SAT or cramming for a Latin exam, that we discover more about ourselves, our strengths, and our weaknesses.

“No great thing is created suddenly.”

Pupils, no matter the subject at hand, must be taught to cultivate patience; otherwise they will quickly become frustrated with a difficult subject and want to abandon the task at hand. Patience means being measured in your approach, knowing when to engage material and when not to. Without this skill, it’s difficult to envision a pupil developing good study and test-taking habits that will serve them well not just in secondary education and college, but beyond, too.

“On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Mistakes are made so that we can learn about ourselves! A tutor and/or parent should ensure that a student feels 100% comfortable making a mistake, provided they learn from that mistake by looking inward and questioning why it was made. Never encourage students to mercilessly criticize themselves. Rather, exhort a pupil to be fair in assessing his or her own performance, just as we would expect a teacher, tutor, or parent to be fair in their assessment of us.


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