The Art of Living
Epictetus, translated by Sharon Lebell (© 1994)
One great asset I have access to is my university library. Being a university library, its historical nonfiction offerings are far greater than any public library (except for perhaps the behemoths like the New York Public Library). Thus, in addition to modern historical books, we have the books of history — Herodotus’ Histories, Newton’s Principles of Mathematics, and a great sampling of Greek philosophy. My own worldview is inspired partly by Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Epictetus is a name I’m familiar with, but I’ve never actually read from his Discourses — written “transcripts” of his lectures — until this week.
The edition I found last night is a modern translation and sometimes uses English expressions like “two steps forward, one step back”. There are other translation in far more poetic and formal English, but I went with this more modern one because it seemed to be very readable. I did read through some of the more formal translations after I finished this book, simply to establish a comparison, and based on that, I think there is nothing lost. Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher. His Stoicism is classical in that he, like Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) believed in an Ultimate, in Deity — in the idea that there was a divine order to the Cosmos, that everyone had a place in it, and that reason had been given to humanity so that we could transcend our untrained animal nature and become like the ultimate.
True philosophy doesn’t involve exotic rituals, mysterious liturgy, or quaint beliefs. […] It is, of course, the love of wisdom. It is the art of living a good life. […] Philosophy is intended for everyone, and it is authentically practiced only by those who wed it with action in the world toward a better life for all.
Epictetus believes that philosophy is not for religious leaders and professional philosophers — it is for everyone, to help everyone live good lives. He says that philosophy “must be rescued” from the aforementioned types of people. Although the book isn’t lengthy, every word in it is full of wisdom. I did not agree with everything he said (as it was recorded and translated), but the overwhelming majority of the book is solid. The value of his teachings is incredible, and I find myself wondering just how so much could be known and expressed so eloquently just to one man. When I read a book, I typically keep a page of notebook paper nearby so that I can write down any interesting quotes. For this book? I have twelve pages of quotations. I had planned to post them on my humanities blog, but I have far too many to fit in one post — I will have to break them down.
The essence of his teaching is self-mastery over one’s own life. The classic Stoic idea — that pain is caused when desires and reality do not conform to one another, and so one must shape desire to fit reality. Epictetus, like Marcus Aurelius, holds that it is not “things” that pain us but our reaction to them. Controlling our responses to what happens to us, to what is said to us or about us, is one of the dominant threads of the book. The other concerns the choice to think about responding — to beginning to use reason to master yourself, to hold yourself to ideals so that you can live the virtuous life. These two ideas dominate the book. Although the lectures are not tightly organized the way 21st century readers are used to books being organized, all of the elements of a in-depth book are here. Epictetus does not only describe how one should live a “virtuous” life, he explains what virtue means to him and why it cannot be achieved in any other way except for mastery of the self. “Personal merit cannot be achieved through our associations with people of excellence. […] Other people’s triumphs and excellence belong to them. Likewise, your possessions may have excellence, but you yourself don’t derive excellence from them,” he says.
Epictetus advises his readers (or listeners) to not concern themselves with other people’s opinions of them, but to simply enjoy our lives, not allow ourselves to become undone by events of our lives, and to excel in what we do — to practice our crafts and to relate to one another as best we can. Society’s rules are also no judge — both the “ends and means” are not conducive to creating virtue. “Socially taught beliefs are frequently unreliable. So many of our beliefs have been acquired through accident and irresponsible or ignorant teaching. Many of our beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they are hidden from our own view.” (My sociology teacher would add that the power of culture is that we don’t realize that culture is shaping our ideas.) Virtue, in his eyes, is its own reward. He also advocates living as part of a global, human community — he speaks of the “human contract” and says we ought to live our lives to serve one another. (The “family of humanity” value is common among Stoics.)
I could easily write a term paper on the ideas in this book — I have twelve pages of notes, after all. This isn’t the place for that, though. I found the book to be…incredibly interesting, and very stimulating. Even as I read, I felt as if my thoughts were being slowly ordered — tuned, to use a musical metaphor. It was well-worth the read, and I am glad that I took care to write down my favorite thoughts. This will be pick of the week.
Be suspicious of convention. Take charge of your own thinking. Rouse yourself from the daze of unexamined habit. Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking — its means and ends — is essentially not credible and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.
Judge ideas and opportunities on the basis of whether they are life-giving. Give your assent to that which promotes humaneness, justice, beneficial growth, kindness, possibility, and benefit to the human community. Examine things as they appear to your own mind; objectively consider what is said by others, and then establish your own convictions.